It’s one of the controversies of the early 2018 season: will fans approve of the “halo” or will they see it as ugly and unnecessary?
By Graham Duxbury
Detractors say the halo cockpit protection concept will change the aesthetics and the time-honoured open-cockpit layout of Formula One cars, while supporters point to the inherent safety risks of an open cockpit.
The halo, the result of five years of research, is a titanium structure designed to prevent frontal head impacts, the dangers of which were brought to the fore in 2009 when Henry Surtees, son of the 1994 world champion John Surtees, was killed by a loose wheel in a F2 race. Shortly thereafter Felipe Massa suffered life-threatening head injuries when hit by a loose spring during practice for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Head protection was again raised as a concern when former F1 driver Justin Wilson was killed by flying debris during an IndyCar race in 2015.
Multiple world champion Niki Lauda believes the halo risks destroying the DNA of F1. However, there have been many safety-predicated changes to the appearance and construction of F1 cars over the years.
In fact, one could argue that the quest for added safety is fundamental to F1’s DNA.
For example, in 1996, a foam surround was added to the cockpit which not only changed the appearance of the F1 cars of the day but, according to former F1 doctor Sid Watkins, saved the life of Jos Verstappen – Max’ father – at the 1996 Belgian GP where he suffered a serious accident.
Other significant step-changes in F1 safety since the 1960s – when the rate of fatal and serious injury was one in every eight crashes – included rules for the testing of crash helmets and seatbelt anchorage points. In years before, a cloth cap was considered adequate while drivers would rather be thrown clear in an accident than risk the almost-inevitable fuel fire.
The issue of fire, which took the lives of so many drivers – including Revlon heir Peter Revson at Kyalami in 1974 – was addressed in the 1970s when a single, mid-mounted, impenetrable rubber fuel bladder with self-sealing breakaway couplings was introduced.
Other rules that affected the design and construction of F1 cars appeared in the late 1970s when crushable structures around the fuel tank and foot pedals appeared along with strengthened roll-over hoops in the dashboard and behind the driver’s head.
In the 1980s a reinforced “survival cell” was introduced which extended in front of the driver’s feet which had to be behind the front-axle centreline. Prior to this, drivers were placed as far forwards as possible with their unprotected legs in the most vulnerable position in the event of a frontal impact.
This was thanks to the aerodynamic rules at the time which permitted designers to optimise the underside of the car using “ground-effect” technology. The banning of ground-effect for the 1983 season saw another significant change in the appearance of F1 cars which lost their side-skirts and gained sizable front wings.
In 1988, McLaren debuted a car featuring a carbon fibre chassis. Despite initial misgivings that the space-age material would be fragile when subjected to the stresses of an accident, the contrary was proven and today it is mandatory.
The strength of carbon fibre was confirmed at the 2007 Canadian GP when Robert Kubica had an accident of such violence that many feared he would not survive. He did – virtually unscathed.
Following Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident in 1994, moves to enhance safety gained increasing impetus and in 1998 F1’s narrow-track era began. Car widths were dramatically reduced and grooved tyres were introduced in a bid to limit cornering speeds. Cockpit dimensions were increased (not for the first time) while rules governing headrest assemblies further “buried” drivers in their cars and were initially unpopular for this reason.
As with most safety devices introduced over the years, the halo will also evolve, probably into something more aesthetically appealing.
Aesthetics are set to be a key element of the next major F1 regulation change in 2021. Maybe the “shield”, an impact-proof windscreen currently being tested by IndyCar in the US, could find its way into F1 as a halo-substitute.
We’ll have to wait and see.