The new F1 Halo cockpit threatens the very DNA of the sport
Formula 1 has finally settled on a new cockpit-safety device for 2018 – and it hasn’t gone down well. Called the Halo, the system will be mandatory on all cars in the 2018 season which starts in late March, and is designed to protect drivers against projectiles and blunt force head injuries.
The design has been likened to a flip-flop by some fans, and effectively forms a rigid framework around the driver’s head. The Halo system is in the form of one large post-like structure in the middle of the driver’s view, which then extends to either side of the cockpit. The result? The driver’s head is protected against any collisions from the front or sides.
However, it has not proved popular with F1 fans, or drivers. When the Halo was first tested, nine out of ten F1 teams voted against it. Lewis Hamilton described it as the “worst-looking modification” in the sport’s history.
After taking this feedback onboard and apparently making some changes, the sport’s governing body and teams have now settled on a design that appeals to both – but we’re not yet sure how different it will look.
“We drivers respect the FIA’s stand on safety and support its ongoing quest to make racing safer,” said Alexander Wurz, chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, about the system’s introduction. “F1 is a role model for ever-increasing safety without jeopardising performance. While the halo solution might not be the most aesthetically pleasing for everyone, we drivers will nevertheless race and push as hard as we can on track, which is the key for F1 to continue its growth and popularity.”
A statement from the FIA reads: “With the support of the teams, certain features of [Halo’s] design will be further enhanced,” so it could look slightly better than we’re expecting, at least.
“Having developed and evaluated a large number of devices over the past five years, it had become clear that the Halo presents the best overall safety performance,” the statement continued.
F1 Halo cockpit: What’s it for?
For the past 30 years, Formula 1 car design has been influenced by two main factors: speed and safety. The cars have to incorporate crash structures to protect the driver in high-speed crashes, so from the nose to the sidepods, every area of the car conforms to strict safety regulations.
Aerodynamics also play a huge role in F1, which is why the cars have become so streamlined in recent years, with every inch of bodywork designed to extract the maximum downforce possible.
Halo sits in the former group, but to understand why it’s been pushed through for 2018, you need to look back to the past few years of motorsport.
Safety and F1
When Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola in 1994, F1 was in shock. On the Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying, and the day after the greatest driver of his era, and probably of all time, died in the race. Enquiries and investigation followed, and a raft of safety measures were brought in – such as increasing cockpit wall heights – all designed to make F1 much safer and more regulated.
More recently, Formula 2 driver Henry Surtees was killed when he was hit by a flying wheel in 2009, while F1 driver Jules Bianchi died from head injuries after colliding with a trackside vehicle in 2014. In the Indycar series, Justin Wilson was killed after debris from a crash struck his helmet, and in 2009 Felipe Massa was seriously injured after a bolt from another car hit his helmet.
In 2015, Mercedes tested a prototype Halo system to avoid such head injuries while Red Bull trialled its own shield devices in 2016, which are essentially large, high windscreens. At this year’s British GP, Ferrari tested the Shield system but Vettel cut the trial short after complaining of dizziness.
So is the Halo cockpit a good idea?
Aesthetics and fan reaction aside, there are two problems with the Halo device. First, its main supporting structure creates huge blind spots for drivers, and may actually increase the risk of collisions in the future.
Second, F1 is not a safe sport. The cars go too fast, the racing is too close and, although every car has highly reinforced wheel tethers, an open-wheeled sport is inherently dangerous. It’s possible to make all those aspects safer, but doing so threatens the DNA of what F1 is.
Furthermore, the F1 Halo cockpit plans likely wouldn’t have stopped the bolt hitting Massa’s helmet in 2009.
So while it’s important for F1 to try and be safe as possible, it’s also important to maintain the look, feel and general identity of the pinnacle of motorsport. I’m unsure whether the Halo maintains that balance.