The FIA has confirmed that the Halo cockpit protection device will be introduced into Formula 1 for the 2018 season after the alternative Shield project was binned as a result of an unfavourable review at Silverstone by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. However, the decision has proven to be highly controversial and may have hamstrung Liberty Media’s attempts to make F1 as attractive as possible after the Bernie Ecclestone era.
Sources claim that nine out of the ten current F1 teams voted against the introduction of the Halo, but the FIA vetoed this decision after having already been keen to introduce the system as early as the current 2017 season. “Following the unanimous agreement of the Strategy Group, in July 2016, to introduce additional frontal protection for Formula One and the repeated support from the drivers, the FIA confirms the introduction of the Halo for 2018,” an FIA statement asserted. “With the support of the teams, certain features of its design will be further enhanced”. (ESPN)
And further enhanced it would certainly need to be. At the moment, the Halo system looks objectively awful on an F1 car, and it is hard to see how it can be made to look less garish. Aesthetics aside, much of the backlash from fans has originated from an inability to see how this Halo system would really make F1 much safer. Firstly, it will reduce visibility from the cockpit for drivers and potentially cause a blind-spot in their field of vision. Granted, the drivers themselves have noted that visibility is not too bad, but it has to be kept in mind that this system has not yet been adequately tested in a race situation with numerous other cars in close proximity – Where the upright support of the Halo may cause serious visibility problems.
Also, how would the system impact the drivers’ ability to quickly get out of their car or be extracted by marshals in the event of a crash where, for example, a fire may be involved? And would the Halo itself not become a massive danger to a driver if it were to break in the event of an accident? Additionally, the Halo seems quite useless for accidents such as the one that befell Felipe Massa a few years back when an errant spring struck him on the helmet and resulted in the Brazilian suffering a fractured skull because there is no ‘shield’ in front of the driver. In fact, such an accident may even become more dangerous with the Halo – If a spring, for example, were hit the underside of the Halo’s upper horizontal strut, it may be deflected downwards and into a driver’s unprotected body.
It seems very much that the Halo is a rushed solution just to cover the FIA’s back legally were there to be an accident in which a driver is seriously injured or killed. “There is 100 per cent a better solution than the Halo, we wouldn’t have tried three things otherwise”, Mercedes’ Niki Lauda told Auto Motor und Sport. “Therefore, it would be more sensible to go further in that direction and if we find something that does not destroy the looks, then it could be introduced in 2019. It’s as simple as that. There is no reason to rush something we will regret later”. If the FIA were to insist on better head protection from drivers, then surely Lauda and the vast majority of F1 fans’ opinion is the way to go? The alternative Shield concept was always going to have teething problems, but Vettel’s complaints about curvature causing distortion and dizziness in addition to aerodynamic effects can surely be fixed – Especially considering the fact that F1 has no shortage of very capable engineers available to work on the problem. However, the whole concept has just been dropped like a hot potato.
The best solution would have been for the FIA to give each team minimum and maximum specifications and have them build a protective system which is integrated with their car’s functional design, rather than a bolt-on, one-size-fits-all fix that hardly even inspires confidence that it will be able to do the job that it has been introduced to do. But the whole drive by the FIA to increase head protection continues to seem more like a metaphorical protective measure in the courtroom rather than on the track. By their very nature, the accidents that cause serious injury or claim the lives of drivers are rare and incredibly violent. Would Jules Bianchi’s life have been saved had his car had a Halo? Most probably not. However, would his life have been saved if there were a way to make the on-track conditions in which he crashed safer? Yes, and that is exactly why the virtual safety-car was introduced.
Of course, there will always be an element of risk in F1, but very few fans are against making the sport as safe as possible without diluting it completely. However, in practical terms, there is only so much you can do to a car to make it safe. The laws of physics will never change, and thus even if F1 were to become a closed-cockpit Formula there would still be an associated risk.
“The Halo destroys the DNA of a Formula One car,” Lauda noted in the same interview. “The FIA has made F1 as safe as possible. Also, the danger of flying wheels is largely ruled out, because the wheels are now more firmly attached. The risk to the drivers is minimal. There is no doubt that you have to improve safety where you can. We tested the Halo, the Aeroscreen from Red Bull and Ferrari’s Shield. No one has been 100 per cent convinced yet and you have to make the right decision in such a situation. The Halo is the wrong one”. The Austrian’s opinion carries more weight than most, considering that he has always been a big proponent of safety in F1 – And even conceded a World Title in the name of safety. As such, it should be a sobering reality for the FIA that this decision is, most definitely, “the wrong one”.
One has to feel for Liberty Media, who must really be thinking that they have bought a lemon. They have been trying so hard to make F1 more accessible to fans, and to attract new fans to the sport – and have, thus far, done an exceptional job. But now many fans are threatening to stop watching the sport due to this latest blow to the spectacle. Granted, this may all just blow over like rage over the emergence the whimpering hybrid engine era, but it certainly won’t help with attracting new customers to the brand.
An interesting time lies ahead for F1, and it is certainly doubtful that this is anywhere near the end of the Halo debate.