Driver safety a priority over aesthetics in Formula One

Adam Rylance, Contributing writer

Since 1950, fans of Formula One have marveled at the high speeds, cutting-edge technology, and hugely talented drivers. However, in the early years of the sport, drivers placed a significant risk upon their lives every time they entered the race track. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, numerous drivers were killed each year, with minimal safety improvements made during the time period. A number of tragedies triggered an abundance of major changes to eliminate the possibility of competitors losing their lives.

These developments served their purpose for the next 20 years. Multiple drivers survived heavy crashes, which would have been fatal without the safety improvements. For many years, fans and drivers believed the age of fatal crashes in F1 had come to an end.

This all changed on October 5, 2014. Rising star Jules Bianchi lost control of his car during a race, and crashed into a recovery truck picking up another crashed vehicle. The truck was level with the car’s cockpit, meaning Bianchi’s head was the point of impact at well over 100mph. He remained in a coma for many months following the incident, before succumbing to his injuries in July 2015.

The tragedy of Bianchi’s head-injury led the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) to investigate head protection in the open-cockpit sport of Formula One. Multiple concepts were presented: a curved glass “shield” in front of the cockpit, a front roll cage, and a carbon fiber ring and pylon above and in front of the cockpit, among others. In July 2017, it was confirmed that the carbon fiber ring and pylon known as the “halo” would be mandated in 2018.

The announcement of the halo induced an outrage from fans and those involved in the sport. Intense debates and arguments began. The hash-tag, ‘#****halo’ began trending on social media. Some fans claimed they would never watch F1 racing again, and that the sport was now ruined. Others reasoned that driver safety should be prioritized, regardless of the aesthetics of Formula One cars.

Many have argued that the new feature is ugly, and damages the cars’ visual appeal. Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton stated that the 2017 season-finale would be “the last time F1 cars look good.” Former driver and world champion Niki Lauda echoed Hamilton’s concerns, suggesting that “the introduction of the Halo risks destroying the DNA of Formula One, which has featured open cockpits since the inaugural championship event in 1950.”

As painful as it may be to have such a drastic and hideous-looking change introduced to an open-cockpit sport, driver safety holds a higher importance. The safety benefits of having a carbon fiber skeleton surrounding the car’s cockpit outweigh the hindrance. Simply put, it is not worth having one or more drivers lose their lives in order to have slightly more visually attractive cars.

The impact of the halo on drivers’ visibility has been another primary concern. As the halo is composed of a ring just above the driver and a narrow vertical pylon directly in the front of the cockpit, it does impose a certain level of restriction to a driver’s view. Some feared that the ring would interfere at tracks with drastic elevation change. Many voiced concern over the effect of the pylon on driver’s vision looking forward. However, the unease has been refuted by drivers who have tested prototypes. Driver Nico Rosberg reported to ESPN, “No problem at all, you don’t even notice the top part.” Nico Hulkenberg is also among those who have tested the halo, and reiterated, “I have to say visibility wasn’t too bad. I don’t think it was a big issue but certainly it will take time to get used to.” At first, drivers may find it irritating that they need to look around a vertical column directly in their line of vision. However it won’t take long for the obstruction to become subconscious, and won’t be noticed by drivers while competing.

One of the early criticisms aimed at the halo was the time taken for driver extrication. In the event of a crash, a driver needs to be able to exit his or her car in a short amount, especially if the vehicle ignites. Critics emphasized concern over the additional amount of time taken for a driver to exit a halo-equipped car, as well as the difficulty of getting out of a car which had rolled over. The FIA has responded by conducting numerous extrication tests, and reported that they have all produced positive results. The initial apprehension is reasonable, but it is proven that drivers can still exit their cars quickly in the event of an accident.

It may be ugly, and it has been met with a livid response by many. However, the halo may just be the modification that saves the lives of future crash victims in Formula One. There will always be those who argue that F1 is no longer “pure” as a result of the halo, and that drivers should “just accept the risk.” Despite the backlash, nothing should get in the way of driver safety. Human lives are more important than the “purity” of a sport. Many tragedies that haunt the past of F1 could easily have been prevented with today’s technology. The halo could be the most important step to never suffering another fatality in the pinnacle of motorsport. In time, fans and drivers alike will come to realize the impact and significance of the halo in Formula One.