Formula 1

The Halo/Canopy Debate: Inevitable Evolution of Safety or a Fundamental Departure from the ‘formula’ that is Formula 1? [Part 1]

Ferrari Canopy 2

Kimi Raikkonen tests a version of the halo device during 2016 pre-season testing in Barcelona.  

Red Bull has revealed the canopy design concept it believes will better address concerns over driver safety in Formula 1, and from the moment it was revealed, polarised opinions on the design and concept emerged, with some looking to compare it with Ferrari’s halo prototype trialled during pre-season testing (above); some assessing its functionality; and others calling into question the concept in its entirety. Within minutes of being shown on social media, the halo/aeroscreen concept became one of the most divisive issues ever addressed in Formula 1.

In this post, I want to take the opportunity to ask why the halo/aeroscreen concept has emerged; why this issue differs from other innovations and developments in the evolution of the Grand Prix car; address a number of issues surrounding the halo/aeroscreen designs; and what effect, if implemented, these designs could have on Formula 1.

Firstly, before any assessment of the halo/aeroscreen design can occur, we need to look at why the FIA has declared the implementation of a cockpit protection device as a priority for 2017.

Why has the issue of driver’s head protection been raised again?

Massa Crash 2009

Felipe Massa is assisted from his Ferrari following his qualifying crash in the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. The photo shows the dangers inherent in open-cockpit motor sport, and while the dangers are very real, it has been a danger present since the invention of the Grand Prix car in 1906.

Over the last seven years there have been a number of high-profile accidents that have resulted in serious and fatal injuries upon the drivers of open-wheel racing cars. In qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix Felipe Massa was struck by an errant spring which had detached from the preceding Brawn GP car of Rubens Barrichello. Despite the enormous advancements in helmet technology, the spring struck Massa around the visor area, narrowly avoiding his left eye, but leaving the Brazilian with a fractured skull. Only weeks earlier Henry Surtees was killed when struck on the helmet by an errant wheel and tyre in FIA F2, while Justin Wilson was killed by debris striking his helmet in Indycar in 2015. In addition, both Maria de Villota, and Jules Bianchi succumb to head injuries sustained while at the wheel of Formula 1 cars that impacted with objects that encroached into the cockpit-opening of their cars.

Towards the end of 2015, in response to these injuries, the FIA pushed for ideas into greater protection around the cockpit area, seeking for a device that would deflect any errant objects from striking the head of a driver. The FIA has made it clear that they seek for the new device to be implemented for the 2017 season so as to coincide with the sports new aerodynamic regulations. We now know what those devices are, but before we even assess the specific features offered by the designs, it is important to assess the argument of those that claim the halo/aeroscreen concept is a step too far, that while strictly not a closed cockpit, it violates a well-established feature that grand prix cars are an open-cockpit formula.

But isn’t the halo/aeroscreen concept just another safety device to be implemented into Formula 1 or does it sit in a unique position from any other proposed safety regulation?

Safety devices and their implementation into Formula 1

Having considered this issue, the unique nature of the halo/aeroscreen concept can be seen on four issues.

Issue 1: The risk of open-cockpit racing has always been apparent and nothing done

From the very first Grand Prix in 1906, to the present day, Grand Prix racing (‘Formula 1’ as it is now known) has always had an open cockpit. The risk to the driver as a result of this design feature has been known from day one.

Tom Pryce

The horrific death of Tom Pryce in 1977 did nothing to instigate the need/desire to test/implement a canopy device on Grand Prix cars.

It’s not hard to find examples of drivers narrowly avoiding injury from errant debris travelling across their cars (Detroit ‘84, Japan ’01). On each occasion there has been a strong awareness of the sheer luck that befalls a driver avoiding or striking any debris. But the awareness of this risk has been addressed in a number of ‘innovations’ an important word that I will revisit. Of course not every driver has been fortunate enough to avoid death in these circumstances. Welsh driver Tom Pryce was killed at the South African Grand Prix in 1977 when his car struck 19 year-old marshall Frederick Jansen van Vuuren. The marshall had run across the track to attend to the stricken car of Pryce’s teammate Renzo Zorzi. Tragically, Pryce’s helmet struck the fire extinguisher being carried by the marshall. To this day the death of Pryce and van Vuuren is one of the most horrific incidents ever to occur at a Grand Prix weekend. This was an incident that is not reduced to a number of black and white photographs showing the aftermath of the incident but, as the link above shows, was captured live on local television from multiple angles. Yet despite this, no developments or investigations were made into placing a canopy or guard across the driver cockpit. This is not to say however that safety measures have not been taken within the sport to minimise the risk to the driver, but on each occasion that an incident occurred, no decision was considered to place a structure around the drivers helmet.

 

Chief amongst the innovations to address the risks inherent in open-cockpit racing is the development in helmet construction, which has transformed from leather caps in the 50s; to hard hats in the 60s; to the evolution of the full-face helmet of the 70s through 90s; to the use of carbon composites in the 00s; to the mandatory use of the zylon strip across the drivers visor. At each stage of development, helmets have looked to improve on the inadequacies of the previous designs.

Helmets

The current Formula 1 helmet, unlike the halo/aeroscreen, is an evolution of design and technology over the history of Grand Prix racing.  

The development of materials like ‘zylon’ has enabled further safety features to be created in areas previously not possible. This can be seen in the use of wheel tethers, which ensure that wheels remain connected to the chassis of a car despite damage, in a bid to prevent them bouncing into other drivers, as well as marshals and spectators. Up until the mid 90s a device of this kind was simply not conceivable given the forces involved, in fact, the early attempts to impose wheel tethers often failed as seen in many accidents in the early 00s. Further innovation can be seen in drivers overalls which have evolved from heavy materials in the 70s and 80s to the super-thin triple layer nomex suits used today. The HANS device was designed after extensive development and research into the way a drivers head and neck could be supported in an impact, and only possible through utilising carbon composite materials previously unused in Formula 1 until the 80s. This use of composite materials has also been used to great effect with kevlar in the innovation of the fuel cell and ensured fire has become a rarity in accidents.

 

Most significantly however is the use of carbon fibre in the development of the modern safety cell/monocoque which, in conjunction with regulations imposed by the FIA, has enabled cars to withstand increased forces from all areas of the cockpit. The first use of a carbon fibre monocoque was seen with the 1981 McLaren MP4/1. However, while the safety innovations described above evolved into Formula 1 through innovation in research and development, there are some that have been imposed in a manner like that proposed by the halo/aeroscreen concept.

High cockpit sides

One area where it may be said that the sport imposed regulation on a known area of risk that had never been addressed, was the introduction of high-cockpit sides following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Eiffeland

Grand Prix cars with high cockpit sides is not new. Rolf Stommelen at the wheel of the Eiffeland during the 1972 Belgian Grand Prix.

While the decision was made to introduce high sides to the drivers cockpit, their introduction into Formula 1 is not as dramatic when you look at the history of Grand Prix car design. Rather uniquely, this is an area which actually reduced from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. For example, take the Eiffeland Formula 1 car, whose cockpit walls came half-way up the side of the drivers helmet (see right). Equally, cars from the mid-70s throughout the 80s and early 90s, came up to and beyond the bottom of a drivers helmet, and while these cockpit sides were not part of the safety cell of the car, their presence on cars was common. At the time, these increased side walls were not criticised from an aesthetic perspective, but rather on the grounds that they obstructed spectators from seeing the driver working away at the steering wheel.

1990 Leyton House

Ivan Capelli in the 1990 Leyton House March CG901. The Adrian Newey designs exposed far more of the driver than in the 80s.  

Strangely, this trend in design appears to have been reversed by Adrian Newey. Newey’s 1989-90 Leyton House March designs suddenly exposed the driver in a manner not seen for years with not only the drivers neck, but also their shoulders being visible (see left). This trend would continue with his 1991-94 Williams designs. Adrian Newey should not be criticised for this, his designs were beautifully innovative, and maximised the regulations that existed at the time. However, this trend in design did mean that when high cockpit sides were mandated for the 1996 season, the change from what had previously existed was far more dramatic than had this change been implemented five years earlier. It could therefore be argued that the introduction of high cockpit sides for the 1996 season did not come out of nowhere as is the case with the halo/aeroscreen, but was a further evolution of incorporating safety within the aerodynamic design of Grand Prix cars.

Seat belts

While most road cars were equipped with seat belts as standard by the late 1950s, Grand Prix cars were only required to be equipped with seat belts as of the 1972 season. The delay in their introduction to Grand Prix cars lies in the belief that cars of the 50s and 60s were in no way strong enough to protect a driver in the event of it over-turning. Effectively, much like in go-karting today, it was viewed as safer for a driver to be thrown clear of the car rather than to be strapped in, as was graphically displayed by Hans Hermann in the 1959 German Grand Prix. Seat belts therefore sit in that very unique area of safety innovations in that they were only introduced to Grand Prix cars once other areas of the car were sufficiently developed to ensure the driver was safer with them than without. This is not to say that seat belts have remained the same following their introduction into the sport. Like helmets, they too have undergone increasing innovation, however from the moment it was determined that they would prevent injury and save lives, they were introduced into the sport, something that many people would say has not occurred with the halo/aeroscreen concept, an issue which I seek to address below.

Nevertheless, is it in this case that the inception of the halo/aeroscreen concept lies? Are cars now considered so safe that the dangers of the canopy/halo device have now been overcome? Is this why Grand Prix cars have never sought to have the device previously?

Issue 2: The Halo/Canopy concept could have been imposed earlier

All of the developments listed above have been made possible through innovations in both materials and manufacturing, and crucially, once applicable, have been applied to the designs and manufacture of Grand Prix cars.

1968 Brabham Canopy

This is the closest Formula 1 ever got to a halo/aeroscreen. The 1968 Brabham BT24 at the Italian Grand Prix, introduced for improved aerodynamics, the design was only used in practice.

The halo/aeroscreen has not arisen from innovation. It’s creation could have been implemented far earlier in Grand Prix racing. Granted, it wouldn’t have been as safe as those we see today, but neither were any of these safety devices when first implemented in the sport. For those who would argue you couldn’t have put a canopy on cars of the 70s, and 80s, that’s right you couldn’t have, but designed with the incorporation of a halo/aeroscreen from the outset, Grand Prix cars would never have looked like that. They would’ve allowed room for a driver to escape in the event of a crash and would therefore have been much larger. Surely the absence of a roof on Grand Prix cars from their outset represents an inherent characteristic, a uniqueness/identity if you like, that is synonymous with what is considered to be a Grand Prix car?

High cockpit sides

Jean Alesi, Monaco 1996. Wide sweeping cockpit changes in 1996 never considered the implementation of a canopy as necessary, despite the available materials and obvious risk being present.  

The demand for the halo/aeroscreen has not become an adequate need as a result of modern car racing. Unlike seat belts, the halo/aeroscreen was never considered as an option that needed to be developed further, or that could be seen as needed, provided other areas of the car were developed. This is despite the fact that the dangers posed to a driver in an open cockpit were and remain blatantly obvious.

So then why was it never implemented? Why are we trialing a device made from materials that have been utilised in Formula 1 for the last 35 years, for a risk that has always been present and displayed in the most horrific circumstances in Grand Prix racing? Doesn’t the decisions that were made over more than 100 years of Grand Prix racing reflect something that is an inherent characteristic of the sport?

In the last week, numerous arguments have been made in favour for the implementation of the halo/aeroscreen device. These arguments are a welcome perspective on the debate, and should be given a great deal of respect to see whether they raise issues that override those outlined above.

The Argument for the Canopy’s Inception

In response to the new aeroscreen device, Daniel Ricciardo gave this explanation at the Russian Grand Prix on why it was now that a halo/aeroscreen device should be introduced:

“It’s different – you’re used to seeing helmets, that’s the only thing the spectator can see of the driver. But let’s see. I’ve been for it because of the safety. If it saves even one life over the course of 20 years then you’re going to take it. We’ve just got to be open to a bit of change. People will just get on with it, and if we’re all running it you’ll quickly adapt as a fan and you’ll understand.”

Rosberg 2016

Nico Rosberg has emerged as a strong supporter for the canopy/halo design to be introduced.

Ricciardo is not the only driver in favour of the device. In response to criticism of the halo/aeroscreen concept from Bernie Ecclestone, Nico Rosberg made the following comments published by Autosport on 3 May 2016:

“Every episode you can talk about in the history of the last 60 years, there has been exactly the same moaning initially, exactly the same issues with the looks changing. Just think to the cockpits being raised and not being able to see the driver anymore, things like that. We just need to accept that and hopefully the haters will get over it. Of course I respect that and understand it but I hope they get over it, as we need that and it’s the right direction.”

Rosberg said protecting the driver outside of the cockpit was the most important area to focus on.

“We need it – it’s the biggest danger zone which remains in our sport as we have seen. There have been some fatalities. It’s an area where we need to keep pushing safety. That is the area that is most important at the moment and it’s great to see things are progressing. I’m confident a solution will be found. All drivers are up for it. We’re aware it’s not ideal for the purists, and we’re purists ourselves, so we’re very well aware.”

Fernando Alonso gave the following opinion during the Russian Grand Prix:

“I think it’s a must for safety. We do not need heroes in the sport right now. We saw many incidents on many occasions in the last couple of years. Probably all the deaths that we had in Formula 1 and in junior categories came from head injuries so I think we don’t want anyone getting hurt in the future if there is a solution in place and it seems that it can be a solution so lets introduce it.” 

Firstly, Ricciardo says that the canopy is a “bit of a change”. I would whole-heartedly disagree that this is a “bit of a change” and this has been widely reflected in the extent of debate on this issue. Equally Rosberg only raises the issue of appearance as being the issue, but in this writers opinion, to suggest that the halo/aeroscreen only goes to an issue of aesthetics is also not correct. Rosberg touches on the ‘purists’ perspective but either attributes that only to the appearance of the car or doesn’t seek to address the ‘open-cockpit’ issue.

Secondly, both Ricciardo and Rosberg raise the issue of safety as the catalyst for this change. Ricciardo says that “If it [halo/aeroscreen concept] saves even one life over the course of 20 years then you’re going to take it.”, while Rosberg says “it [the open cockpit] is the biggest danger zone which remains in our sport”.

If the implementation of any regulation in Formula 1 were judged solely on its ability to save lives then where would regulations end?

For example, were Ricciardo’s reasoning to be endorsed then why not remove the engine? Okay obviously stupid. How about introducing speed limiters? Still too far? How about covering the wheels and suspension? And this is where a real problem starts. Rosberg’s comment that the open cockpit is the biggest danger zone in the sport is, with respect, obviously wrong. The willingness on the part of drivers to cry ‘safety’ with regard to the cockpit, all the while remaining silent on the open-wheel characteristic of a Grand Prix car is highly curious.

At what point does Formula 1 say that the interests of safety are a secondary consideration to the spirit of what is Grand Prix racing? In an article published online on 3 May 2016 in Autosport entitled, ‘F1 can’t keep its head in the sand on safety’, former Jordan Chief Designer Gary Anderson weighed in on the debate and made these comments in favour of the halo/aeroscreen concept being introduced:

“I’m not saying that either the halo Ferrari briefly tried or the Red Bull aeroscreen is best, or that either of them is aesthetically pleasing, but no one should just sit back and do nothing when they know there is the potential for something to be done.”

Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson has given his support to the halo/canopy concept, but his reasoning is spurious at best.

The glaring flaw in Anderson’s statement is that something has always been able to be done. For Anderson to suggest that it is only now, following the release of recent designs, that people in Formula 1 would be seen to “sit back” were they not to act, is a bit rich coming from a person who held the position of technical director at Jordan from 1992-98, after having designed the 1991 Jordan 191. Is Anderson seriously suggesting that the idea of introducing a halo/aeroscreen over the driver cockpit was not possible following the deaths of Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna? Could it not be said that he was complicit in “sitting back” by not bothering to propose the idea then? Perhaps Anderson should reflect on why he was one of many in a position of authority at the time of wide sweeping changes to cockpit safety, and did not propose a halo/aeroscreen concept back then? Could it be, as is the argument today, that the decision was not made to consider a halo/aeroscreen concept then because it is contrary to the spirit of Grand Prix racing?

To be fair to Ricciardo he appears to voice his opinion in light of the belief that the canopy is a “bit of change”, so if we are to make that concession to his comments and ignore the fact that nothing of this kind has ever been attempted, despite the capacity and awareness of it’s purpose, then that may be right, and explains the acceptance of high cockpit sides. However, and this takes us into the next issue, what if it does save a life in the course of 20 years… but what if it were to be the cause of a death as well?

Issue 3: The halo/aeroscreen creates risks previously not present

When looking at the various innovations listed above there is another area in which these developments differ from that of the halo/aeroscreen concept. Whether it be helmets, seat belts, race suits, the HANS device, the carbon fibre monocoque or increased cockpit surrounds, none of them could be said to introduce additional risk of injury to drivers. Whether you endorse the halo or aeroscreen device, it hasn’t taken long for people to point out the dangers of their designs as well.

Alonso 2016

Alonso following his crash at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix. Had the canopy been installed, the Spaniard would have been trapped in his car. Is this reason enough for the halo/canopy concept to be scrapped.

In fact it took all of 17 laps into the first race of the 2016 season for the dangers of the halo/aeroscreen device to be exposed, as Fernando Alonso came to rest upside down against the concrete wall on the exit of turn 3. Within seconds of his car coming to rest, Alonso had extricated himself from the wreckage of his car. While Alonso’s survival was a common talking point of the accident, the significance of his ability to escape his car was not lost on all present. Following the race, Sky Sports F1 UK reporter Rachel Brookes raised with Jenson Button how different things could have been for Alonso were the halo installed on the car. Button’s response can only be described as the epitome of complacency as the 2009 world champion acknowledged the genuine risk created, but then declared the impossibility of fuel spillage occurring, and concluding that the driver could remain in the cockpit.

In addition to trapping the driver in the event of a roll over, the aeroscreen device tested by Red Bull at Sochi raised further issues including the ability for a driver to clean the screen of oil, dirt, and bugs. To this, Red Bull indicated that Rain-X and a NASCAR-style tear off system would be developed. Others pointed to the effectiveness of visibility of the driver in wet weather; coping with glare in twilight races; dealing with artificial lights at night; addressing reflections off other cars; the capacity for a driver to see start lights and flag marshall posts; the visibility of other cars during the race start; the capacity of marshals to extricate the driver from the car… and on and on they go. And despite all these safety questions, despite the minimal testing of these devices, in a minimal range of circumstances, the FIA continues to advocate for the introduction of the system within seven months time.

Issue 4: No safety device introduce on a Formula 1 car has been an after thought

The final issue unique to the halo/aeroscreen concept is that its incorporation would appear to be separate form that of the regulations formulated for the season it is proposed to be introduced. The aerodynamic regulations for the 2017 season have been finalised. How can the overall effectiveness of the halo/aeroscreen concept be realised if, even in its inception, it is obviously an add-on to a Grand Prix car design. The precedent for a time frame on these decisions can be seen with the introduction of high cockpit sides for the 1996 season. They were implemented into the regulations half-way through the 1994 season, and these were regulations that didn’t attract anywhere near the safety concerns associated with the halo/aeroscreen.

Complacency amongst drivers over the effects of implementing safety devices is one thing, but when the organisation overseeing their implementation start getting complacent, embarrassment/catastrophe is not far away. The FIA have already embarrassed the sport with their complacency on implementing a revised qualifying format. Surely they will think twice before doing the same with driver safety.

How would the halo/canopy concept impact upon the appeal of Formula 1? 

[So that addresses the historic/open cockpit argument concerning this issue. In part 2 I will look to address further argument against the introduction of a halo/aeroscreen, addressing the arguments on whether the halo/aeroscreen would impact on the appeal of Formula 1.]

All constructive views and opinions on this issue are welcomed by the writer.

 

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