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

F1 Racing (UK) - - THE LONG INTERVIEW - WORDS JUSTIN HYNES

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

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