“Cockpit fix still causing controversy”
Emotions were running high in Sochi last weekend following Red Bull’s trial run of a cockpit protective ‘aeroscreen’. Daniel Ricciardo completed an installation lap with the new device during Friday’s first practice session at the Russian GP – with more tests planned in both Spain and Monaco later this month.
By increasing the protection around a driver’s head, it should reduce the chances of debris or an errant wheel from striking their helmets. And therefore to avoid a repeat of the tragic accidents that befell Justin Wilson and Henry Surtees – and the incident that nearly killed Felipe Massa.
Red Bull’s windscreen solution follows on from Ferrari’s pre-season test of the ‘halo’ that drew widespread criticism for its ugly appearance. The screen tested in Sochi was more aesthetically pleasing – despite Lewis Hamilton describing it as a “riot shield” – but for many it brought the fundamental essence of grand prix racing into question.
The fact is F1 has always been an open cockpit formula and there are risks associated with that. At the heart of the sport’s appeal is the risk the drivers take in wheel-to-wheel combat and wrapping them up in cotton wool further erodes that thrill.
For some, there is no question that a solution must be found to increase head protection and to save lives. Rob Smedley was Felipe’s Massa’s race engineer at Ferrari when the Brazilian was severely injured after being hit on the helmet by a loose spring at Hungary in 2009. And when I spoke to Smedley on Saturday night in Sochi, he was unequivocal in his view about the aeroscreen: “The driver’s safety is the most important thing here and everything else is superfluous. Having their heads exposed is the one thing that is still killing drivers.
“Having an argument that we always had open cockpits, or that the fans want to see the drivers is not a strong enough argument.”
But the contrary view was led at the weekend by the 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve. He’s adamant the sport needs to retain an element of risk, to ensure its enduring appeal. And he’s had first hand experience of living with the consequences of the sport’s inherent dangers.
“I completely disagree with it, you need a certain element of risk to keep F1 special,” he told me. “This sport built up its fan base through the respect of watching drivers push the limits and risking their lives.
“Safety is great, but there’s a limit and [the aeroscreen] is going beyond that limit. When you watch a rock climber, if he had a net, it wouldn’t be impressive. It’s the same with F1, if you’re not willing to take the risk, then why should drivers be paid so many millions?”
But as another driver who went to Justin Wilson’s funeral said to me, we’d be stupid not to act now to save more lives in the future.