Safety questions left unanswered after Renault reinstatement

The spectre of a Spanish F1 race without Fernando Alonso disappeared yesterday as Renault were re-admitted to the European Grand Prix. The Anglo-French team’s appeal against the ban levied by stewards at last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix was successful. But the fact that the ban was issued in the first place, and the brace of serious accidents in motorsport recently, raise all sorts of questions about safety in open-cockpit motorsport.

One side of the debate says that Renault were the scapegoats of an over-zealous stewarding panel, whose reaction was nevertheless understandable. The day before Fernando Alonso’s wheel came loose in the race, Felipe Massa suffered a serious injury when flying debris hit him in the face at one of the fastest parts of the circuit. The weekend before that, F1 legend John Surtees’ son Henry was killed by a loose wheel in an F2 race at Brands Hatch. The fact that similar accidents occurred so close to each other put a kind of superstitious fear into the Hungary stewards, who were shocked by the sight of Alonso’s wheel bouncing down the track. Hence the ban, despite the fact that not so long ago, loose wheels were quite commonplace.

The argument continues that both Surtees and Massa were victims of terrible luck. Had Surtees been a tenth of a second further down the road at Brands, he would not have been killed. Had Massa been a tenth of the second further down the road at the Hungaroring, Barrichello’s spring would have just hit his car, causing only mechanical damage. As has been said thousands of times before, motorsport is dangerous, and with safety standards as rigorous as they are today, such accidents are mercifully rare.

The other side of the debate argues that although Surtees’ and Massa’s accidents were freakish, something must be done to help protect the driver’s exposed head in open-cockpit motorsport. HANS has become the default protection for the driver’s neck, would have saved Roland Ratzenberger and Dale Earnhardt Sr’s lives and probably did save Robert Kubica’s. But fifteen years after the death of the greatest of them all, Ayrton Senna, from head injuries, the motorsport world is still having to bear the heavy weight of fatality from something that is, frankly, avoidable.

Some propose covering the cockpit completely. Traditionalists oppose this. Drivers and ex-drivers mention the visibility issue. Others talk about the fact that any more cockpit coverage would be a safety issue in itself, as drivers would not be able to be freed from the car so easily. A working group has doubtless been formed, to debate exactly what can be done. Suggestions must include strengthening the helmets and visors still further, narrowing the cockpit aperture, or raising the front of the cockpit, much as is seen in IndyCar racing. The latter would not have saved Henry Surtees’ life, nor prevented Massa’s accident, but would reduce the likelihood of something coming into contact with the driver’s head.

And that, really, is the point. All that can be done is the reduction of the likelihood that another serious accident will happen because the drivers’ heads are exposed. Unless you are intending to fundamentally change the nature of single-seater racing, only incremental measures will work. Knee-jerk reactions by stewards, ill-conceived and later revoked, don’t tend to help the debate.