If there’s one thing that has divided Formula 1 off late — apart from Lewis Hamilton’s off-track antics — it is the Halo cockpit protection concept. After much debate and discussion, the FIA finally confirmed its decision to introduce the Halo in Formula One next year. Here are a few answers to important questions that immediately spring to mind — what is the Halo and why is it so important for Formula 1? What is all this fuss about?
Motorsport is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous sports in the world, and Formula 1, in particular, has made continuous progress towards ensuring greater safety for drivers and minimising on-track injuries and fatalities. The case for a cockpit protection concept first came to light after the death of Henry Surtees — son of John Surtees, the only man to have won a world championship on both two and four wheels — in a Formula 2 race by a loose wheel.
Soon after in 2015, motorsports saw two shocking fatalities – Jules Bianchi in the Japanese Grand Prix and Justin Wilson, who was killed by flying debris during an IndyCar race. These incidents led the Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA) to push harder for extra cockpit protection in F1.
Why was the Halo selected?
Years of research has led the FIA to the Halo, but they experimented with various other cockpit protection options along the years. In 2016, they tested a device called The Shield (a frontal protection system) which Red Bull Racing had developed. However, The Shield died a quick death when Sebastian Vettel aborted the test after just one lap, citing dizziness and distorted vision through the screen. This meant that the Halo was the only remaining viable option that the FIA could put their might behind.
What exactly is the Halo?
Simply put, the Halo is a cockpit protection device. It was first proposed by Mercedes and the developed further by Ferrari after the FIA had started its research into rudimentary front roll cages and performed well in various tests thereafter.
The mood in the paddock around the Halo is divided. It seems that nine out of 10 constructors voted against introduction of the Halo, and it’s safe to assume that the lone yes vote came from either Ferrari or Mercedes, both of which are invested in the development of the Halo.
Despite that, the FIA has muscled the Halo through, citing driver safety as its top concern along with promising ongoing development to the Halo. Most drivers have supported the Halo in spirit. Hamilton, who was notably one of the biggest critics of the Halo initially made a U-turn and now supports the device. Fernando Alonso also said that the Halo is “very welcome” in Formula 1.
The controversy surrounding the Halo
The debate around Halo has revolved around four factors: aesthetics, visibility, driver extrication and in a generic sense, the spirit of racing.
Fundamentally, with the Halo device on the car, the chances are 17 percent better of saving the driver's life. In a world where driver safety is the ultimate concern of the FIA, the Halo is a move in the right direction. We should remember that there have been several radical changes introduced in the past which were opposed (such as the foam cockpit in 1996), but went on to become crucial elements in safeguarding driver safety.
The issues to ponder
Although it has its heart in the right place, it is true that the Halo concept has serious loopholes and shortfalls. For starters and most basically, it will not protect the driver’s head from debris entirely. It will definitely not be able to help drivers in incidents like the events leading up to Bianchi’s death or Felipe Massa’s massive accident.
A crucial concern around the Halo was whether it impedes visibility, and in tracks with an elevation change (such as Austria or Spa), the Halo itself could serve as a blind spot for drivers, paradoxically causing more accidents. This fear was put to rest after testing, with Nico Rosberg confirming last year that there was no impact of the Halo on driver visibility.
Driver extrication with the Halo has been another matter of hot debate. Critics in the paddock emphasised that it could take longer to extract a driver from the car with a Halo, and that the additional struggle could post a heightened risk. However, the FIA has confirmed that it is satisfied with tests on extrication. Strangely so, the FIA has already increased cockpit evacuation time to account for the Halo. Is this safe at all?
Marketers are also quite uncomfortable with the Halo, simply because it alters the look of F1 cars that fans and sponsors are so familiar with, and arguably makes it uglier.
Moreover, Formula 1 is a sport where the viewer does not get to see the face of the driver through the race — because of the helmet — which is believed to make it harder for fans to establish a personal, emotional connect with the driver. The Halo acts as yet another barrier between the viewer and the driver.
Further, Niki Lauda has said that the introduction of Halo risked destroying the very identity of Formula 1 (open cockpits) which has been part of the sport since its inauguration.
I am definitely in favour of cockpit protection (is there even a debate there?) but the Halo does seem hurried. The fact that there is such a big controversy surrounding the issue means that the FIA needs to work harder to bring all its stakeholders on the same page and plug concerns before next season kicks off.
Further, the scope for ongoing innovation remains, from a technical and aesthetic point of view, and we trust the FIA on driver safety. While the FIA may be thrifty during adjudicating racing incidents and get swayed by championship impacts, they have always been very fair in matters relating to driver safety.
Updated Date: Jul 27, 2017 22:56:55 IST