THE HALO: SAINT...
A divisive dilution of the very DNA of Formula 1, or the natural next step in a long line of safety improvements? Whatever your opinion, one thing’s for sure: the halo is definitely on its way. So what does it mean for the sport? F1 Racing talks to those
Minutes after the FIA announced, last July, its decision to mandate the use of the halo head-protection device for 2018, the Twittersphere went into meltdown.
Amid the looping memes of Luke Skywalker howling disbelief into the ether and repeated images of flip-flops pasted onto chassis tops, fans also verbally vented their fury. “F1 feels the need to do something for the sake of doing something,” read one. “Can we ban the FIA for bringing the sport into disrepute?” fumed another. Many more simply responded via the pithy hashtag #fuckhalo.
Dotted amongst the splenetic outpourings, however, were a number of more accepting opinions, with a few voices insisting that driver safety had to be the paramount concern. “I consider myself an F1 purist but nothing should get in the way of driver safety,” wrote one fan – admittedly a somewhat lonely voice.
Beyond the paddock gates, the debate over whether the halo casts out the very demon
that makes Formula 1 so fascinating – namely inherent risk and a heroic disregard of it – continues to rage. Inside the sport, however, the mood has shifted, with active antipathy turning gradually to stoic acceptance, or, in the case of those charged with implementing the system, a sense of urgency as the clock ticks toward 2018 and chassis design remains stalled while standards are defined.
Haas racer Romain Grosjean is one driver whose unwavering opposition was very evident right from the system’s first trials. When the mandate was handed down to bring in the halo, he was quick to lament the decision, saying: “It is a sad day for Formula 1.”
Three months on, and while he is still spiritually opposed to the halo, his antagonism has given way to tolerance. “It’s coming and we have to deal with it,” he says. “I’m still not a huge fan of it philosophically, although it is hard to say so, because I know that the FIA is pushing to improve safety and what we have seen them do since Senna’s death in 1994, is amazing. Think of the crash I had at the 2015 Russian GP, or the one Carlos Sainz had during practice at the same race, for example. We now see the driver escape the car, jump out and race the next day.”
Much of the growing acceptance of the need for additional head protection stems from the lengths the FIA have gone to in revealing the research behind development of the device and the rationale behind choosing the halo, with drivers and the media being given guided tours of the FIA safety department’s findings.
“We went quite extreme in looking at a wide range of devices,” says FIA safety director and deputy race director Laurent Mekies of the research. “We looked at a roll-bar in front of the car, a roll-bar on top of the car, full canopy testing and the first halo and shield designs. The programme started off with more than ten families of device being studied.”
Fundamental to those studies was Henry Surtees’ fatal accident during a 2009 Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch. Surtees died following a high-speed impact with a detached wheel. The response from the FIA safety department was to seek a solution that would protect the driver against the impact of a 20kg wheel travelling at a speed of 140mph.
The project wasn’t limited only to the specifics of the Surtees incident, however. A broad spectrum of cases from a variety of different series were examined, with three distinct impact patterns being investigated: car-to-car; carto-environment; and finally, external-object impacts of the kind seen in Felipe Massa’s incident at the Hungaroring in 2009, and also the fatal accident involving Indycar’s Justin Wilson at Pocono Raceway in 2015.
“In each of the cases, we started off by looking at the real-life accident and then asked what would have happened had the halo been fitted,” says Mekies. “Then we played the ‘what-if’ scenario. We fitted the halo and simulated the accident itself, but we also looked around it – 5cm above, 10cm above, to the right, the left and so forth. We were looking to see whether the results were positive, neutral or negative,
and the number of cases in which the halo would have helped was overwhelming.”
In the case of car-to-car impacts, of the seven incidents tested, six generated a positive or generally positive result for the halo, and only one was neutral. In car-to-environment cases, another seven incidents were examined, with four positive, two positive on balance, and one neutral. “In no instance,” says Mekies, “did the halo made matters worse.”
But there were still concerns that the device would be ineffective in deflecting smaller objects, such as the spring that flew off Rubens Barrichello’s car and struck Felipe Massa. Mekies is accepting of the criticism but stresses that while imperfect, the device still goes some way towards mitigation and that advances have been made in that area via other safety developments.
“Looking at Felipe Massa’s accident, we made a big step with helmet standards and the Zylon panel on the visor in order to deal with small objects,” he says. “We know that our protection against small objects has stepped up – and there is another step coming in 2019. We also played the game of throwing millions of small objects at the halo from different angles. Statistically, with a structure in front of the drivers, protection is increased. The figure is not spectacular, but it is an improvement. It became clear that the overall results of the analysis give us little possibility to not push on with the halo.”
So far, so good. But a number of competing systems were also coming into play, specifically the aeroscreen developed by Red Bull and tested by Daniel Ricciardo at the 2016 Russian Grand Prix, and the similar shield device that was tested by Sebastian Vettel at this year’s British GP.
The aeroscreen, Mekies admits, was “a very nice and elegant solution”, but one that fell by the wayside due to a range of issues. “When we tested it, it did not fully pass the weight test,” he says. “That element could have been made to work with more time, but it also came with a whole family of additional issues – fogging, dirt, oil, rain. There were a lot of things that needed to be resolved.”
Despite its shortcomings, aesthetically the aeroscreen met with a far more positive reaction among fans that the rather unlovely halo. Reaction to the shield was similarly enthusiastic. It’s easy to speculate that the higher fan-approval rating for screens played a part in the decision taken by the F1 Strategy Group and the F1 Commission in April this year to “give priority to the transparent ‘shield’ family of systems”. But whatever the reasoning, the shield wasn’t ready for 2018 implementation, as Vettel discovered.
“It was forward distortion, basically. The curvature was quite extreme at the forward end,” he says. “You might wonder what the difference is between what we see and what a fighter pilot would see. He never looks through the point where the shield begins: that’s where his display or his dashboard is. Because we sit quite low, we look through where the curvature is most extreme and that was the biggest issue – seeing what was coming was not right.”
Mekies, though, says that while the visibility problem was a hurdle, it was not the ultimate
cause of the shield’s downfall. “The reality is that what Sebastian complained about is completely normal for an initial prototype,” he says. “That issue was not impossible to solve. The key factor was that the shield was designed to be more integrated into the car than the halo, but with a lower level of protection. Also, the cut-off point for a decision on 2018 had arrived. It was a case of: do we want to go for a more integrated solution but with a lower safety level, or do we want to go for full safety? And, to be honest, the drivers told us the same thing – halo.”
Support isn’t unanimous, however, especially among the younger drivers, with Max Verstappen questioning the device’s validity when other safety developments are already reducing the risks the halo has been designed to cancel out.
“The Virtual Safety Car reduced a lot of risk,” he said in Hungary. “Also, the wheel tethers are quite strong at the moment so I don’t think you will lose a wheel very easily. And when there are parts flying around from the car, the halo is not really going to protect you. I don’t really understand why we need it.”
Verstappen’s lack of comprehension is moot. Committed to a 2018 introduction for head protection, and having rejected the shield post-silverstone, the FIA mandated the halo for 2018. The decision sparked instant outrage among fans, and caused consternation among the teams, as Force India technical director Andy Green explains: “It came as a big shock. We were anticipating a shield-type device and we had moved along that route since effectively shelving the halo design early this year. Everybody was focused on the shield and directed towards making that work,” he says.
“Given the fact that it significantly changes the design of your monocoque, this being the item that requires the longest lead time, getting it done in time becomes a real struggle,” he says. “We are still trying to design a monocoque in parallel with the regulations for the halo being fully defined. It’s not a nice position to be in.”
Green’s concern is that a chassis must be designed to the load case stipulated by the FIA, yet the information was made available to teams only in the week of the Singapore Grand Prix, with the regulations surrounding the halo not ratified by the World Motor Sport Council until the week after that.
Mekies is understanding of the task the teams now face. “It is a real technical challenge on all fronts: from a chassis design point of view for the teams; from a chassis homologation point of view – ‘how does the FIA ensure it is satisfied with what the teams have done?’; from a halo certification point of view – ‘how are we going to certify the supplier?’; and finally from a supply point of getting enough halos to the teams from the suppliers that will be homologated. Because of the timeframe and because of the complexity, it is a challenge for all of us. We are fast-tracking things. This is not at all a bureaucratic exercise: we are moving as fast as possible. We will test three suppliers next month [October] and if everything goes as planned those will be homologated.”
There is also the question of whether the device could actually help the cars’ performance, which has been suggested. Green is adamant that, in the short term, taking advantage of the 20mm fairing allowed laterally and on top of the device is very unlikely: “Compared to the fundamental aerodynamics working on the car, what we are talking about on the top of the halo is a fraction of what the car is doing,” he says. “Remember that we are still only a year into these regulations; the development curve for the rest of the car is still strong. The halo is not low-hanging fruit as far as car performance is concerned.”
While the engineering race against time is pushing teams, especially the smaller ones, to the limits of their available resource, the weight of evidence produced from the safety research makes the implementation of some form of additional head protection difficult to argue against.
However, while it is hard to deny the cold facts, it is all too easy to dislike the device itself. Emotional engagement is still a huge part of F1’s appeal, and the halo’s unattractive looks continue to provoke a raw negativity not seen with other safety developments, including alternative head-protection devices.
Mekies, though, insists that it’s all still a work in progress. “We are always looking at other systems, as is the case with all safety equipment,” he says. “It’s the same for seatbelts in the car: we introduced a new standard recently, and we will do the same with helmets in the near future. It will be the same with the halo. This is the first attempt, so you would expect it to develop more quickly than, say, helmets, which are wellestablished. We are working at a thinner central strut, we are looking at better integration with the car, taking into consideration all the feedback from fans and stakeholders. Our priority at the moment is to deliver it, but once it is delivered we will focus on improvements.”
And that, ultimately, may be the saving grace of F1’s saintly secondary roll structure: the moment when fan-friendly form follows undeniable, life-saving function.
The aeroscreen (above) championed by Red Bull and the shield (below) tested by Ferrari, have both lost out to the halo (left) which will make its debut at the 2018 Australian GP
The driver’s view through the halo has been the main bone of contention. The visibility of pitboards, starting lights and wing mirrors will be addressed in the ratified design