Change and evolution have never been the easiest of human adjustments to make, even when it is glaringly obvious that change is needed. However, the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix will go down in motorsport history as a race in which our capacity to change and advance saved the life of a driver.
On the opening lap of the race, French driver Romain Grosjean’s Haas pierced the barriers at 137mph then immediately burst into flames. In the shocking scenes which followed, 34 year-old Grosjean was able to withstand the 53G impact and crawl free from the fiery inferno. Despite Grosjean’s miracle escape, thoughts have once again turned to the importance of safety in Formula One, focusing on one advancement in particular – The Halo.
In 1974, during the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Austrian driver, Helmuth Koinigg, who was making only his second start in Formula 1, suffered suspension failure and crashed (at a relatively low speed) into the Armco barriers. Koinigg should have escaped the accident relatively unharmed, however as was standard at the time, the armco barrier was secured incorrectly therefore as Koinigg’s Surtees collided with the barrier, the armco buckled, decapitating Koinigg in the process.
A year before Koinigg’s death, French driver, Francois Cevert, had also lost his life in a similar fatal crash at Watkins Glen. In 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, three time world champion, the great Ayton Senna similarly lost his life in a fatal accident, whilst (in more recent years) others like Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have been lucky to escape from horrific accidents. Over the years, 52 drivers have lost their lives during Formula 1 grand Prix’s with Jules Bianchi in 2015 the most recent fatality.
Safety has always been an evolving and ever-present discussion in Formula 1, but no one feature has drawn so much debate and disagreement like the halo after its introduction in 2017.
In modern motorsport, cockpit protection and ‘the survival cell’ of a race car are usually considered key to ensuring driver safety. In 2009, two particular events shed a spotlight on the fundamental importance of cockpit protection. During a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch, 18 year old rising star Henry Surtees lost his life after a wheel from fellow driver Jack Clarke broke free and collided with the head of the promising young driver.
Six days later, during qualifying for the Formula One Hungarian Grand Prix, Felipe Massa was knocked unconscious after a loose spring from the car of Rubens Barrichello collided with his helmet. After losing consciousness, the Brazilian drivers Ferrari smashed head-on into the tyre barrier causing life threatening injuries. Massa’s survival was hailed as a miracle.
Following these two ghastly incidents, F1 stakeholders and the FIA were plunged into discussions surrounding motorsport safety and by 2015, would find themselves stunned when French driver Jules Bianchi tragically lost his life following severe injuries sustained during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
Bianchi, who was hotly backed as the next Ferrari young talent, collided with a recovery vehicle during the closing stages of the race as torrential weather conditions caused concerns from both teams and drivers. Bianchi’s tragic and premature death aged only 25, would prove the catalyst for significant change within the world of motorsport.
Enter the Halo…
The Halo was one of three propositions that was tabled in 2015 to improve safety, alongside the Red Bull-developed aero-screen, and the FIA-developed shield. The Halo emerged as the most effective choice in the case of three specific sequences of events:
1 – The event of a driver-driver collision.
2 – The event of a driver-environment collision, such as hitting armco or other barriers.
3 – The event of a driver-debris collision, similar to the accident of Felipe Massa.
These three scenarios were identified as the most common in Formula One when it came to serious and fatal accidents. During initial testing, the impacts dealt by all three scenarios were significantly lessened by the introduction of the halo and survival cell.
The Halo proved less of a hindrance than the Red Bull developed aero- screen and did not impair a drivers vision. Despite this, most drivers and team bosses complained about the design of the Halo and how much it took away from the traditional aesthetics of a Formula One car. Amongst the critics were Lewis Hamilton, Toto Wolff and a certain Romain Grosjean all of whom voiced their disapproval for the innovation.
What is the halo?
The Halo is a three-legged titanium structure that is fitted onto the cockpit across the front of the driver’s line of vision and surrounding the driver’s head. The curved frame weighs nine kilograms after the original steel frame was substituted for a significantly stronger titanium one. In testing, titanium proved to be very light yet very durable with the three-legged design reinforcing the protection offered by the frame.
By 2018, The halo passed all tests and was shown to increase the survival rate of drivers in serious accidents by 17%.
Back in the paddock
Back in the paddock, drivers and team principals had concerns surrounding the inevitable introduction of the Halo. For most, the main concern centered around the fear that The Halo would obstruct a driver’s vision. However, after tests the protective frame caused far less obstruction than its shape would seem to suggest. Despite this, not everyone bought into the halo, but in 2018 during the Belgian Grand Prix, the Halo would start silencing its critics.
In the opening stages of the race at Spa, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren became airborne after coming in contact with Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault, the airborne Mclaren flew over the circuit skimming the top of Charles Leclerc’s Alfa Romeo. Leclerc’s halo absorbed the brunt of the impact and allowed the Monegasque to escape from the accident uninjured.
Despite the Halo’s show of strength, it wasn’t until last week, at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix that the debate around the Halo finally ceased. Dr Ian Roberts, the FIA medical delegate and the doctor to drag Romain Grosjean from the flames, strongly believes that the Halo (and the survival cell), played a key role in saving Grosjean from what could have been a fatal accident.
Grosjean himself retracted his earlier criticisms of the Halo whilst thanking the Bianchi family as Grosjean believes that without the death of Jules Bianchi, the Halo would have never been introduced.
Although it has taken nearly three years, the Halo has finally silenced its critics.
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