We call it open-wheel racing, but it may as titled open-cockpit racing. Looking at both Formula 1 and INDYCAR, the driver is venerable from shoulders and up with the design of the car. Because of this design, the series have consistently searched for the one ‘magic bullet’ that will protect the drivers. For the foreseeable future, Formula 1 has their Halo, and INDYCAR has the Advanced Frontal Protection and the windscreen.
Formula 1’s Halo nearly broke the Internet when it debuted in 2018. It looks like the thong of a flip-flop attached to the car, and everyone found it ugly. It’s a stick and hoop type structure with a pole that sits in front of the driver, and a hoop that goes around the cockpit. The structure is made out of titanium. Under tests, it withstood 116 kiloNewtons of force for five seconds without any failure. Now I can’t give you a math equation to figure out what that means, but it’s like a London double-decker bus sitting on top of the car.
Is it the perfect solution? No. The FIA reviewed seventeen different past accidents and concluded that in fifteen accidents the Halo was beneficial and neutral in the other two. The structure does help stop larger objects from striking the cockpit area. With smaller objects, it protected the driver seventeen (17) percent of the time, which technically is better than zero percent without the halo. Drivers don’t seem to have any real vision issues with a giant pole sitting right in front of them.
INDYCAR has taken a different path from Formula 1 by turning first to a Windscreen idea. Interestingly, Formula 1 attempted a windscreen a while back. The idea was scrapped after one driver took only one lap and complained of dizziness and vision distortion. The series first tested a windscreen back in February of 2018. This project started with vigour after the August 2015 accident where a nosecone hit and contributed to the death of Justin Wilson. The Windscreen wraps around the front of the cockpit and constructed from a PPG material called “Opticor” which was better overall than the prior polycarbonate used. The Windscreen was tested both at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, two of the series ovals. The windscreen was also tested both during the day (IMS) and night (ISM) and both drivers reported some distortion. Additionally, the drivers complained of a lack of ventilation.
The Windscreen was never tested on a road or street course, following the two tests at ISM and IMS the prototype went under additional testing at PPG’s facility and other issues emerged. I’m not sure what those issues are, but I would wager they were either stress tests or load tests that did not end well. INDYCAR turned to another piece of technology they had been developing since 2012: the Advanced Frontal Protection (“AFP” or as we call it the “Nubbin”). It’s a small 3-inch high, 0.75-inch wide piece of titanium that is affixed to the center line of the chassis right at the front of the cockpit. The goal of the AFP is to deflect pieces of debris that come to the cockpit. As I write this, we have seen one picture…and that’s really about it. The device is scheduled for testing in April and debut for the Indianapolis 500 in May.
Is there a magic bullet? Quite honestly the best protection is an enclosed cockpit for drivers, but even that provides safety issues. With the design of open-wheel cars, the quickest way in, and more importantly out, of a car is up from the top. An enclosed cockpit shuts that option off. The need for drivers to get out of the car quickly is so important that all drivers have to go through extraction tests prior to being cleared to drive. The Halo used by F1 increased its cockpit extraction time. The regulations for the extraction test increased from five seconds to seven. So barring a complete overhaul of the chassis design, you can’t close the cockpit. But you still need something to deflect the debris. Despite it being ugly as sin, the Halo does help with that. I really can’t speak at all to the AFP’s ability to do that, as we’ve not seen anything about it. A windscreen would also provide deflection of debris. This is another area of safety that the series will be continuing to evolve and work on. The answer is out there.