By Anna Noble
Initial criticism of the Halo was widespread and fierce. Quite simply, it was hated. Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner decried it as an “inelegant solution”, Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff went as far as to joke that he would remove it from his cars with a chainsaw.
Even the late Niki Lauda also publicly opposed the Halo, calling it an “overreaction” and a “wrong” move, destroying the “DNA of an F1 car”. In fact, the Halo was so controversial that it was reported that in 2017, nine of the ten F1 teams had opposed its implementation for the 2018 season.
Therefore, it was perhaps no surprise that the decision by the FIA to make it a compulsory addition was met with significant backlash from fans and drivers alike. Initially Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Romain Grosjean all publicly opposed it – Grosjean went as far as to call its inclusion a “sad day for F1”. Hamilton later reversed his stance after FIA testing indicated the Halo would improve the chances of surviving an incident on track by 17%.
Nevertheless, with such great amounts of backlash, it is easy to wonder how it ever came to be compulsory on F1 cars.
There was a recognised need for greater cockpit protection. Two horrific incidents in 2009 emphasised this. Henry Surtees was fatally struck by a wheel in a Formula 2 race. Six days after Surtees’ death, Felipe Massa was hit by a spring that had come off from a different car during the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Massa was subsequently knocked unconscious and crashed into the nearby barriers. Massa survived the incident but suffered a skull fracture and was placed into an induced coma for two days. Massa was ultimately forced to sit out of the rest of the season but returned to F1 the following year.
Both incidents sparked a conversation about the need for improved safety, a conversation that was reignited following the 2015 Pocono Indycar Race. Former British F1 driver Justin Wilson was killed after being struck by flying debris.
In 2016, the Grand Prix Drivers Association requested that the FIA introduce some type of cockpit protection as soon as possible. The FIA concluded that the Halo was the best solution, backed by the empirical evidence indicating the Halo increased the chance of a good outcome from an accident by 17%.
Fast forward four years since its introduction and the Halo is almost universally hailed for saving the lives of Charles Leclerc (Belgium 2019), Grosjean (Bahrain 2020) and most recently Lewis Hamilton in Monza two weeks ago. Hamilton had once again clashed with his title rival Verstappen, the two crashed and the latter’s wheel landed on top of Hamilton’s helmet.
It is perhaps ironic that all three had initially opposed something that would later save their lives. In hindsight, it is easy to judge those who opposed the Halo. Why would they object to something that would improve safety and ultimately play a role in saving lives? Yet, at the time, the bulk of the criticism came from it being one of several options, an unproven entity and an aesthetically unpleasing one at that.
There were significant concerns about the impact of the Halo on the aesthetics of F1 cars and the popularity of the sport. Some also questioned its necessity given the improvements that had already been made to safety in F1. By the FIA’s own admission, the Halo would not have saved Jules Bianchi, the only F1 driver to be killed in the 21st century – the first since Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994.
Nevertheless, the FIA’s perceived gamble in insisting on its implementation has paid off. Horner, Wolff, Hamilton and Grosjean have all acknowledged its significance and worth, in turn hailing its successes. Even Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko, who was often viewed as one the biggest sceptics of the Halo, has now accepted its worth in contributing to “making the consequences of accidents less serious”.
It is perhaps an understatement to say the initial concept of the Halo was hated – it was quite frankly despised by all but a few. Yet, it has proved its necessity in F1 by facilitating almost miraculous escapes for drivers who otherwise would have almost certainly suffered significant injuries and likely death.
In 2021, there are few remaining critics of the Halo. Instead, it is almost universally hailed as a brilliant success of modern science and championed by those who were once its toughest critics.
Image: Jaffa the Cake via Creative Commons