Halo could be most effective method yet devised to reduce F1’s appeal

Richard Williams
Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari in testing, with the halo protecting the cockpit. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

As grand prix drivers go, Tony Brooks was one of the best produced by Britain. He was also among the bravest of the brave, at a time when the sport was at its most dangerous and he could expect to lose friends and rivals almost every week.

When his BRM overturned and burst into flames after hitting a bank at full speed at Silverstone in 1956, he was fortunate to be thrown out of the cockpit and escape with nothing worse than a broken jaw. A year later he was lying trapped under his Aston Martin at Le Mans when a glancing blow from a passing Porsche allowed him to wriggle free, at the cost of severe cuts and bruises. Undeterred, he went on to win world championship grands prix at the world’s fastest road circuits – Spa, Monza and Reims – against drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss.

Ten years ago, long before anyone had even dreamed of the halo, I asked him about the differences between racing in his era, when the trackside hazards included ditches, trees and telegraph poles, and today. His reply was succinct and striking.

“It’s just not the same challenge,” he said. “I’m not against the idea of safety. But in becoming so safe, it’s become a totally different sport. It’s like comparing a tightrope walker in a circus with a safety net with a tightrope walker crossing a ravine, above a great big drop.”

Today’s downhill skiers and motorbike racers have airbags inside their suits. Batsmen have helmets and padding. And now, as those on Sunday who tune in to the season-opening Australian Grand Prix will discover, Formula One drivers have a halo to protect their heads. Some fans have shuddered at the sight of what looks like a bit of carbon fibre and titanium scaffolding plonked on top of the cockpit of each car. Others have shrugged. The drivers have been similarly divided, although most of them have been making noises of diplomatic acquiescence to the new reality.

Max Verstappen and Nico Hülkenberg are unafraid to say they hate it. Lewis Hamilton doesn’t like the way it looks but claims that by halfway through the season we’ll be so used to it that last year’s cars will look old-fashioned. Maybe he’s right. But the halo asks some bigger questions than that. Questions about danger, about acceptable risk, about the motives for participating in a sport and for watching it.

For whom do tightrope walkers and racing drivers perform? Is it for themselves, as a way of testing their courage and skill while receiving a massive adrenaline rush, or for the audience, whose admiration rises in proportion to the degree of risk? And at what point do the participants and the spectators need to be protected from the possible consequences?

Fernando Alonso in the 2018 McLaren. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

After Lorenzo Bandini suffered fatal burns at Monaco in 1967, straw bales were no longer used as safety barriers in F1. When Ayrton Senna’s helmet was pierced by a snapped suspension arm at Imola in 1994, the mandatory height of cockpit sides was raised. Like the introduction of safety belts and flameproof overalls in the 1960s, these were sensible precautions that did not change the nature of the sport. The halo, however, is different.

In the view of Fernando Alonso, the fact that it is a safety device means “there should not be any debate” over what is probably the most controversial single technical change ever made to the sport. Jean Todt, the president of the world governing body, the FIA, sanctioned its introduction, perhaps fearful of lawsuits that might have followed fatal accidents in the future, had the device been rejected.

The halo was accepted by F1 even as teams in the US equivalent, the IndyCar series, were testing a transparent wraparound aeroscreen that is potentially more effective at warding off stray flying objects – such as the spring from Rubens Barrichello’s car that fractured Felipe Massa’s skull in 2009 – and aesthetically far more pleasing.

“Ugly” was how Kevin Magnussen described the halo during pre-season testing, before going on to express more ominous reservations. “It’s difficult to get into the car, difficult to get out of the car, difficult to get the steering wheel on and off, just awkward and annoying,” the Haas driver said. There was also the question of the central pillar obstructing the driver’s view. “It distracts your eye when you change direction like in a chicane and you have to move your vision across the pillar,” he said, adding that at places such as Spa’s Eau Rouge and Austin’s Turn One, which feature sharp elevation changes, the halo’s rim could block the sight of an incident ahead.

Anything that consistently limits a driver’s field of vision and potentially impedes his exit after a crash is surely a bad idea, even when its intention is to guard against an accident such as the one in which a detached wheel took the life of Henry Surtees in a Formula Two race at Brands Hatch almost a decade ago. But most fatal accidents are freakish, to some degree; a halo would not have prevented the head injury that took Jules Bianchi’s life after an accident at Suzuka in 2014, for example.

Some sports were devised to be dangerous. Limiting the danger to suit changing attitudes and modern sensibilities is fine as long as the measures taken do not devalue a sport so profoundly that its meaning disappears. At a time when F1 is struggling to hold on to a dwindling audience, the halo could be the most effective method yet devised to reduce its appeal. If racing drivers aren’t doing something dangerous, then what’s the point of them?