With the first few races of the much-anticipated 2018 Formula 1 season already behind us, the topic on everyone’s lips — apart from the success of Vettel and Ricciardo and the lack-luster start by Hamilton — is the introduction of the new halo cockpit safety bar. It has split opinions; for some, it is a long overdue driver protection measure while for others, it is both ugly and unnecessary. So, does it help or hinder, and do the stars think halo is heaven or hell?
There are three significant issues with the halo: weight, airflow and line of sight. Of these, weight has been by far the most challenging. Even though it is made from lightweight titanium, the full halo bar and fittings weigh in at between 10 and 14 kilos, making the car top heavy and challenging designers to maintain stability. “It is much too heavy”, complained Toto Wolff, executive director of Mercedes F1 to ESPN. “It feels alien. I’d like to saw it off!”
The minimum car weight, however, has only increased by six kilos, leaving designers searching for weight savings elsewhere, and drivers spending even more time in the gym trying to shed kilos of their weight. Inevitably, there is some concern that safety in other areas may end up being compromised to save weight.
Another concern is that the chunky metal bar in the center of the halo will disrupt airflow into the intakes behind the driver’s head. This has led to several inventive add-ons, from fins to wings, which leave some halos looking like a teenage hot rod. McLaren has gone for fins and Toro Rosso use fairing on top and a fin beneath while Haas goes for the wildest of them all with a row of teeth across the top of the halo that looks prehistoric.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of all is the line of sight, not only for the drivers looking out but also for the spectators looking in. For drivers, there are concerns about the crossbar blocking the view ahead on steeply sloping tracks, such as Spa-Francorchamps. However, Nico Rosberg used the system at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2016 and said it was “no problem at all”. Others question whether the crossbar of the halo will obstruct the driver’s view of the starting lights, costing valuable seconds at the most crucial part of the race.
A clear, curved screen was tested last year as an alternative to the bulky halo, but instead of making things clearer, it left tester Sebastian Vettel feeling dizzy from the visual distortions of the shield.
Of course, no one knows the impact that the sidebars of the halo will have on driver interaction on the track because no one quite knows what goes on out there. The psychology of F1 racing lies somewhere between the strategy of chess and the mind games of poker, and while there are countless books about poker psychology, no one has yet broken the silence on how to out-psych your rivals on the circuit. What goes on out on the track, stays out on the track.
The changes in visibility for the fans have not gone down well in some quarters. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, commentator Jack Nicholls said that his love for Formula 1 was “because I can see the drivers. People think it is about the cars, but ultimately, it is about the people. Being able to see them is the connection you have as a fan”. Former Renault F1 driver Jolyon Palmer agrees, saying that the halo “loses the human aspect” for motor racing fans. Both the driver and commentator also agreed that the halo was ugly and unnecessary. Richard Williams, writing in The Guardian, went even further, describing the halo as “the most effective method yet devised to reduce Formula 1’s appeal.”
Whatever the different opinions, the halo is compulsory for the current season and probably here to stay in Formula 1. Naturally, it will be refined and perfected, but sadly, the raw thrills of open cockpit racing have come to an end, with many people predicting that a fully enclosed cockpit is now inevitable in the fullness of time.