Ever since the death of the legendary Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino GP at Imola, Formula 1 has always strived to achieve ultimate driver safety, in a way it would be Ayrton’s lasting legacy after he had passed but following the tragic death of Jules Bianchi in Japan two years ago, the FIA look set to introduce a halo style head protection, but not everyone is in favour of it.
Motorsports has witnessed many sad losses due to head injuries in recent years, some who will be featured in this post such as Justin Wilson and Jules Bianchi but also others who we must remember such as Dan Wheldon, Henry Surtees and Maria De Villota.
The big focus from the FIA has been to introduce a form of head protection to avoid debris hitting the driver’s head and causing an accident, as in the case of Felipe Massa at Hungary in 2009 where a suspension spring from the Brawn GP car of fellow countryman Rubens Barichello fell off and hit Massa on the head, knocking him unconscious and sending him towards the tyre wall, Felipe was lucky to survive the incident and to return to the grid the following season.
A similar incident happened last year in IndyCar, claiming the life of British racer Justin Wilson at a race in Pocono, he was killed after a nose-cone belonging to the car of Sage Karam fell off and struck him on the head, Wilson suffered severe head injuries which eventually took his life but could they have been averted had there been a form of head protection?
I do wonder whether such measures could withstand an entire front nose cone, of course they would be designed to do this but the outcome of an accident involving debris is pretty much entirely dependent on uncontrollable issues, such as the angle of impact, speed of the car and how fast the debris travels and as well the type of debris, however I can absolutely see the reasoning for introducing it to lower the chances of fatal injury from the types of accidents Massa and Wilson both suffered.
What I cannot understand however is the connection between the tragic death of Bianchi and introducing head protection, of course Jules died of severe head injury but the fact of the matter is that he hit a tractor at high-speed, whether he had head protection or not is somewhat irrelevant because it would likely have crumpled under the forces of the impact Jules suffered, it was a freak accident and he would have survived had the tractor not been in the spot where Bianchi crashed off at, of course it highlighted the danger of racing and perhaps prompted the FIA to look into it more but I personally disagree about those who say a canopy or halo could have saved Jules.
Various suggestions for head protection had been suggested, ranging from halos to aeroscreens to full closed canopies as seen with the concept designed Red Bull X1 featured on the Playstation series Gran Turismo, although it looks quite likely that the Halo design will be the one implemented next year with teams appearing to agree on its introduction, though there is very rarely a unanimous decision between the teams and this undoubtedly will need more discussion before 2017.
I understand the need for some form of head protection but I do see drawbacks in this halo idea.
Firstly they (in their current form) look horrendous, out of all of the ideas they are perhaps the worst aesthetically, a huge part of why fans enjoy Formula 1 is the beauty of the race-cars and how they look so perfectly sculpted, so to stick a lumpy looking halo on the car really does take away from that aspect, as well as this a much more minor issue is for the viewer at home where the vast majority of F1 race footage is from onboard cameras just above the drivers head, whilst I am unsure of this at the moment the potential halo may have an impact on what viewers can see.
That is completely irrelevant however compared to what the driver can see, there have been conflicting thoughts on visibility from the cockpit, with the early tests seeming to suggest that the drivers view was not obstructed however Sebastian Vettel was somewhat sceptical of this when he tested a newer version recently at Silverstone.
A second point is how it operates in certain circumstances, for example the high-speed crash of Fernando Alonso in Melbourne saw his McLaren turn upside down, the key question is does the halo hinder a driver being able to manoeuvre their way out of a car? Or in a more serious accident whether it would slow the marshals time to extract an injured driver where seconds could be crucial in life or death? Similarly if there was a fire in the car, how quickly a driver can escape his cockpit is vital, having to wrestle with a halo in a panicked state could cause problems.
Perhaps a point not many have factored in is whilst the halo protects drivers, it throws up an added danger, imagine the scenario where a piece of debris such as a wing or a tyre hits the halo and bounces away potentially into the crowd or towards a marshals post, where and how it bounces is crucial especially in the case of a tyre it could lead to concerns for fan safety, whilst it is excellent it would save the driver from being harmed, this question does need to be raised for the fans sake.
Finally, an unlikely event but it must be said, many things are designed to be indestructible yet somehow there is always a way for something to tear or snap, I would imagine that despite the halos being built with the best materials and the highest standard that they could not guarantee absolutely that they were indestructible, which raises a major point, if it fell apart at high-speed so close to the drivers head then surely that is just as dangerous as a wing or a wheel entering the cockpit.
I feel that given the amount of drivers who have suffered seriously due to head injury and those who have passed away due to it, the FIA are absolutely right to look towards improving safety with head protection but I cannot help but feel that introducing it for 2017 would be a mistake, we need to look deeply at every single potential option with positives and negatives on each as supposed to rushing into a hasty decision.