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Enclosed F1 cockpits and a pain in the backside

Sutton Images

In the midst of the debate over protection for a racing driver's head, it's perhaps the moment to recall how quickly we become accustomed to change even if the initial suggestion brings raised hands in horror.

Take nose wings (preferably away -- but that's another story). There can be few who would disagree that the McLaren MP4/4 is one of the most elegant race cars of all time: so pure and simple, it makes you smile in contemplation of the image, never mind thinking about what Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost did with it.

So let's say we're back in 1988, the McLaren's nose cone is removed and, alongside, you place the front of any F1 car of today and state that this is how cars would look in 1989. Can you imagine the reaction? "Bloody ugly, mate" wouldn't make a start. Okay, it's an exaggeration. But the point is, half way through 1989, no one would give it a second whinge.

That's what will happen with whatever form of cockpit protection -- none of which are pretty, I do admit -- is finally chosen. And if that prevents a Henry Surtees or a Dan Wheldon or a Justin Wilson tragedy, then arguments against must surely be difficult to justify.

With the greatest respect to Lewis Hamilton, is it questionable for a world champion to suggest that because F1 would be safer, it would therefore be less attractive? I'm hoping he was quoted out of context. Either way, it's an extremely valid point in other areas -- massive run-offs, circuits wrapped in cotton wool, strict rules about when you can and can't overtake, and so on -- but surely not when examining fundamental driver security?

It's worth pointing out, by the way, that enclosed cockpits are not new. Apart from vying with the MP4/4 as one of F1's most stylish cars, the teardrop-shaped Vanwall was an aerodynamic tour de force when the harnessing of airflow was in its infancy.

During practice for the 1958 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Stirling Moss tried an enclosed cockpit. This was more than simply extending the existing wrap-round Perspex windscreen - in itself, something of a novelty in the days when a driver's elbows would be clearly visible. Vanwall made an extra skin that was bolted onto the tail and carried the fairing above the driver's head, attaching it to the top of the existing screen, but leaving a three-inch (76mm) gap for the driver to peer through.

According to Motor Sport magazine and the words of F1 doyen, Denis Jenkinson, the shape was such that no air entered the gap. Indeed, if anything, it sucked air from the cockpit. The idea was abandoned when Moss found there was no performance advantage. Basically, the Vanwall was fast enough for pole, so why bother?

Monza was also the scene of similar trial during practice in 1967 when Jack Brabham and designer Ron Tauranac fitted a fully enclosed cockpit with an even smaller frontal slot to the Brabham BT24. The reigning champion discovered the gain in straight-line speed was offset by time lost in the corners, particularly under the trees where dappled light on the Perspex caused parallax: not the sort of thing you need when trying to find the apex of Lesmo 2 at speed.

Safety was not the motivation behind either of these inventions - not that you would have expected it in 1967 when, for example, Brabham and the rest of his mates raced without a seat harness. Interestingly, even allowing for the absence of the soapbox scenario created by social media these days, there was not a peep of protest about the car's appearance in either case.

The Vanwall's screen had been the work of Frank Costin, a brilliant engineer and aerodynamicist who went on to design and build the Protos Formula 2 car. This was a truly novel racer for reasons other than a fully enclosed cockpit; the chassis was made of plywood. This may seem laughable today but, in 1967, the beautiful little machine was taken very seriously indeed when Brian Hart ran with the leaders and finished second on aggregate in the European F2 championship race at Hockenheim.

Pedro Rodriguez also raced the Protos and led each heat at Hockenheim before spinning. He became seriously unstuck a couple of weeks later at the fast Enna circuit in Sicily, where he had a huge shunt. During the process of this accident, the feisty little Mexican was flung from the enclosed cockpit and briefly passed the leader, causing Jackie Stewart to remark that it was the first time he had ever been overtaken by a driver without his car.

The Protos was literally reduced to matchwood and Rodriguez was fortunate to get away with a broken ankle. Having tobogganed down the road on his backside, he also complained of a plywood splinter and blisters on his bum.

Lewis Hamilton, for all his undoubted woes, never had problems like this.