The Red Bull Racing Formula One team officially debuted its partially closed cockpit solution during practice this morning in Russia. They are the second team to test a solution on track, after Scuderia Ferrari ran a lap in Barcelona with its own partially closed cockpit back in March. The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the sport's governing body, announced in February that Formula One cars will be required to use some sort of cockpit protection starting in the 2017 season.
Red Bull is calling its solution the "aeroscreen," and driver Daniel Ricciardo took one lap with it fixed to his car. The clear screen stretches 180 degrees around and in front of the driver, and is a bit taller than the driver's helmet, protecting them against head-on impacts from incoming debris during an accident. It's unclear what the aeroscreen is made of at the moment, but Red Bull did publish two videos of the official testing that the FIA performed earlier this month.
The FIA now has another option to choose from
In one, a 20 kilogram (44 pound) F1 wheel is shot at the screen at 225 kilometers per hour (140 miles per hour) multiple times. Each time that the wheel impacts the screen, it gets deflected up and away from the driver's head — though it does appear to graze the helmet in the first attempt:
Red Bull Racing's team boss Christian Horner tried to dispel worries about the tire touching the helmet after the videos were made public. "It scuffed the top of the drivers' head, but the helmet is located with two pins, and any impact of any significance would have sheared those pins," he told Motorsport.com. "So it was a very, very light scruff. And when you see the velocity that that tyre is coming at, had the screen not been there it would have obviously been an horrendous outcome."
In the other, a one-kilogram projectile is fired at the aeroscreen at 230 kilometers per hour (143 miles per hour). It, too, deflects up and away from where the driver's head would be located. You can see the screen is tempered because it gives a little upon impact, cracking in a spiderweb pattern but never splintering or separating.
Red Bull Racing says that both its drivers — Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kyvat — tested versions of the screen in the team's simulator and approved of the visibility. There are two pillars that help fasten the aeroscreen to the cockpit, but they were designed to be in line with the supports that hold the car's mirrors in order to block as little of the driver's view as possible.
Most open cockpit motorsports have resisted implementing fully or partially closed cockpits, and there are legitimate concerns about being able to access a driver after an accident. But a spate of injuries and deaths in the last decade or so have reignited the conversation. Most notably was last summer when IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died in a race after he was struck in the head by a large piece of debris. In the days that followed Wilson's death, the FIA made public its plans to test a partially closed cockpit that Mercedes had been working on.
Courtesy of Formula One and Red Bull Racing
The solution that Scuderia Ferrari tested in Barcelona was a modified version of the Mercedes concept, and while the team drivers gave it a passing grade, the design was casually mocked by other members of the motorsport community.
Of course, resistance to the idea of cockpit protection seems to be a given, regardless of the design. Lewis Hamilton, last year's F1 world champion, mocked the Red Bull aeroscreen this morning in practice, saying it "looks like a bloody riot shield."
"It looks like a bloody riot shield."
"If they're going to do this, close the cockpit like a fighter jet," Hamilton said. "Don't half-arse it. Go one way or the other."
The FIA has yet to settle on a particular design for the 2017 season, and it's possible that other teams could present solutions as the 2016 season moves forward. While the aeroscreen appears safe, it's not without its drawbacks. Oil and dirt are likely to build up on the windshield, so drivers would probably be required to use "tear-offs," or thin layers of transparent material.
Horner told Motorsport.com that he'd like the FIA to adopt their solution. "I think really within the next six to eight weeks a decision needs to be made," Horner said. "[The aeroscreen] has gone through its crash tests, it has had its first track trial. So we will give the information to the FIA and they can then use it as they wish."