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May 1, 2017

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Belgian Grand Prix crash stokes fiery controversy about safety of cockpits

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- The Belgian Grand Prix crash that got Frenchman Romain Grosjean banned for a race has stoked ongoing debate about cockpit safety in Formula One without providing any clearer solution to the problem.

Grosjean's Lotus lifted into the air and skimmed across the front of championship leader Fernando Alonso's Ferrari in the first corner pile-up, wrecking his car but fortunately missing the Spaniard's head.

The incident, blamed squarely on Grosjean's aggressive driving, was a heart-stopping moment for Ferrari fans and senior team members watching from the pit wall as Alonso took his time getting out of the cockpit amid radio silence.

"We were lucky because nothing hit Fernando on the head," team boss Stefano Domenicali told reporters in a discussion that also touched on the need for inexperienced young drivers to be punished heavily for failings in the junior categories to ensure they arrive in Formula One with more awareness.

"It was a very risky situation and seeing one car fly over his, a few centimetres above his helmet, left us with our hearts in our mouths for a few tenths of a second," Ferrari technical head Pat Fry said.

Protecting the driver's head in such incidents with flying cars and debris has long been a concern for Formula One, a sport where the dangers are evident and there is a constant push to improve safety in all areas.

There has not been a driver fatality in a race since Brazilian triple champion Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994 but everyone in Formula One knows there is a constant risk of a freak accident.

Brazilian Felipe Massa's near-fatal head injury at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, when the Ferrari driver was hit on the helmet by a bouncing metal spring shed from a car in front, was a reminder of that.

Cockpit Tests

The governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) has done tests with jet-fighter style closed cockpits and forward roll hoops, a metal structure placed right in front of the driver to guard against a frontal blow to the helmet, but all carry other risks.

"We are working with the Federation to try to work on the right system of protection. With what we have tested or are working on there are also some problems that you may have," said Domenicali.

"We need to be very careful on all these devices. We are still working with the federation to find a possible solution ... we are working very hard."

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh agreed that there was a need for some sort of added protection but closed cockpits were not the solution.

"I think people underestimate what a cockpit would have to be and how cockpits can make a situation worse," he told reporters after celebrating McLaren driver Jenson Button's untroubled cruise to victory at Spa.

"You can put this glass bubble over the drivers but you can't assume that they are thereafter safe."

Whitmarsh pointed to the considerable amount of research carried out in aviation to counter the effect of bird strikes on aircraft and how difficult it had been to protect a pilot while allowing undistorted visibility.

In the case of motor racing there are the added problems of impeding sightlines, cars overturning or suffering electrical fires with cockpits filling up with smoke.

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