Pat Symonds on F1’s safer future
F1 MUST LOOK FORWARD: THE PAST IS HISTORY
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.
WE NEED TO USE SIMULATION TO EXERCISE NEW REGULATIONS BEFORE LETTING THEM LOOSE ON THE TRACK
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