On the eve of the 2018 Formula 1 season, Jean Todt got fur from all over. the then FIA President passionately defended the introduction of the halo cockpit protection device — and the aesthetic change it would bring to single-seat race cars — from hardline traditionalists. The real irony, of course, was that, in reality, it was literal shelling at drivers in the danger zone that the French supremo was particularly concerned about.
Guanyu Zhou’s harrowing crash at the start of Sunday’s British Grand Prix was another win for Todt and the FIA technicians who responded to drivers’ concerns in 2015. The likes of Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel pushed for mandatory head protection, especially in the wake of Jeremy Wilson’s death in IndyCar that year and the sad death of Henry Surtees in an F2 race in 2009. Jules Bianchi also lost his battle in July 2015 after his terrible crash at the Japanese Grand Prix nine months earlier.
But there have been no fatalities in Formula 1 in the years since. to be.
While Toto Wolff remarked about the halo in the 2018 build: “If you give me a chainsaw, I’d take it off”, a few months later we saw the first instance of its very authentic functionality amid the propulsive speed and powers of a Formula 1 car.
At the start of the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, the halo played a crucial role in minimizing damage to Charles Leclerc after Fernando Alonso’s car was launched towards the Monegasque Sauber. Leclerc, then 20, avoided direct contact with Alonso’s McLaren because of the halo’s firm presence around the cockpit. Wolff had to eat his words to some extent when he said afterwards: “I think the aesthetics are terrible. But having Charles rescued from damage and injury makes it all worth it. It could have been really annoying.”
The horrific crash of Romain Grosjean into a metal barrier in Bahrain two years later was another triumph for architects of the halo. Given the dramatic fireball around the world, the 67G collision was one of the most dramatic incidents in Formula 1’s 70-year history. Yet there was no fatality. In fact, with the halo protecting the Frenchman’s head and body from coming into contact with the barrier, he rushed unaided by the fireball.
Even last season, the device contributed to the incredible title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen† Hamilton described the halo in 2016 as the “worst-looking change in Formula 1 history”, with Verstappen noting that it “misused Formula 1’s DNA”.
But when Verstappen’s Red Bull flew into the air at the first chicane in Monza, right at Hamilton’s Mercedes, the halo and hoop protected Hamilton’s head from further damage. The Briton said afterwards: “Thank God for the halo. That ultimately saved me. And saved my neck.”
This time at Silverstone, as Zhou’s Alfa Romeo stroked the gravel upside down, his head was protected from lethal contact from the ground due to the presence of the halo. Then, with the Chinese rookie hanging in his car between the safety gate and the tire barrier, he was briefly stuck in the cockpit. Caught, but safe. Remarkably again, given the bombastic violence of the crash, Zhou escaped without a break.
Hours earlier in the Formula 2 race, Dennis Hauger’s car was launched through the air from another sausage rim – a track aspect that needs to be evaluated more closely given the events of recent years – atop Roy Nissany’s car, with the halo taking the brunt was affected by the consequences.
All three drivers – Zhou, Hauger and Nissany – were shocked by the incidents, but the strength of the halo is that all three plan to race again in Austria in just four days.
By now, all critics of the halo have rightly swallowed their medicine. There can be absolutely no doubt about the rather superior protection powers of the humble device. Lives have been saved, tragedies prevented, measures justified.
Todt, now the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for road safety, tweeted in good time on Sunday: “Glad I followed my convictions in imposing the halo, despite strong opposition!”
You’re right, Jean, you’re right.