Closed cockpits now appear to be inevitable in Formula 1, with technical chiefs set to ramp up efforts to bring them in following Fernando Alonso's lucky escape in the first-lap crash at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Romain Grosjean's Lotus flew over the front of Alonso's cockpit in the pile-up, and it was fortunate that the Ferrari driver did not suffer any impact on his helmet. The good fortune served to highlight the biggest weakness in the modern safety design of F1 cars, and comes as the FIA and technical figures continue work on closed-cockpit concepts.
McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe thinks the first-corner crash will serve as a reminder about how important this work is and increase a push being made to change cockpit designs for as early as 2014.
"I think 2014 is intended, as we started the project a year ago," said Lowe, who has been involved in work on the cockpit project. "Personally I think something is inevitable because it is the one big [safety] exposure that we have got.
"You see it time and time again and think, 'That was lucky!' One day it won't be lucky. At the same time, it is an open-cockpit formula so we have to protect that, but it should be technically possible one way or another."
Work on closed cockpits ramped up after the injuries that Felipe Massa suffered at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when he was hit on the head by a car component, just a few days after Henry Surtees was killed in a Formula 2 race when he was struck by a wheel. Lowe says that an initial focus on canopy protection has now been abandoned, with tests highlighting that a bar/cage type design is much better.
"We have made a test piece and it has been tested structurally with various impacts, like firing wheels at it, and that was successful. So we understand some of the parameters in terms of the angles that are needed and the strength of the pieces. The work that is currently in progress is assessing its visibility, and we've done some work on the simulator with our interpretation.
"Ideally, a driver wants nothing in the way, but in the same way as you drive a road car or even the old VW camper van with the center pillar, you just get used to it, don't you? We found that as long as the pillars don't get too big it is something you can get used to. So we have some parameters about pillar size, and now we are looking at making something with that pillar size and to the right strength requirement."
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali says that work on closed cockpits should not be rushed, because there are numerous safety considerations needed.
"We were lucky because nothing happened to Fernando on the head," he said. "We are working with the federation to work on the right system of protection, because on what we are testing and working on, there are also some problems that you may have, like moving the protection in the event of a fire or worse. So we need to be very careful on all these devices."