LONDON Traditionally minded Formula One fans who think this year's step-nosed cars look odd may have to take a deep breath before considering the latest safety concept being tested by the sport's governing body.
The International Automobile Federation (FIA) said on Thursday it had tested a forward roll hoop, a metal structure placed right in front of the driver, as part of new measures being assessed to increase cockpit safety.
Formula One cars have long had a hoop behind the driver to protect the head in the event of the car rolling over but a forward one would guard against a frontal blow to the helmet caused by a bouncing tyre or debris.
The FIA has been considering various radical ideas, including jet fighter-style canopies, since Ferrari's Brazilian Felipe Massa suffered a near fatal head injury after being hit by a bouncing spring shed from a car in front during the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
That same year British driver Henry Surtees, son of former Formula One champion John, was killed after being struck on the head by a loose wheel in a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch.
The FIA Institute published a video (here) showing a test of a titanium front roll hoop, made and supplied by the Lotus F1 team, at an airfield in eastern England.
A 20 kg wheel and tyre was fired at the hoop at 225kph by a cannon powered by compressed nitrogen.
"Shielding their (drivers') heads from debris and impacts is now, arguably, the most critical area in single-seater safety research," said the body in an article in the latest edition of their quarterly IQ magazine.
"The increase in cockpit side protection in the 1990s marked a substantial stride forward, but the life-threatening injuries suffered by (Massa and Surtees)...highlighted the potentially horrific effects that flying debris can still have.
The FIA has already tested a canopy, which flexed but stayed intact, and a windshield, which deflected the wheel but shattered, with the same equipment.
"The roll-hoop basically did a very good job," said FIA Institute technical adviser Andy Mellor after the static test that placed a helmet behind the roll hoop as if in a real car.
"It was able to keep a wheel away from a driver's head. We tested it both by firing the wheel down the centre of the car, and also coming at it from an angle."
"The impact deflated the tyre during both tests," added Mellor. "We tend to think that's a good thing - it means that the wheel doesn't bounce as much. It stops much more quickly if you can deflate the tyre."
The FIA recognised that a front roll hoop would "mark a dramatic visual departure" from the cars fans were familiar with at present.
Drivers would also need reassuring that their sightlines would not be impeded by the structure and more research was needed.
Any final decision on any of the measures would be up to the sport's rule makers, in the case of Formula One the FIA's technical working group, and was still some way off.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)