FIA safety director Laurent Mekies says the controversial halo cockpit protection device is now ready and it is up to Formula 1’s stakeholders to decide if the device is right for the championship.
The halo structure was extensively tested at F1 events throughout the 2016 season and was originally slated to be included in the 2017 regulations before the F1 Strategy Group voted to postpone its introduction by a year.
There is an intense debate about F1, an open-cockpit series, introducing such a large structure that would further enclose the driver, but the FIA’s research has shown that it significantly reduces the risk of a driver getting hurt.
Many people feel it is not aesthetically pleasing and puts the drivers even further away from spectators, while others feel the safety benefits outweigh any problems with image. After the device’s introduction was delayed by a year, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel said that he didn’t “think there’s anything really that justifies death.”
Mekies, who is also the general manager for research at the Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety and is the deputy race director for F1, confirmed that the scientific research into the benefits and potential risks of halo had been completed. He explained that it was now up to the various parties at the top level of the championship to decide if it will be formally adopted for 2018 or if another, better looking solution, was preferred.
Speaking at the Motorsport Safety Fund’s Watkins Lecture at the Autosport International Show, which was attended by JA on F1, Mekies said: “The engineering work is done, somebody needs to decide if its right for F1 or not, if it is compatible with the DNA [of the sport].
“Its net safety benefit is established. After that we accept that F1 is not a closed car [so] is it right for F1? It’s for somebody [else] to answer your questions, which is very much the stakeholders that have to look at these aspects because if the sport is about [entertainment and aesthetics], then why move it away from that? That is what these guys are discussing quite intensely right now.
“So as far as the engineering and safety side of things, we have done all of the work with the medical [teams], the extrication [process]. So now there is I think more philosophical discussions happening between the stakeholders of the sport – the drivers, the FIA, the teams – to understand is that right for F1 and single seaters or do we need something slightly different?”
When asked about the current status of the halo device, Mekies explained that the FIA had received feedback from all of the drivers and teams that tried the structure last season and confirmed that it was still “on-track” to be introduced in 2018.
He said: “All the drivers tried it, all the teams tried it [and] we had reasonably good feedback for such a big change for the drivers.
“It’s still on-track for 2018 deployment, but I’m sure you will hear a lot more philosophical discussions coming. As far as the engineering work is concerned, for the aero, for the safety, the work is completed.”
If F1 does decide to use the halo at all times from the 2018 season, Mekies confirmed that the other FIA single seater series would incorporate the structure when they introduce their next new generation of cars.
He said: “If F1 presses the button of deploying halo, every FIA single seater will get it at the next new car introduction because you need such a strong chassis and cockpit to support the halo. For the Formula 4 case, the next Formula 4 is planned for 2020.”
Mekies was also asked if the alternatives to halo, such as a canopy or Red Bull’s aeroscreen, were no longer being considered for F1, but he explained that while those options still needed more research, they had not been abandoned.
He said: “[The canopy idea] is not dead. Technically it’s possible [and] it’s maybe six or nine months away, if we wanted to do that. We are waiting for the final word from our bosses to know if they want the halo, if they want the canopy, if they want something in between, [or] if they want something more aesthetically pleasing. So everything is on the table [and] there is nothing we consider impossible right now.”
With the safety benefit of halo established by the FIA – the research has shown it is 17 per cent better at stopping smaller objects hitting a driver’s helmet – the sport’s stakeholders, including the governing body, FOM, the teams and drivers, now have to decide if it is in the best interest of F1 to adopt the device.
If the structure is not confirmed once F1’s rules for 2018 have been firmly established, its introduction would have to be voted through, although the FIA can force its place in the regulations on safety grounds.
Alonso-like escape not hindered by halo
Mekies also used his talk to present the Global Institute’s other research projects – which include a solution to stop barriers bouncing back onto cars, as was the case with Carlos Sainz’s accident in Russia in 2015 – and he explained how it analyses accidents.
During that discussion he revealed that after analysing Fernando Alonso’s accident at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix, the FIA believes that in such a scenario – where a car comes to rest on its side or upside down – the halo device actually makes it easier for drivers to climb out of the car. But he also stressed that the preferred method of extrication in such accidents was for marshals to right a car before the driver gets out or is helped out.
“We look at the potential risk with halo [and] we took pretty much every single accident that somebody could remember from the last ten years and we played the ‘what if’ scenario with the halo,” he said.
“We did it with that one and the main question with that one is that you can see how the car landed and [also] ‘what’s happening if the guy wants to come out?’ The answer is in two parts.
“The first part is [that] the standard procedure is that the marshals get the car back on its wheels. We accept that if the guy feels good, he will never wait for that, he will try to go out. It’s not a great idea because of the cars with the electrical system in it so we prefer them to wait but we understand [if they don’t want to wait].
“So what we did is that we put one of our chassis’ upside down with the halo [fitted]. We put [Global Institute research consultant] Andy Mellor into it and we asked him to come out exactly [like Alonso], and he did. So we feel that in that case the halo actually creates breathing space for the driver.
“It’s not obvious, but because the car would normally rest on its rollhoop, the halo actually creates space. It stands out [and] creates space to come out. So if anything it was not any worse.”
Mekies also explained that after seeing Mellor’s attempts to escape an upside-down chassis with the halo attached, the F1 drivers had asked to practice such a scenario for themselves.
“When we showed that to the F1 drivers, while they were not impressed by Andy’s speed to get out, besides that, they actually asked to try it,” he said. “They said ‘can we all try before the halo is introduced because one day [when] we are in that situation we actually get that training.’ So it is something we will do.”
What do you make of the great halo debate? Do you think F1’s stakeholders should approve its introduction for 2018 or vote against it? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion.