F1: the dangerous lack of ‘halo’ criticism

F1 is turning to the halo concept in the challenge to protect drivers in open cockpit racing. Aside from a few drivers voicing concerns, MotorSportNotes considers whether the lack of open criticism of the halo concept is dangerous for F1 and open cockpit racing in general.

Simple issue, complicated solution

The fundamental issue facing open cockpit racing has always been the vulnerability of the driver’s head. Whether it is junior single seaters, IndyCar or F1 the sport has seen multiple fatalities and serious injuries. The common factor has been serious trauma to the drivers head and the need to address the situation gathered pace following the passing of Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson. The halo concept, its proponents suggest, would have helped in both accidents but it is only a partial solution.

Halo
Ferrari’s Sebastien Vettel testing the halo system during pre-season testing in Barcelona.

Halo – not a complete solution

The halo does not deal with all the risks inherent to the open cockpit. The frightening accident that almost killed Felipe Massa – where a suspension spring from the car in front struck his helmet  -would not have been prevented by the halo. The gap required to offer the driver a reasonable line of sight is too large to stop a similar component firing through at the speed of a bullet. Similarly the accident that killed Ayrton Senna – a broken suspension rod piercing his helmet above the visor – is unlikely to have been prevented by the halo.

Given the limitations of the halo system others within IndyCar and F1 – notably Red Bull in the latter case – are proposing canopy-style or screen deflector protection. Both options offer a greater degree of protection but potentially compromise on the critical strength of the material. The ability of a canopy/screen to deflect objects of all sizes and to deform under greater impacts offers advantages the halo concept can only offer across a limited area of frontal impact.

Red Bull canopy
Red Bull’s recently released cockpit screen concept.

It’s FIA-approved so just move along…

It is concerning that that the halo system appears to be attracting very little critical assessment. This may or may not be due to its FIA backing but in stark contrast, canopy concepts have come in for much criticism.

Concerns have been raised about closed canopies compromising driver extraction. Similarly questions have been raised about issues in cases of fire – toxic fumes building up within the cockpit around an unconscious driver for example. A closed canopy is not completely infallible but there does appear to be a lot more positives in the context of the ultimate objective – preventing an object striking the driver’s head. A deflector screen can offer a solution to many of the issues that plague the halo and closed canopy concepts in terms of strength, extent of protection and driver extraction.

The halo is weak in terms of extent of coverage. It is also fundamentally weak in terms of small but deadly objects at high speed. Equally there is no guarantee that a post impact, deformed halo structure would not compromise driver extraction. Consider also what would happen if debris from a leading car – a piece of bodywork perhaps – were to become lodged in the halo structure blocking driver view completely mid-race? With a canopy or deflector screen the angle of rake would at least provide some scope for the debris to be blow away from the driver’s line of sight.

A worrying lack of criticism

Those issues have, quite surprisingly, received very little discussion or critical assessment within F1, at least in terms of public discussion. That is a dangerous situation when we consider how much is being staked – the lives of drivers – on this system working.

Admittedly some form of driver head protection is better than nothing moving forward but the extent to which the canopy/deflector concepts appears to be have been written off in favour of the halo is a major concern for me. We only need look back at Fernando Alonso’s mega-shunt in Melbourne last weekend to find a scenario whereby a deformed halo structure could well have prevented the Spaniard from exiting the car under his own power.

 

Halo is not the only option

The halo is a good starting point but it should not be considered as the only option available, and most certainly should not be considered above open and comprehensive critical assessment. It would also be unwise for the FIA, F1 and open cockpit racing in general to pin all their hopes on one solution.

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