As Formula One looks for ways to make the sport a safer place, the debate around the introduction of frontal head protection – AKA, the HALO – in 2018 rolls on. Craig Scarborough weighs in on the subject, breaking down the features of the device and offering an explanation as to why the design remains controversial amongst F1 purists.
Safety has always been paramount in F1. Improvements introduced to the top tier of motorsport invariably trickle down to junior categories and even road cars. From helmets to seat belts, fire protection to crash protection, all have contributed to make racing safer in recent years.
But the pursuit of safety never ends, and the FIA has been diligent not to become complacent and slow down its efforts. With this, the issue of driver head protection has become the latest target for improvement. Likely to be introduced into the sport in 2018, the much-talked about HALO is the latest concept being trialled in F1 – although it continues to prove controversial with drivers and fans alike.
Safety innovations following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, as well as other serious crashes in 1994, proved a catalyst for improvement at the time.
And though F1 has since reduced the risk of major petrol fires and injuries from hard impacts with other cars and barriers, there remains the vulnerability around the driver head area.
Indeed, ever since the mid-nineties, head protection has increasingly been seen as the primary focus for future safety solutions.
One early development during this period came in response to Karl Wendlinger’s Monaco side impact shunt – also in 1994 – which saw the mandatory introduction of a standard headrest around the cockpit, which softened the impact of the helmet against the cockpit in the event of lateral impact.
And though many incidents have since been attributed to freak or one-off causes, it was widely determined that a common outcome was indeed driver head injury, caused by the driver’s head being struck by debris, trackside objects or other cars.
As such, head protection continues to be a priority for the sport to this day.
And it is with that backdrop that the sport’s governing body – the FIA – put out requests for possible solutions to protect the driver in the event of an object approaching the cockpit at head height. Many ideas were put forward, each with differing levels of resolution. These ranged from a fighter-jet style cockpit canopy and a pop up protective panel, to Red Bull’s innovative aero-screen concept.
Each of these gave lesser or greater protection, in a range of likely scenarios. Each has its merits and each also has issues around implementation, not least as F1 has always been seen as an open cockpit formula.
One solution put forward came from an engineer within Mercedes, albeit this was not a formal Mercedes proposal.
Termed the HALO, due to the circular hoop protecting the driver’s head, the idea gained traction within the realms of the FIA’s Safety Institute.
Tests were conducted, whereby a wheel was fired at the structure at high speed, to test its integrity and ability to deflect the wheel, and early results were positive.
The HALO was born. Though, these days, the device is technically referred to as ‘frontal head protection’.
Whilst other solutions provided protection, they came with installation issues and required extended development to make them viable solutions. The HALO, however, with its structural simplicity and lack of major installation issues, saw the FIA continue down the road of investigation.
As far as implementation is concerned, the HALO appeared to be a relatively straightforward option: A tubular metal hoop sits above the cockpit, which mounts the rear of the cockpit opening and connects to the front roll hoop with a single vertical strut.
The bulk of trepidation towards the HALO comes on two grounds: aesthetics and purism.
It’s true that F1 is in essence – and history – an open-cockpit and open-wheeled sport. Yet, it is also true that drivers have been tucked away inside a high-sided cockpit for over twenty years now, so not much can be seen of them from trackside currently, anyway. Some would argue that a HALO solution might even provide the opportunity to place an on-board camera over the driver to better see them at work?
Aesthetics are certainly a more argued issue. The HALO clearly isn’t a work of beauty, but current F1 cars are far from the most attractive cars in the sport’s history. This may become the cost of improved safety. And with the HALO being tested with different colours and liveries, their shape may well become disguised somewhat by careful design.
So just how safe is the HALO?
No doubt, the design provides a greater level of protection to the driver – firstly from above, in rollover situations, and also from debris entering the cockpit from ahead. And though the solution does not prevent every scenario, it is the first step in the FIA’s ongoing work in this department.
Initial FIA tests have shown that the HALO currently deflects some 17% of objects. Large objects approaching the cockpit from ahead or above would be deflected by the structure. Smaller objects coming from ahead, such as the spring that hit Felipe Massa in 2009, would less certainly be deflected. This is the trade-off of having a frontal support strut not being joined by a windscreen.
Ultimately, this still leaves scope for the driver being struck by something – once again showing that the HALO is a compromise and a first workable solution, rather than a finite resolve.
One particular issue cited as a weakness of the HALO concept is cockpit exit times, either in terms of outright exit speed or exiting when the car is inverted.
From above, the HALO is wider than the cockpit opening, and therefore would allow the driver to escape in the event of a fire, for example.
In addition, the HALO structure is not permanently fixed. Instead, it uses removable pins, and is not designed to swing open to allow access. Rather, marshals could unpin the structure should the driver need extended treatment in the cockpit following an accident.
With the HALO fitted, tests require that a driver needs to complete an exit from a seated position, with the steering wheel fitted, in just five seconds. I have seen the drivers try this with the HALO, and they all have met the FIA target. Although one modification may be the lighting gantry hanging above the car inside the garage, which nowadays is often too low to allow the driver to exit the cockpit due to having to climb out over the higher cockpit structure.
Crucially, the driver is also expected to be able to extricate themselves from the car when inverted after a crash. Currently, the high cockpit sides and height mismatch between the front rear roll hoops makes this tricky. Indeed, the lack of structure above the driver means that, on soft ground, the car could dig in to reduce the space to exit, or even put pressure on a trapped driver’s head.
Depending on the exact position of the car, it’s fair to say that having the HALO installed may make inverted exits more tricky. Certainly, with the car completely upside down and resting on the HALO, exit would require external assistance – though without the risk of digging in, as with the current roll hoop layout.
Another concern surrounding the HALO is that the structure could crumple in a rollover accident and either block the driver’s exit, or injure them.
Because the HALO is made from roll structure-style tubing, and will be subject to significant crash tests, the likelihood of it failing in this way would only be at the point where the current roll protection also failed. In other words, the HALO is unlikely to make such a situation worse.
With major fires these days rarer than head injuries, and systems in place to ensure that a car resting inverted would soon be attended to by trackside marshals, FIA Technical Director Charlie Whiting is evidently not concerned. The risks perceived around the HALO itself are no longer major safety fears for the FIA. Certainly, the risk of head injuries is deemed far greater.
Driver visibility is perhaps the most significant remaining factor in the debate around the HALO. The device presents an obstructed view in two ways: Firstly, via the vertical supporting strut and, secondly, via the front upper section of the hoop.
While being described as ‘weird’ by some drivers during testing, most felt that the HALO would be something that they could get used to.
Drivers are split in their opinion on this. The strut in the MkIII version of the HALO is slimmer – and the upper hoop higher – than it was in the initial design, thereby somewhat improving the visibility situation.
Visibility of markers on track when lapping, and being able to clearly see start lights at the beginning of a race, have been cited as particular concerns on this front. With lights being relatively high up, there may in future require some changes to the light system, perhaps by placing multiple lights along the grid.
Despite the concerns, as we now stand, the FIA will introduce frontal cockpit head protection into F1 for 2018. However, this does not automatically mean it will be the HALO. Indeed, another alternative could be introduced. Neither does it mean the HALO is F1’s long-term solution to cockpit protection.
Nonetheless, it is likely that the HALO will be the preferred solution, both as far as the start of 2018 is concerned, as well as for a few years after that – at least while further development goes into windscreen style additions to a frontal protective structure.
In preparation, the teams are all taking it in turns to test dummy HALO devices in free practice at races, as a means to receive and provide feedback from drivers and engineers. Such a move has allowed us to get used to the look of the HALO, and for the drivers to familiarise themselves with having a structure over their heads when driving. This testing will go on into the next season and potentially further changes and refinement will go into improving its design ahead 2018.
It may not yet be perfect, but improvements will continue to be made. For now, the HALO represents a feasible innovation in the safety of the sport, which may well save lives in time.