The Halo: The next step in motorsport evolution

To say it’s such a divisive topic, it’s easy to see why the FIA decided to implement the Halo. Motorsport has been on a path towards greater safety since the 1960s, with each decade bringing with it new innovations to protect the drivers, team personnel and fans.  In Jackie Stewart’s era it was said that two thirds of drivers racing continually would die of injuries sustained from their lethal career.  The gradual introduction of seatbelts, survival cells, helmets and the safety car have created an atmosphere where no driver has to be hurt in pursuit of the sport. And when the worst does happen, shockwaves of grief are felt across the whole motorsport community. The concept of cockpit protection was first touted after the death of Henry Surtees in a Formula 2 accident in 2009. The later tragic accidents of Justin Wilson and Jules Bianchi left the FIA with no choice but to take action to protect its competitors.

With all that in mind, I hadn’t been too concerned about the prospect of the Halo. Sure, the cars will look different, but the cars change every year (2014 anteater noses anyone?) and it will be well worth it if the Halo is as effective at saving lives as the FIA say it will be. There are complaints that the Halo will further obscure drivers from view, just as back when full-face helmets were introduced there was criticism that fans were unable to see the drivers’ faces, as ridiculous as it sounds now.  It would be wonderful if the drivers’ heads were uncovered while they were racing but as we actually want our favourite drivers to live, it’s completely unrealistic. Compromises are made so that motor racing can happen. No one wants another Japan 2014, another Imola 1994. I was genuinely surprised how passionately some people dislike the device.

It’s been reported that all but one team voted against the Halo, while Romain Grosjean, director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, has been very vocal against the device. Niki Lauda has also spoken out that motorsport is losing its gladiatorial aspect with so many safety measures, which he feels is an important part of the DNA of F1.

And it’s not just the drivers- the response has been fairly negative from the fans too. In an informal poll I created on Twitter 46% of respondents felt that introducing the Halo was a bad move.  There was worry that the less-than-appealing look of the device would harm a series that relies heavily on its reputation of being sexy, with its appeal lying in its image-orientated playground for the rich and famous. The other main concern seems to be that the racing would be too sanitised with cockpit protection. Many a dramatic letter to the editor has been penned with threats to abandon the series if the FIA go ahead with plans to ‘ruin F1’ by removing all the danger from motorsport.

There are arguments that that the Halo is a knee jerk reaction, a hasty response to legal responsibility if another life-threatening accident did occur. Some feel it’s been rushed through too quickly and without rigorous enough testing and that it really isn’t the best solution to the problem.  Others wonder if it is worth risking single-seater racing’s open cockpit status for something that wouldn’t have saved either Jules Bianchi or Justin Wilson.

But the world has been reluctant to embrace safety innovations throughout history, most recently with the backlash against the introduction of the HANS device in 2003. But now, 15 years later, no one thinks twice about the equipment. In the 1960s campaigns were met with exactly the same response, with doom-mongers holding forth on how the improvements to track safety would ruin F1. What was then deemed as wrapping the drivers up in cotton wool is now seen as standard.

The Halo might not be popular, but would the FIA’s other proposals, the Shield or the Aeroscreen, have received a better reception? It’s impossible to say for certain, but I’d say no. In general, motorsport fans don’t like change. When Sebastian Vettel tested the Aeroscreen at the British Grand Prix weekend, he complained of dizziness. The trial suggests that there were plenty of flaws with this device for the sceptics to pick up on too. There is no perfect solution to driver safety, no perfect way to marry the glamorous image of motorsport with its hard truths.

But the Halo is a step in the right direction. We’ll have to wait and see just how much of a difference it actually makes in 2018. At Monza it was suggested that it could be coloured to signify the championship leader, rather like the Tour de France uses the yellow jersey.  Maybe making a feature of this unloved addition to the racing machinery is the way forward, rather than ashamedly attempting to hide it. Let’s embrace this device which has the ability to protect our heroes from loose wheels, which can save the lives of the youngsters taking their first wobbly steps out of karts. Motorsport isn’t some static concept, thought up at the dawn of the 20th century. It has its highs and its lows; its golden years and the ones you might as well forget. But it’s always changing, always evolving and if fans are so focused on one element of the sport, the noise, the danger, the past, they might miss out on a pretty great future.

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