Peter Windsor on seeing beyond the halo
Having banged on about the need for forwardfacing cockpit protection ever since my mate Vittorio Brambilla was knocked unconscious by a flying wheel at Monza in 1978, I am of course pro-halo. As good as it feels to talk about F1 drivers being wimps, reality is different when someone gets hurt. And I’ve been to enough racing drivers’ funerals in my time – 15 before I turned 30 – not to want to attend another.
So whenever I feel the urge to join the clamour and resist the halo I make a positive effort to think of Tom Pryce, or Markus Höttinger or Mike Spence. Then I keep my mouth shut.
That said, I’m finding that it’s taking too long to get used to them. Everyone is saying “after a while you don’t even notice the halos” and so initially I took that at face value. I assumed it would be the same as big air boxes or wide noses: everyone had them and they quickly blended into the scenery.
The visual problem with the halo is not that it’s there; the problem is what we’re no longer seeing: to wit, the angle of the driver’s head as he turns into a corner. For me, this is one of the fundamental elements of fast driving. You’ve got your Romain Grosjean and your René Arnoux, hunched slightly, leaning perceptively forwards, when they’re on the limit – and you have your Nigel Mansell and your Lewis Hamilton, helmets angled fractionally back, leaning towards the apex, the masters of their domains. Helmet angles portray body language - and body language is a function of how good they are.
Peter Revson, for example, always tilted his head away from the upcoming apex. I asked him about this and he said that it was from a habit he learned on ovals, where leaning inwards decreased your peripheral vision slightly. Revson the thinker. And he was good, too.
Things were even better, naturally, before the advent of full-face helmets. Oil around the outline of the goggles spelled “RACING DRIVER”. End of story. You’d get to Reims, where the stones flew, and you’d tape up your face for protection; then it became cool to tape up the top half of the goggles, narrowing your field of vision merely for the track.
I think the 1960s produced the best looks. Graham Hill and Jim Clark would tie up huge fire-resistant face cloths with big knots around the backs of their necks and pull the bandanas right up over their noses before strapping on their Bucos. Denny Hulme, and sometimes Dan Gurney, tied the cloths only over their mouths for the bandido look.
Before face masks, you could study body language by what they did with their mouths. The photographer Michael Cooper used to recall Jim Clark miming words at him as he burst through Eau Rouge or Malmedy, suggesting that Mike move back or forwards a little for a better photo. And then there was the time that Stirling Moss, en route to victory at Monaco, actually chatted up a female spectator at the Station Hairpin, pointing to the Mirabeau Hotel and arranging a rendezvous schedule with hand and mouth signals. She was on time, too….
Before radios and headsets, engineers used to squat beside the cars and shout at the drivers between runs.
“Carlos,” Mauro Forghieri would say as you walked past the Ferrari. “I neeeeed you to try the old rear wing…” Such snippets were good starting-points for post-practice interviews.
Equally, if the driver didn’t want to talk, he would hold up his hand by the side of his helmet as if to say, “Sorry? Can’t hear…” and shake his head in faked annoyance.
THE VISUAL PROBLEM WITH THE HALO IS NOT THAT IT’S THERE; THE PROBLEM IS WHAT WE’RE NO LONGER SEEING: TO WIT, THE ANGLE OF THE DRIVER’S HEAD AS HE TURNS INTO A CORNER
The halo has this to be said for it from a nonsafety standpoint: on the grid, with the drivers strapped in, it’s difficult for hangers-on to squat by the cockpit and talk to them. Annoying journalists with mics now have little or no chance of stealing the dreaded soundbites – and that’s a good thing for the drivers, particularly as they’re now spending more time in the cars owing to the complexities of climbing in around the halo.
On the other hand, I was shocked to see that some of the F1 teams are taking advantage of the halo by custom-fitting what I can only describe as “side monitors” for the drivers’ personal pleasure in the garages. This is all about trying to look super-slick even if the car is dire on the track – and it’s about the drivers believing that they need to know everything that’s going on around them, even if it means that they’re not focusing on the lap that has to be driven. It’s about the digital age, sector by sector, overlay by overlay, regardless of the “feel” that slips through the gaps. Anyway, the trend now is to have TV monitors on the sides of the cockpit, flush to the halo (which has stolen the position of the traditional head-on monitor). The result is that the driver is now completely insulated from the world outside – make that hermetically sealed – which is probably good for him but lousy for everyone else.
I’m talking the garage here – a location that all well-run teams use for their “invited guests”. If there’s a moment any VIP will take home with him from a GP it’s when they’ve been standing a few feet away from the car and watched the driver’s eyes as he talks to an engineer or thinks about what is happening. Those moments are beyond time and price.
No longer. Now you see stuff shrouding the place where you assume the driver sits.
And no. I don’t have an answer. If it’s the halo or the loss of Mike Spence I’ll go for the halo every time. Somewhere, though, there should still be room for compromise – particularly in the garage.
There’s no doubt that head protection in F1 is a good thing, but it’s a shame it has to spoil the view
A consequence of better head protection is that it’s now harder to see and decipher a driver’s body language
The new side monitors restrict everyone’s view of the driver when the car is in the garage