Last month, another in a long line of ostentatious Formula One concept designs sent automotive fans on the internet in a tizzy: a closed cockpit McLaren. The renderings were created by Dutch designer Andries van Overbeeke as part of a series of reimagined F1 cars he calls "Echoes of a Nearby Future."
While the pictures are pretty, the futuristic design comes at a very important time — because open wheel racing is dying.
That's not to say it can't be saved, or that it might find a way to thrive again someday. But right now, each major class of open wheel racing is struggling in some way. IndyCar introduced a wild new aerodynamics package for both the Chevrolet and Honda cars this year, but the move has not gone so well. Chevrolet seems to have gotten the better deal, and has won nine of the 13 races run so far. Honda, spurned, still has not fully renewed its contract with IndyCar, which expires at the end of the season. Even worse for the series was when a piece of one of the new aero kits broke off during the first race of the year in St. Petersburg and struck a spectator, which resulted in both a hospital trip and a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, F1's global ratings are crumbling. Recent redesigns and engine changes have rankled fans, and teams have threatened to quit over issues with money and competition. The series can’t seem to avoid controversy, and recently found some of its most prominent members punching down at the young, all-electric Formula E.
Then there's the constant struggle with car counts at local short tracks across the nation, where open wheel racing is practiced on a tight budget every Saturday night. The majority of these races never get broadcast (even locally), and the lucky few that do find their coverage buried on premium cable networks.
There are many threats to the survival of open wheel racing
While the sport of open wheel racing struggles for popularity on all these different levels, there's an even bigger threat: safety. The most inherent safety problem open wheel racing faces is the one that’s right there in the name. Instead of what you find in stock car racing, where tires run nearly flush with the body and you can bang one car against the other with little consequence, the wheels of these cars are exposed. It's a design that produces undeniable excitement; one of the most thrilling experiences as a racing fan is watching two drivers try to maneuver through a turn inches apart as they balance the compulsion to come out ahead with the need to avoid contact. It's a massive assault on your nerves, and it doesn't matter whether it's happening during an F1 race in Monaco or a sprint car race in Ohio.
But while a number of laudable safety innovations over the last few years — walls cushioned with SAFER barriers, mandatory head-and-neck restraints (like HANS devices), cars that break and crush more efficiently — have helped make all motorsports safer, it's still not enough. The nastiest, most spectacular, and deadliest wrecks still happen when wheels make contact with other wheels.
Because of this, one particular safety feature is killing open wheel racing in the literal sense: bumper "pods." To keep up with the sport's other safety innovations, some series are surrounding the front and back wheels of these cars with more protection. IndyCar added them a few years ago, and you can also find the feature on the cars of Formula E. It's a small change that should help cut down on some of the most terrifying accidents, but you can argue that it's changing the whole nature of this type of racing.
The reality is that the danger presented by wheel-to-wheel contact is so great that something else has to be done; adding a bit more carbon fiber around the wheel doesn't cut it. That's where the idea of a closed cockpit design comes in. Closing off the cockpit means you can make it even more rigid than it already is, and (most obviously) it helps protect the driver from head injuries, which come in many forms. Deaths caused by accidents like Dan Wheldon’s in 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway are directly traceable to the exposure of the driver. In that accident, Wheldon went airborne and impacted the fence that rings the Speedway. His head, exposed, made contact with one of the support posts resulting in what was officially called a "non-survivable injury."
These types of incidents aren't rare, either. In the last few months alone IndyCar had to dial back speeds at the Indy 500 because a number of cars went airborne, Nelson Piquet Jr. survived a terrifying upside-down accident in IndyCar's supporting series, and Kimi Raikkonen — just weeks after calling for organizers to make F1 "riskier" — nearly lost his head in a race. And this month, F1 driver Jules Bianchi died from injuries sustained in a bizarre crash into a tractor last October. An official investigation of the accident found that Bianchi's head was subjected to a force 240 times that of gravity.
The idea of a closed cockpit — especially in F1 — is far from new, and it's been argued about for years. (F1 driver Felipe Massa, who wound up in a coma after being struck by an errant spring in 2009, is the most recent driver to voice some support.) But there's something about van Overbeeke's that just feels right. It doesn't come with the baroque stylings that concept cars like this are typically known for. It's slick, simple, and it looks fast. Better yet, it echoes the late-1980s / early-1990s heyday of open wheel racing, a time when F1 had fierce rivalries, IndyCar was a premier American sport full of household names, and short track sprint car races were broadcast on national television every week. (If you grew up with Thursday Night Thunder like I did, we should talk.) The futuristic design looks so familiar that it would be hard to fault someone for mistaking van Overbeeke's closed cockpit McLaren for Ayrton Senna's legendary McLaren MP4 F1 car, or similar Marlboro-sponsored IndyCars driven by the likes Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears.
Open wheel cars already have what amount to jet fighter cockpits, so why not go the rest of the way? Closing them off could protect the drivers without losing the inherent excitement of open wheel racing, and the futuristic look might even draw new fans. Andries van Overbeeke's McLaren concept gives us a glimpse of a possible future, but I want to see it on a track — any track — now.