Halo Head Protection: The Wrong Decision For Formula 1

Introduction

For over a year now; F1 has been haunted by talk of introduction of further head protection to the sport since Jules Bianchi’s death and a spate of accidents in American IndyCar events. There are two clear sides to this argument as far as I can make out. Firstly, the opinion that if we don’t introduce further protection then we are at risk of drivers dying and no matter what the aesthetic cost it is worth it. Secondly there is the opinion that by taking this move F1 is losing touch of it’s fundamental DNA and history; it’s status as the world’s greatest open-cockpit racing series. In fact the greatest racing series full-stop. There have been many ideas for this head protection; we have had the Red Bull concept of the “aeroscreen” as well as the “sheild” tested by Ferrari at Silverstone just this weekend gone. Then there is also the Halo device. If reports coming from Motorsport.com are to be believed at this early stage then the FIA have decided to go ahead with the Halo for 2018. This is fundamentally the worst decision that could have been taken for the future of the sport. I will carefully outline just why that is.

The Other Options

First, let us explore the other options before I lay into the Halo decision. Both the shield and the aeroscreen were designed to provide full frontal protection for the drivers; indeed Red Bull personally tested the integrity of their proposal in an attempt to make sure the FIA ran with the idea. Here is a video of that test. The device is pictured below.

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Daniel Ricciardo testing the “Aeroscreen” design last season.

Secondly and more recently we have seen the “shield” concept tested by Ferrari at Silverstone in the most recent Grand Prix. As a side note this concept is my personal favourite from all the options presented to us so far; it looks more sleek and dynamic than the “aeroscreen” whilst also still offering full protection from any size of projectile hurtled towards the drivers heads. It is half way to a closed canopy admittedly; but the feeling of open cock-pit still remains and with some tweaking the cars would look excellent. Just take a look below if you don’t believe me.

ferrari-sebastian-vettel-shield-concept_827x510_41500044560.jpg
The “shield” concept on Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari.

Head Protection: A Quick History

I want to make it clear that in my mind F1 should never have even entertained the concept of further head-protection. It is against the history and concept of the sport. It would be like playing football with a tennis ball. As Martin Brundle has said: “For me a single-seater racing car is open wheel and open cockpit as a pure fact. If you don’t like that then go sports car racing instead” and I could not agree anymore than that. Now, before I continue to dismantle the Halo decision specifically, I would like to disprove another reason for why head protection is necessary and I am sorry but it is a sensitive subject. We are going to look at the most recent deaths in the sport. So here goes.

Jules Bianchi’s accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix and his eventual death in 2015 was a tragic loss of an incredibly gifted driver and a lovely man. But head protection would not have saved him. His accident was due to a poor recovery procedure under heavy rain with a heavy vehicle; which he collided with. F1 has taken steps to make sure this kind of freak accident never happens again; by introducing the “virtual safety car” as well as bringing the safety car out more often for smaller incidents. Both of these measures are to slow cars down on the circuit when there is danger of a collision. But fundamentally I must stress that no amount of head protection would have saved Bianchi from the incredibly aggressive deceleration forces; his brain was pressed forwards into his skull by sheer gravity. This is a fact.

Henry Surtee’s death in Formula 2 in 2009 is being championed for the reason as to why the “halo” should be introduced. Wikipedia describes the incident thusly: “At Brands Hatch…Surtees was hit on the head by a wheel from the car of Jack Clarke after Clarke spun into the wall exiting Westfield Bend. The wheel broke its tether and bounced back across the track into the following group of cars and collided with Surtees’ helmet” and so I agree that when looking at the circumstances, any type of device would have saved him; so I am including this for balance. But I must stress that “any” device would have saved him; so why the Halo, which could allow smaller particles into the cockpit? I also have one more note on this: would the safety not be better if the wheel tethers were better reinforced in the first place? Then the collision would have had no possibility of happening at all. Also, as a point of debate; as far as I can make out the “halo” is not going to be introduced into F2 or other junior categories; so again it would not have been there to save him. If they are going to introduce it at all; I would like it across the board: the life of an F1 driver is not worth more than an F2 driver.

Ayrton Senna’s death is a very sore subject for me as well as the millions of F1 fans around the globe. For me the man is the greatest driver to ever have lived: a genuine hero and a legend of mankind, but I shall try to remain impartial and convey the facts for the sake of this exploration of head protection. For my thoughts on Senna and a celebration of his remarkable life please click here. But I must remain on topic. Ayrton’s accident has been somewhat shrouded in mystery due to it’s high profile nature but it is almost certain what happened at Tamburello on that fateful lap. It is clear from the stress fractures on the metal that the steering column on his Williams broke as he rounded the bend; leaving him defenceless to steer away from a certain collision. What happened next was that the suspension arm shattered away from the bodywork and sprung back into the cockpit. The combination of the huge energy going through the assembly into his head and the piercing of his visor effectively killed Senna instantly. In this case it just might be true that some of Ayrton’s injuries would have been prevented by the “aeroscreen” or the “shield” but again I doubt it would have been enough. As with Bianchi, the deceleration forces the Brazilian suffered were probably enough for death. Again, the FIA were prompted to increase safety with interest in the introduction of the HANS device to protect the base of the skull; as well as lowering downforce levels and cornering speeds helping to reduce fatal possibility. There wasn’t a death for 20 years.

Roland Ratzenberger died the day before Senna; in almost identical circumstances when all is said and done. Travelling round the high-speed Imola circuit, the car failed to turn and left the track at full pelt at the Villeneuve Corner and struck the outside wall at 195 miles per hour. For all intents and purposes he was killed instantly as well, sustaining a fracture at the base of his skull; breaking of his upper vertebrae and huge G-force strain on his brain. Once more, we have to ask would further head-protection have saved him? We will never truly know for sure; but I would hazard a guess that it wouldn’t have done.

As we can clearly see from the last 3 deaths in F1 racing; the common factor for death has mostly been massive deceleration forces on the brain. Obviously there are other complications and I am nowhere near possessing all the facts, but it is fairly simple to see. Now; let’s finally turn to the Halo and why it is the worst choice. On a side note, I think it is ugly as all sin and I will include that in my analysis here, as it is important to the image of the sport in order to gain more fans and sponsors alike. However, my main concern is safety and I will also attack the concept from that angle: I will reference the deaths above and similar incidents as to why the “halo” is a pathetic; half-baked and disastrous option for the FIA to have taken. Again; as I have been writing this it has been confirmed by SkySports that the Halo will run in 2018.

The Horror Of The Halo

Firstly as a racing fan, which is what I assume you are as you are reading this blog, just take a look at it. I mean really gaze into it’s soul. It’s clunky, obvious, heavy soul. It’s ugly, ungraceful, aerodynamically disastrous soul. It’s broad, blatant…you get the point.

f1-le-halo-aux-couleurs-des-equipes-de-f1-2016-mercedes-w07-halo-customise.jpg
Nico Rosberg’s car sporting the “Halo” device

You cannot tell me that it doesn’t make the car look horrible. Yes, yes it may be true that with further development the device will grow to be integrated better into the machine and not look so god-awful. Yes, it will be sculpted further. But you cannot tell me that the above “aeroscreen” and “shield” concepts are not better on the eye. You may think this is not an important point for the sport and that lives are worth the eye-sore. So let me explain to you why this “halo” is still the wrong choice for your concerns using the logic of safety. I will be quick and decisive here.

-In 2009 Felipe Massa suffered an accident in Hungary when a spring detached itself from from Rubens Barichello’s Brawn in front. In this video you can see the spring hit him on the head; rendering him unconscious and into the barrier. He had a fractured skull and was out for the remainder of the season. Many think he has never been the same driver since. Answer me this; how would the “halo” have stopped this accident? The spring could easily pass through the gaps in the device. With either other option this accident would have been stopped. Why are they not being considered ahead?

-In the opening round of 2016 Fernando Alonso went through a quite simply HUGE accident during the race when he clipped the back of Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas. He was flung into the air and spun numerous times; so much so that he landed right next to the barrier with only just enough space to get out. Many have argued that any head protection at all would have made it impossible for him to leave the vehicle. This is potentially a very dangerous threat.

-As we explored above, all of the past 3 drivers who died in F1 itself had one thing in common; a fractured base of the skull and severe brain damage from massive deceleration under a high speed collision. The Halo would not have saved any of them from that fate; least of all Senna and Bianchi. The Brazilian had a suspension arm come back into the cock-pit and hit his head; still a possibility with the “halo” and Bianchi hit his head on the underside of a tractor at full speed; the halo would have shattered around him and the accident would have been essentially the same with the deceleration forces.

-Dan Wheldon’s tragic death in IndyCar was the result of a huge 15 car accident that threw his own vehicle into catch fence cockpit-first, before landing him back on the racing surface after his head hit a pole lining the track. This death is more the fault of the dangerously close barriers and fences in IndyCar than not having further head protection. What is more, even if he had been running the “halo” device that pole would probably have still struck his helmet: with the speed he was going at I doubt the “halo” would have survived the impact intact either. With any other head protection; the “aeroscreen” might have provided the best chance due to it’s thick band at the top and the hugely reinforced glass; as shown in the Red Bull test video.

-Away from accidents; one thing must also be made clear. In the FIA decision making process; NINE of the teams voted against the introduction of the “halo” for you not familiar with the make-up of the sport, that is all but one. But against their diplomatic wishes the FIA pushed the design through. Drivers such as Grosjean and Hamilton have been incredibly vocal about the device. I would trust them above anyone else when it comes to safety; after all they are driving! Lewis said it was the ugliest modification to an F1 car ever, Grosjean said it has “no place” in the sport. Even Sebastian Vettel; who is a champion of head protection, saying “nothing justifies death” in a press conference, has said that it has “quite a bit of impact on visibility” for the drivers. How can that be safe?

So, it is clear to see that even in recent history the “halo” is not the right way to go about improving head protection; if indeed that is something that should or needs to be looked at in the first place.

Finality: Ayrton’s Plea

Now, I come to my final point. And it is a plea to the integrity of this great, historic sport from it’s greatest ever champion. On the subject of danger this is what he had to say:

“We are all made of emotions, we are all looking for emotions basically and one particular thing that Formula 1 can provide you is that you are always in danger of being hurt; in danger of dying”

“You take away Eau Rouge and you take away the reason I do this”

Both Ayrton Senna. Ayrton Senna. A man who died from a head-injury; who was mourned by millions around the globe. Here he is backing up the need for some aspects of danger in Formula 1. These are his words; both direct quotes. Ayrton knew the risk, as did Bianchi and Ratzenberger. As do all of the drivers today or those coming up into the sport and in part that is why they race; for the thrill and the danger that comes with it. All three of the men I mentioned above died for their passion, for what they loved in life. In Senna’s case he wouldn’t have had it any other way either, this is what he said:

“If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs me my life, I hope it is in one go. I would not like to be in a wheelchair. I would not like to be in a hospital suffering from whatever injury it was. If I’m going to live, I want to live fully, very intensely, because I am an intense person. It would ruin my life if I had to live partially”

I don’t want death in my Formula 1; of course I don’t! No one does! But the sport is safer than it has ever been before! The solution to this dwindling safety problem that we have been given is the wrong one. Not only is the Halo horrible to look at, thus reducing interest in the sport, it is not even going to stop most debris where the other two would! It is the greatest of the three evils presented to us; it is ineffective, ugly and is going to change the DNA of this sport forever. As I write I am struck by an honest truth; this is a truly sad day for Formula 1. Butchered by the devilry of the halo.

 

 

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