Pat Sy­monds on F1’s safer fu­ture


F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - PAT SY­MONDS @F1rac­ing _mag face­ f1rac­ing­mag

The halo is now a fact for 2018. Yet rarely – if ever – has a fea­ture that en­hances safety caused so much con­tro­versy.

It’s true that when the HANS de­vice was in­tro­duced, some driv­ers found it un­com­fort­able – and, sur­pris­ingly, Rubens Bar­richello was even given dis­pen­sa­tion from wear­ing it for a race. It’s also true that when the padded head­rests were in­tro­duced in re­sponse to Karl Wendlinger’s in­jury at Monaco in 1994, the aes­thet­ics left a lot to be de­sired. The Fer­rari in par­tic­u­lar looked as if some­one had re­alised the day be­fore the car was com­pleted that it needed to have a head­rest in­cor­po­rated into the de­sign.

The halo, un­for­tu­nately, suf­fers from the same prob­lems as that early Fer­rari. It sim­ply has not yet been in­cor­po­rated into the to­tal ve­hi­cle con­cept. The struc­ture it­self is par­tially de­ter­mi­nate. It’s a fact es­tab­lished by the FIA af­ter a spate of rally-car ac­ci­dents that a cer­tain amount of free space is re­quired around the driver’s hel­met. This is be­cause even with the con­straints im­posed by the HANS de­vice, the very high loads ex­pe­ri­enced in a se­vere ac­ci­dent will lead to ex­treme head move­ments. The tubu­lar struc­ture it­self is also of the min­i­mum sec­tion nec­es­sary to with­stand the loads im­posed by a wheel strik­ing the de­vice at 140mph.

Such lim­i­ta­tions should not, how­ever, lead to F1 cars be­ing ugly. There’s no doubt that the cur­rent halo de­sign has been es­tab­lished with a re­quire­ment for it to fit ex­ist­ing car de­sign, rather than to be part of a holis­tic de­sign, so I’d hope that in the fu­ture we can es­tab­lish a much more in­te­grated safety sys­tem. But while the cur­rent ap­pear­ance leaves some­thing to be de­sired, we must fo­cus on the pos­i­tives. F1 has al­ways been an open-wheel, open-cock­pit for­mula. The halo pro­vides the clos­est so­lu­tion to en­hanced safety while re­tain­ing this ba­sic premise.

Rather than ques­tion­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of the halo into F1, we should be ask­ing how it can be in­cor­po­rated across open-cock­pit for­mu­lae – the last three deaths that might have been avoided by such a de­vice have all oc­curred out­side of F1. It’s catch­ing on though: at the Ital­ian GP the 2018 GP2 car was un­veiled – com­plete with halo.

Fans al­ways want to be able to see the driv­ers, though, and any form of canopy will re­duce this: par­tic­u­larly the view from on-board cam­eras. You only have to watch the on-board footage from a WEC car to see how poor this can be – and re­mem­ber that the screen on an LMP car is rel­a­tively thin and has nowhere near the ad­di­tional frontal pro­tec­tion af­forded by the halo.

While the wow fac­tor of the cars’ ap­pear­ance is high on the list of those look­ing at the fu­ture of F1 as a busi­ness, it’s not the only item on the agenda. Since own­er­ship passed to Lib­erty Me­dia, we’ve seen the be­gin­nings of an ethos that looks at each grand prix week­end as a col­lec­tion of hap­pen­ings while the circus is in town, the cul­mi­na­tion of which is the race it­self. This can only be good for F1 as a whole, since this new way of think­ing, which is based on the premise that pro­vi­sion of entertainment is the key to the growth of the sport, is what is needed to at­tract a new au­di­ence at a time when the choice of how to spend leisure time has never been greater.


Per­haps the great­est dif­fi­culty in try­ing to im­prove the entertainment value of the sport is as­cer­tain­ing just what con­sti­tutes this elu­sive goal. Just as opin­ions on the aes­thet­ics of the cars will be di­verse, so too will be opin­ions as to what makes good rac­ing. Far too of­ten the past is viewed through rose-tinted spec­ta­cles, and yet more of­ten changes are sug­gested that fail to ex­am­ine the un­in­tended con­se­quences of such a change. We can­not rein­vent the past even if, (and I per­son­ally dis­pute this) it is be­lieved to be bet­ter. F1 has moved on im­mea­sur­ably in terms of sheer pro­fes­sion­al­ism, and, like much of mod­ern life, it would be folly to sim­ply wish to re­vert to times when things were more sim­ple.

Never be­fore has the sport had to com­pete for view­ers the way it does now. There are now more ded­i­cated sports chan­nels broad­cast­ing 24 hours a day than there are grands prix in a sea­son, and tech­nol­ogy is giv­ing the viewer in­sights into as­pects of other sports that could only be dreamed of a few years ago.

It’s nec­es­sary now to em­ploy ev­i­dence-based de­ci­sion mak­ing, the sort beloved of en­gi­neers and sci­en­tists, to cor­re­late the ac­tions in a race with the per­cep­tion of en­joy­ment that’s de­rived from it. For ex­am­ple, if the chase to the line in the Azer­bai­jan Grand Prix had oc­curred mid-race, would it have thrilled the spec­ta­tors as much as it did by oc­cur­ring on the last lap? Will a hard-fought bat­tle for tenth place ever at­tract as much arm­chair pun­ditry as a fight for the lead be­tween two driv­ers or teams who are neck-and-neck in the cham­pi­onship? We need to use mod­ern data-min­ing meth­ods to tie th­ese ac­tions to viewer rat­ings, and then we need to use simulation to ex­er­cise new reg­u­la­tions be­fore let­ting them loose on the track.

It’s here that the vir­tual rac­ing com­mu­nity may of­fer a unique ser­vice. Many of the pro­tag­o­nists of sim­u­lated rac­ing are re­mark­ably pro­fes­sional, and the simulation physics that I’ve seen are of a very high stan­dard. With the cor­re­la­tion of events in just 20 races a sea­son a dif­fi­cult thing to do, per­haps we should shift to a sim­u­lated en­vi­ron­ment and use the many vir­tual rac­ers out there to give us sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant sam­ples as to what may hap­pen if, for the sake of ar­gu­ment, we re­versed the grids or brought a new qual­i­fy­ing pro­ce­dure into play.

We dis­miss the vir­tual world at our peril. Ev­ery­thing from air-traf­fic con­trol al­go­rithms to so­phis­ti­cated bat­tles in war sce­nar­ios are tested in a vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment. Maybe it’s time to ex­plore the bound­aries of our sport in a sim­i­lar way.

Aes­thet­i­cally speak­ing the halo is not the per­fect so­lu­tion, but its de­sign can be im­proved over time and it could save lives

Fans al­ways want to be able to see the driv­ers, and there’s no deny­ing that the halo will re­duce their view

Tweaks to the for­mat of grands prix could be tri­alled through vir­tu­ally sim­u­lated races

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