Mocked, scoffed, and decried as an unnecessary, reactive safety precaution by a vocal wing of the Formula One community at its introduction in 2018, the ‘Halo’ device proved once again at the Bahrain Grand Prix on the 29th of November that it is a vital precaution against the many perils of motorsport, when it undoubtedly saved the life of Haas driver Romain Grosjean.
What is the Halo device?
Introduced for the 2018-19 Formula One season after a string of infamous incidents involving head injuries (including the tragic death of Jules Bianchi in 2015), the Halo device is a reinforced titanium bar that surrounds the cockpit of a Formula One car. It is the strongest part of a Formula One car- able to support up to 12,000kg in weight (the full weight of a double decker bus) and is able to deflect oncoming debris from above and in front of the car. There was however one glaring issue with the Halo device: it was about as ugly as Medusa on a bad hair day.
Now, it seems silly to discuss the aesthetics of a race car when people’s future lives are at stake, but much like how VAR has been protested in football- many fans felt as if the Halo device ‘lessened the spirit of the sport’. After all, F1 drivers had a reputation of being brave, daring and above all: risk takers. From the certain point of view, if the drivers were willing to go into the sport fully recognizing the dangers involved, then they were willing to accept the potentially fatal consequences of accidents. This argument was backed up when a number of drivers spoke out in protest of the Halo in 2017 after its unveiling as a concept. Such protesters included Max Verstappen, Kevin Magnussen, Lewis Hamilton and even (rather ironically in retrospect) Romain Grosjean. Magnussen was particularly scathing, stating that the Halo ‘Looks Sh*t, and is sh*t’, with Verstappen championing the need for that intangible ‘element of risk’ in the sort.
Though many fans did sympathise with the FIA’s quest to improve the safety of F1, many were extremely disappointed with the intrusive design of the Halo. Until that point, many had been holding out for the introduction of a slicker, transparent aeroscreen, like those implemented in Indycar. Preliminary tests however found that the screens caused noticeable vibrations in the car, which had the rather unfortunate side-effect of making the test drivers violently sick at high speeds. The Halo device was ready, it worked, and the FIA claimed that the first generation of the device would increase survivability in an average high-impact crash by at least 17%. As such, it was chosen over the alternatives, despite 9 of the 10 teams on the grid objecting in some way to its inclusion on the car.
Trial by fire
It wasn’t long into the 2018 season that the Halo device saw its first noticeable impact at the Belgian Grand Prix. At turn 1 at the start of the race, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren bounced up and skidded over the top of Charles Leclerc’s Sauber. Both drivers were unharmed, though damage analysis revealed that Leclerc’s Halo had taken a direct hit from Alonso’s car; a hit that could well have impacted his helmet directly without the presence of the unpopular structure. Had Leclerc taken the impact of the car directly on his head, it’s highly likely that the crash result would have had dire consequences for the Monegasque driver- who was just 21 at the time of the incident. Following the race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff (another outspoken critic of the Halo) admitted that it had proven its worth to the sport, whilst Leclerc himself credited the Halo with saving his life.
Though some fans were similarly convinced after Spa, others were not so easily swayed. The argument of pure aesthetics was clearly out of the window now that it had demonstrated its tangible benefits to drivers, so instead critics began claiming that the Halo actually made the car less safe! Their arguments centred on 3 main points of concern:
1. The load bar at the front of the Halo dangerously restricted driver visibility.
2. The Halo made it difficult to evacuate the car in the event of a fire.
3. The Halo would trap the driver if the car upturned.
All three points had their theoretical merits on paper, but it was yet to be seen if they held real weight in an incident. It was hoped that proving any one of these points correct might force the FIA to rethink the Halo concept and come up with a more attractive design. The first point of concern was also the first to be proven false. Though it might seem obvious that sticking a titanium bar directly in front of a driver’s face would restrict their ability to drive, it turned out not to be so much of an issue at all. After the first few races of the 2018 season, drivers were beginning to admit that they just weren’t noticing it any more as their eyes were much more focused on the view ahead of them either side of the slender post. Eventually, the driver’s brain simply begins to block out the intrusion of the central bar as their eyesight adjusts around it. Though that seems preposterous, it’s a scientific principal that every one of you is likely experiencing right now, given that your brain is subconsciously blocking out the sight of your own nose so as not to form an unnecessary barrier to your overall eyesight (apologies Lord Voldemort if you’re reading this). The central load bar didn’t seem to have any effect of the driver’s confidence or awareness, and no crashes were ever attributed to the load bar dangerously obstructing their vision. As such, critics of the Halo were eventually resigned to striking it off the risk list.
Proven beyond doubt
Though point 1 was disproven early in the Halo’s life cycle, points 2 and 3 were far more hypothetical given the relative rarity of their respective events. Car fires in F1 are much less common today than they once were, especially since refueling mid-race was banned in 2009. Additionally, the width of the modern cars makes rolling one over an almost impressive feat when it happens. At the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix however, a chaotic start, then restart to the race saw exactly those two circumstances play out separately. At turn 3 of lap 1, an out of control Roman Grosjean struck the front left tire of Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri, veered off the track and smashed straight through the barrier at a purported 221kph (137mph). The force of the impact was so great that it tore the Haas car in half and erupted into flames, with the fuel tank filled to full race capacity. Yet, despite it being one of the most violent and horrific crashes in recent F1 memory, Grosjean was still able to pull himself from the flaming wreckage of his car within seconds and escape the inferno, suffering only minor burns to his feet and hands. Despite early concerns that he had fractured his ribs in the impact, a medical report has subsequently found that he has thankfully suffered no such injury. In a crash that many initially feared had taken the life of the French driver (who is due to retire from the sport in just two races time), seeing him walk away from a devastating wreckage was labelled by many spectators as nothing short of a miracle. It was anything but a miracle that Grosjean survived however, because soon afterward he praised the Halo device from his hospital bed in Manama, and accredited the development as ‘the greatest thing we’ve bought to F1’. He added that ‘without it I wouldn’t be able to speak with you today’.
Spoken from the man who currently chairs the Grand Prix Drivers Association, and from somebody who himself had himself been an early critic of the Halo’s implementation, Grosjean’s assertion of the Halo’s life-saving value should have been the final, conclusive end to the debate over the Halo device: not only had it protected his head from the barrier impact, but it had not in any way hampered his escape from the burning car like some had feared.
As if more proof was even needed though, just a few laps into the race restart Lance Stroll collided with Daniil Kvyat’s front left tire (yes, again), which flipped his Racing Point completely over onto its top. Though the danger to Stroll was nowhere near as immediate as it had been for Grosjean, Stroll was able to pull himself out of the upturned car unaided. Stroll was not in any way impeded by the Halo and would not have been at any greater risk had the car caught fire like it did for Hulkenberg in a similar situation at Abu Dhabi in 2018.
In the immediate aftermath of the Bahrain Grand Prix, social media took to praising the Halo in the wake of Grosjean’s comments, and simply from seeing the necessity for the device with their own eyes. Formula One, by its very nature, is a dangerous sport. The cars travel at such mind-boggling speeds that no crash or collision can ever be entirely without risk. The Halo however was a measure which was adopted even in the face of overwhelming public backlash and mockery, yet the FIA held firm in their commitment to safety. Because of their unwillingness to compromise or back down from that commitment, at least 2 drivers now have their lives to thank for it, with many more in Formula 2, 3 and E also having also been spared great injury since the implementation of the Halo. Yes, despite teams finding increasingly creative methods of adopting the Halo into their livery designs, it’s still quite ugly. Nothing can ever be justifiably worth needless deaths however, and from today I think you would be hard-pressed to find any F1 fan that still denies the Halo’s effectiveness.
The future of the Halo
With the new F1 technical regulations coming into effect in 2022, the Halo is still very much a feature of the re-imagined designs, although now it has been more seamlessly worked into the overall shape of the car. It no longer feels like a bolted-on bit of scaffolding, but a flowing, natural extension of the overall shape and aerodynamic flow of the vehicle. The titanium bars also promise to be slightly thinner than the current variation as well, though given that these are just digital concept designs, it remains to be seen whether this thinning is actually feasible on a practical version of the car, or whether new compromises must be made in order to ensure that the new Halo does not regress in its overall protective functionality. Since 2018, the Halo has been mandatory in Formula 1, 2, 3 and E, as well as being featured in non-FIA sanctioned series such as Super Formula and the Australian S5000 Championship. From 2021, the Halo will also become mandatory in Formula 4, whilst IndyCar will continue to develop Halo designs which act as a frame for its aeroshield. It seems as though the Halo is here to stay for the foreseeable future, at least until a better, safer, more discrete alternative is discovered. F1 currently has many valid controversies: such as the carbon footprint of internal combustion and the choice to continually host races in nations that have far from exemplary human rights records. From this day onward though, the inclusion of the Halo should not rank anywhere amongst these controversies, and we should learn as fans from this example to be more willingly accepting of safety features that protect people from getting hurt in the sport we love… even if they do look a bit naff at first.
Be honest with yourself though… if they were to take away the Halos tomorrow… you’d probably think that the cars looked pretty weird without them.
Image credit: Artes Max from Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0