Opinion: F1 Halo debate was never about head protection

The debate around F1’s halo system was never about additional protection for drivers. It was whether halo was the end of the process writes Andy Webb.

Sunday’s shocking first lap accident at Spa has been considered a defining moment in the debate about F1s introduction of the halo. Proof – proponents of the much-maligned system claim – that the halo was needed, works and may have already saved the life of Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc. On social media at least, it has been used as something of a stick to beat those that had criticised halo prior to its introduction.

That in itself demonstrates a potentially deliberate misunderstanding of why many F1 fans were less than enthusiastic about the halo.

Safety versus maintaining the heritage of F1

It is fact that 21st-century society is increasingly unable to accept the risks inherent in open cockpit racing. The vast majority of F1 fans are part of that ‘movement’. Maintaining the heritage and purity of F1 falls far down their priority list relative to the safety of their racing heroes.

Logic dictates that the best solution for single-seater cockpits is to the close them completely. Thus mimicking the style of the sports prototypes that race in the World Endurance and IMSA championships. F1 teams like Red Bull, McLaren and Renault plus the Formula E series have produced future F1 designs that feature closed cockpits.

None of those concepts has relinquished the other hallmarks of single-seater racing like exposed suspension and wheels, slicks and wings. Proof that closed cockpits need not mark an even further departure from the tradition of F1.

The closed cockpit future of single-seater racing according to Formula E. (Image: Formula E)

So why is halo so widely disliked?

Halo ignited great animosity because it is an ugly half-way house. The prospect of this protective shield that resembles a flip-flop more than cutting-edge automotive design being the new norm for F1 design was and still is the source of anger for many.

Undoubtedly there is a section of supporters against halo on principle, irrespective of its potential safety benefits. F1 is open cockpit, always has been and always should be is still their refrain. Halo will always be an antithesis to their perspective.

They are, however, in the minority. As demonstrated by the fact fans continue to tune in to and attend F1 races in spite of its arrival this season.

Halo: the option no one really wanted

Like modern politics, the halo is effectively the compromise no one voted for. Purists hate it because it represents change and unsightly change at that. Conversely, those aware and accepting of the greater need to protect drivers are frustrated by the failure to go straight to a closed cockpit.

Alonso Grosjean F1 2018 Silverstone
Halo – not pretty but definitely effective. (Image: MotorSportNotes)

As has been highlighted extensively since the release of the first halo concept drawings, this system is not full proof. Against the weight of a McLaren-Renault F1 car, the halo was the proverbial immovable object. Against a spring travelling at over 100mph or a broken, carbon-fibre suspension strut, however, it is fate and not the halo that will decide the outcome. According to the FIA, halo would fail to offer any protection in 83% of such simulated scenarios.

Is halo here forever or just a while?

Had the FIA and F1 made it clear the halo was just the stepping stone to a more comprehensive solution, attitudes could have been much softer. Thus far it has remained unwilling to signal any future pathway after the extremely short-lived ‘shield’ windscreen concept was kyboshed by Sebastien Vettel after just a single lap at Silverstone in 2017.

Until they do so the best that can be hoped for is clever integration by individual teams. Halo will remain an eyesore and – with the notable exception of the drivers – no one will be particularly happy about it.

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