Gordon Kirby

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The quest for greater protection

In the immediate aftermath of Justin Wilson’s sad passing, it was inevitable that talk would turn to improving cockpit protection – including the possible introduction of canopies to Indycars and perhaps open racers in general. But that’s an idea whose time has passed.

The FIA has taken a serious look at cockpit protection in Formula 1 and, after lengthy consideration, decided that canopies were not the way to go. The late Dr Sid Watkins always opposed the concept of enclosing an F1 cockpit. His primary objection? That any such device would make it more difficult to extricate an injured driver.

Another major factor with F1 or Indycar canopies would be outward visibility. The field of vision is already very limited in modern Indycars – one of the reasons teams have spotters to tell their drivers how best to manoeuvre. A cockpit canopy would make things even worse.

FIA race director Charlie Whiting recently commented on the global governing body’s search for improved cockpit safety in F1. “We have put in a huge amount of time, effort and research into this project, which has not been easy,” he said. “In fact it’s bloody hard, but I can definitely see the day when this will happen. One day there will be something that will decrease a driver’s risk of injury.

“I doubt it will be as good as a fighter jet cockpit at protecting a driver from an object coming towards him, but it will offer protection. We have to persevere. We must make something, even if it’s not 100 per cent in terms of protecting the driver under all circumstances. But if it improves the situation it has to be good. There must be a way.”

I asked former Lola and Penske Indycar designer Nigel Bennett for his views. “Some reasonable solutions seem possible,” he said. “Keeping the driver’s head visible seems important in this form of racing. And being able to extract an incapacitated driver is obviously important.

“If three struts were inclined, but vertical in the fore and aft plane, they could be placed in front of the driver to deflect foreign objects above and over their head. They would have to be slim, but if placed roughly where a windscreen would be they should not impede the view too badly.

“In side view these struts would be inclined at perhaps 45 degrees and probably no more than 15cm high. The fore and aft sections would have to be quite broad and their anchorage considerable, to withstand impact from substantial objects.”

Further developments in the endless quest to improve motor racing safety would be one small part of Wilson’s proud legacy.

The Englishman had become a popular member of America’s wider racing community and rivals have spoken about him with great warmth. Will Power, winner of the 2014 Indycar title, said: “I raced against Justin for 10 years and over that period of time you’d usually have a problem with every driver in the field. But he was one of the hardest, cleanest racers I’ve ever competed against, and someone I feel should have been with a bigger team. He could have won multiple titles and Indy 500s. Off the track he was just a fantastic human being – a lovely family guy.”

Recently crowned champion Scott Dixon added: “Justin was a very genuine person.”

Oriol Servia, who was chosen by the Wilson family to drive Justin’s car in the Indycar finale at Sonoma, said: “I competed against Justin for more than 10 years and had enormous respect for him as a racer, but his qualities as a human were an inspiration to anyone who met him.”

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