A brief insight into the Halo, and how we came to love it
The 2020 Bahrain GP will not go down in F1 history for Hamilton’s umpteenth victory, Albon’s second podium or Bottas’ horrible performance, but thanks to the (technological) miracle that saved Romain Grosjean’s life. Sure enough, a few corners after the start, the French driver steered recklessly to his right on the straight, colliding with the inculpable Kvyat. What could have resulted in a classic first-lap incident immediately became a major concern for all F1 fans when Romain’s car violently crashed into the guardrail and exploded in a huge ball of fire, a sight extremely unusual and unnerving in modern day F1. I myself, and I suppose anyone who was watching the race, thought that I had just witnessed Grosjean’s painful and undeserved death. However, he was able to get out of his burnt and still flaming car on his own, only suffering from minor burns on his hands and a bruised ankle. As stated before, this miracle could not have occurred without the many improvements in the safety that an F1 car has gone through in order to safeguard the drivers’ life, and especially the sturdy and nigh-indestructible survival cell (which stayed intact in spite of the tremendous impact) and the most-recently-introduced (and also discussed/disliked) HALO, which in turn prevented Romain’s head from hitting directly the upper section of the guardrail (mind you, the car went straight through it, so such an impact would have been surely fatal).
As mentioned above, the Halo introduction was not of the easiest kind, as many past and present drivers (including Niki Lauda and, quite ironically, Grosjean himself) belittled it claiming that it was detrimental to the essence of racing cars and could potentially be a hindrance to the drivers’ vision. Moreover, Formula One fans were not very pleased by its aesthetics and the fact that it was against the idea of F1 race cars being open-cockpit, something that had distinguished them from the very beginning. However, the FIA could not afford not to implement the Halo, after what happened to the late lamented Jules Bianchi. As we all remember, during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, the young French driver slid on the extremely wet circuit and went off the track, hitting at a pretty high velocity a tractor crane that was lifting Sutil’s car. The force of the impact was such that Bianchi fell into a coma from which he never woke up, dying almost a year later. If the Halo system would have been implemented at the time of said disgrace, maybe Bianchi would still be among us, perhaps even racing for Ferrari, as he was meant to be. However, the Halo was there in 2018 when Charles Leclerc, the Ferrari driver, needed it. Sure enough, during the first few feet of the 2018 Belgium GP, an unrequested reenactment of the infamous Grosjean-induced accident (2012 Belgian GP) sent Fernando Alonso’s car over Leclerc’s cockpit. If the Halo hadn’t been there, the Monegasque pilot would have been certainly hit by the former’s rear tyre, and the resulting impact could have been devastating.
The Halo itself is composed of a titanium bar weighing approximately 14 kilos that surrounds the cockpit (hence its name) and is attached to the chassis in three different points. Its production is assigned to three FIA-approved external manufacturers and its specification are the same for every team. Derived from a Mercedes project, the Halo has been designed to respond to three specific scenarios: a two-vehicle collision, a barrier-vehicle collision and a vehicle-debris collision. However, as in the first two cases the validity of the protection ensured by the Halo has been positively proven (as seen in the previous two paragraphs of this article), in the last case the protection seems to have remained on paper, since in the last races many drivers (amusingly, even Grosjean) have claimed to have been hit on their hands by a flying piece of gravel. That should not be a surprise since the connecting rods are not the thick, otherwise they would be a serious visual impairment during the race. A more gravel-protecting device could have been the Aeroscreen, an alternative safety system proposed by Red Bull and conceptually similar to an aircraft canopy. The FIA did not think much of it, but after the drivers’ furious backlash against the introduction of the Halo, they decide to give the Aeroscreen a shot. However, after Sebastian Vettel tested it during the free practice of the 2017 British Gran Prix, it was immediately discarded as the German ace complained of distorted and blurred vision that prevented him from driving normally. The Halo is not an F1 exclusive, since every driving class under the aegis of the FIA has implemented it, ranging from Formula 2 and 3 to even Formula E. The Halo system was also adopted by IndyCar as a framing device for their own cars.
In the end, we can safely say that the Halo did not have the fans and drivers approval. It was firstly rejected and later begrudgingly accepted even before it could show its critics how well it could protect the drivers’ life. Luckily, the FIA stood their ground and forced its use, without which at least two people would not still be driving. Maybe it is not the best solution aesthetically, and perhaps there could even better ones in terms of safety, but when it comes to life-or-death situations, the appearance and the what if’s count for nothing. All that matters is that the Halo saves lives and whether you now love it or hate it, there’s no doubt now that the Halo is here to stay and will undoubtedly save many more drivers lives.
Posted by John Holmes