Last week, Formula One’s powers that be convened at a strategy group meeting and confirmed that the Halo device, designed to vastly improve head protection for the drivers, will be introduced to the sport for the 2018 season. The strategy group consisted of the FIA, the F1 Group, the six ‘leading’ teams (Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Williams, McLaren & Force India) and the other four teams as ‘observers.’
The device, that forms an arch around the driver’s shoulders and meeting in the middle of the cockpit, has split opinion in the paddock. So just why is the Halo causing such a stir?
Who’s saying what?
It’s fair to say the Halo’s ears must be burning. It’s got a lot of people talking. From former F1 world champions and team principles to pundits and most notably the fans.
Niki Lauda, three-time Formula One world champion and now non-executive chairman at Mercedes commented that the Halo was an “overreaction” and that it has “destroyed” the work that the sport has done making the cars quicker and more ‘appealing’ this year.
Damon Hill, 1996 world champion suggested that with or without the Halo, “the skills the drivers need will be the same.” In addition, his Sky F1 colleague Martin Brundle also voiced his displeasure at the Halo being introduced tweeting the Halo was “plain ugly.”
Closer to the paddock, the divide in opinion seems even more prominent. Whilst the head of Mercedes motorsport Toto Wolff “understands” the decision made by FIA president Jean Todt, as well as several drivers including Lewis Hamilton being in favour of the Halo, it seems some teams are worried about the device’s aesthetics and its impact on the fans. Admittedly, the Halo does change the balance and look of the car. However, teams will be allowed to customise them next year changing things such as its colour, but also modifying the Halo to blend into the cockpit structure.
It’s understood that most of the teams were against the Halo being introduced next year. However, due to the FIA’s power in governance as well as support from the F1 group, which notably includes Ross Brawn, it can overrule and force a regulation through on the grounds of safety.
As a result, for the first time in F1’s history, the cars for next year will have additional head protection. But why is the Halo making its appearance in F1 and does it actually work?
The why and the how.
The FIA has always made safety a high priority in Formula One. Since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, it has striven to improve safety for the drivers, with proposals such as the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device and more recently the virtual safety car, introduced in response to the fatal accident Jules Bianchi suffered at the Japanese GP in 2014. These concepts along with many others have been successful, but there has been a need to understand and address head protection in the sport. The difficulty the governing body has is not to remove the ‘risk’ element from F1.
Since Bianchi’s tragic accident, the sport has been working hard to find a solution to the head protection conundrum. The halo, which was tested rigorously during the 2016 season by teams and drivers alike, was due to be in place for this season. However, last summer, the teams decided that more testing was needed. The issue some teams had was its effect on visibility as well as driver’s extraction from the car and as mentioned before, the way the Halo looks. This led to other concepts being designed, including Red Bull’s ‘aero-screen’ and more recently Ferrari’s ‘shield’ that was tested at Silverstone last time out. The FIA questioned the effectiveness of the Red Bull design and Sebastian Vettel said after free practice at Silverstone the shield made him dizzy. That left the FIA with only one feasible option for next year, the Halo. The question on a lot of fans’ minds is how safe is it and will it affect the racing in years to come?
As well as on track tests, the FIA has independently conducted its own tests, with the results in favour of the Halo’s effectiveness. They analysed a number of high impact accidents including Kimi Raikkonen’s shunt with Fernando Alonso at the Austrian GP in 2015, as well as more fatal incidents such as Justin Wilson’s IndyCar crash in the same year. In these cases, where it was deemed that ‘large objects’ could have entered the cockpit, it was found that the Halo reduced the risk of this occurring.
In addition, the FIA also addressed one of the teams’ main concerns; extraction of the drivers from the car. They replicated Alonso’s crash at last year’s Australian GP and they found with the Halo fitted, the driver was able to get out of the car with relative ease.
From the fans point of view, one question that was raised was about whether the Halo would stop smaller objects entering the cockpit. One fan at Silverstone said to me; “would it have stopped things like the Massa incident, i.e. the spring can still hit the driver, it basically stops large objects.” He was referring to the then Ferrari driver’s accident at the Hungarian GP in 2009 where a small suspension spring from another car hit the Brazilian and fractured his skull. With the halo in place, the risk of this happening is low according to the FIA, still leaving the question about its effectiveness in this area.
The Halo debate will run on, most likely until Australia next year. The FIA will argue that the need for safety far outweighs that of aesthetics and that teams adapt to rule changes each year so this will be no different. There will be opposition that F1 is safe enough as it is and by introducing the Halo it will ruin the show.
It’s a controversial subject, but one thing is certain, safety will always be paramount in our sport – and that’s not about change.