While some people have dubbed it a futuristic spin on the long-held aspiration of having a closed cockpit, others believe that it is the future of safety in motor racing. It is the new concept of a closed-cockpit McLaren designed by Dutch innovator Andries van Overbeeke. The car is part of a new series of re-imagined Formula One cars he has christened "Echoes of a Nearby Future." It is a revolutionary design that has come just at the right time; i.e. at a time when open-wheel racing is struggling to survive the tests of time.
Despite the launching of a wild new aerodynamics car package for Honda and Chevrolet cars earlier in the year by IndyCar, it did not bring the anticipated success for both. And now that Chevrolet appears to have benefited more from the deal -- winning nine out of the 13 races they have participated in so far -- Honda has refused to fully renew their IndyCar contract which is expiring at the end of this racing season. To add even more pain to the experience, a piece of one of the brand new aero kits in the series detached and injured a spectator during the first St. Petersburg race and led to a legal suit.
While all this is happening, the Formula One series is also losing its international ratings at an alarming rate. In addition to fans being irked by some of the most recent engine modifications and car redesigns, racing teams have also registered their displeasure with some cash and competition issues and even threatened to quit altogether. In another twist of events, the series courted a lot of controversy when it saw some of its most renowned racers recently punching down at the all-electric young series Formula E.
Another thing is the persistent struggle that is dogging car counts at the local short tracks all over the country. Here, though open-wheel racing is being held each Saturday night, it is done on very meager funds. Most of the races here never get to have a chance for even local broadcasting, with the few that are lucky end up having their coverage getting buried under tons of other content on premium cable TV networks.
Several Threats Still Hinder the Survival of Open-Wheel Racing
Apart from grappling with popularity on all its frontiers, an even larger threat that open-wheel racing faces, as its name suggests, is safety. Unlike in stock-car racing where tires can run almost flush with the car body even if cars bang against one another, wheels in open-wheel racing are exposed and can lead to a lot of danger in case of a crash.
Innovative designers have tried to remedy the situation by coming up with safety designs like walls protected using safer barriers; compulsory head-&-neck restraints like HANS devices; and racing cars whose crashing process is more efficient and protective to both its body and the driver; etc. All these have worked to add extra layers of safety to motorsports, but they are still not sufficient because the most dangerous wrecks still occur if wheels hit against each other in a crash.
It is for this particular reason that bumper "pods" have been identified as one of the killers of open-wheel racing, quite literally. Some motorsport series have tried to keep pace with safety designs being implemented in other series by trying to cushion their cars’ front and back wheels with extra protective material. Both IndyCar and Formula E cars have done this. This small transformation that is meant to help reduce the destruction caused during accidents is nevertheless arguably altering the nature of open-wheel racing.
In a real sense, however, the risk of danger arising from wheels hitting each other in case of an accident is so large that another solution needs to be sought. This is where the idea of designing a sealed and more rigid cockpit came from. Racers want to avoid a repeat of the events of the accident like the one that killed Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas in 2011.
Just recently, Nelson Piquet Jr. barely survived a bone-chilling upside-down crash during IndyCar's supporting motorsport series, while Kimi Raikkonen almost got his head crashed just a few weeks after asking Formula One organizers to make the race even "riskier". These events prompted IndyCar to decide to dial back speeds during the Indy 500 after seeing several cars go airborne during racing. And just this month, Formula One driver Jules Bianchi succumbed to injuries he had sustained last October in a terrifying accident where he had crashed into a tractor during a race. During the crash, his head had been subjected to a force that was estimated to be in the neighborhood of 240 times the force of gravity, according to official findings.
The proposal to adopt a sealed cockpit is not new, especially in Formula One. Felipe Massa, who in a 2009 race had been hit on the head by a detached spring leading to a long period of coma, is the latest professional racer to add his voice and support to this endeavor. But there is one thing that sets van Overbeeke's design from the rest of the concept car fraternity: it does not have the baroque stylings that its peers are renowned for. While its design is simple, slick and looks fast, the car also reminds one of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s pinnacle of open-wheel racing. This is the time when Formula One had fierce competitors; the IndyCar name was synonymous with premier American motorsports and full of big names, while even short-track sprint car motor races were aired live on national TV weekly. Van Overbeeke's futuristic design looks very familiar to most people. It would, therefore, be difficult to fault somebody for mistaking the sealed cockpit McLaren car with Ayrton Senna's famous McLaren MP4, or those IndyCars sponsored by Marlboro that the likes of Rick Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi drive.
Since open-wheel racing cars are already equipped with what amounts to jet fighter cockpits, it is okay to move the extra mile and seal the cockpits off if only or the safety of their drivers. This can be done without any loss of the inherent fun found in open-wheel racing; in fact its futuristic design and look may even attract new fans. Thus, though Andries van Overbeeke's McLaren design concept enables us to have a glimpse of what the future possibly holds in terms of motorsport car designs, I believe so many of us would love to see it being implemented right now, even if on any track!
Image source: www.andriesvanoverbeeke.com