JAMES ROBERTS

“Cock­pit fix still caus­ing con­tro­versy”

Motor Sport News - - Racing News -

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.

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