FIA Needs to Build Consensus for Halo Protection on Formula 1 Cars

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2016

Sebastian Vettel tests the new cockpit halo.
Sebastian Vettel tests the new cockpit halo.ERIC ALONSO/Getty Images

During the final week of Formula One pre-season testing, Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen briefly debuted a prototype of the halo cockpit protection being proposed for 2017.

F1 driver Jules Bianchi and IndyCar's Justin Wilson both died from head injuries last year, leading to a push for better head protection. Still, some drivers—including reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton—spoke out against the halo after seeing it on the track.

The last thing F1 needs right now is more public bickering over regulations, like we have seen over the introduction of V6 hybrid engines in 2014. Whether the drivers, fans or commentators like it or not, additional cockpit protection seems a foregone conclusion, based on recent FIA press releases.

If that is the case, someone—preferably the FIA, the sport's governing body—needs to take a more visible leadership role to champion the halo concept and build consensus among the drivers.

Kimi Raikkonen tests the halo in Barcelona.
Kimi Raikkonen tests the halo in Barcelona.Getty Images/Getty Images

Otherwise, we will continue to see the sniping that occurred at the tests in Barcelona.

"You can't sterilise the sport," said Nico Hulkenberg, according to Autosport's Lawrence Barretto and Ben Anderson. "There needs to be an element of danger—I think in a way that's sexy and attractive and it's also what Formula 1 needs."

But Daniel Ricciardo fired back, per Motorsport.com's Jamie Klein, saying the halo, "doesn't change the sport, or the speed of the car—it's just if there are any flying objects, it's an extra bit of protection for us.

"I don't know why he's puffing his chest out for something like that, it doesn't make sense."

The halo is ugly, but Ricciardo is right. The speed of the cars will not change because of the halo, and speed is where F1's risk should come from—not from random tyres or car parts flying down the track.

Over more than 100 years of grand prix racing history, drivers have slowly become more and more enclosed in the cockpit as safety has improved. The halo, or whatever additional protection is ultimately adopted, is only the logical next step.

Drivers were very exposed in the early days of the sport.
Drivers were very exposed in the early days of the sport.STF/Getty Images

In recent years, only drivers' helmets have been visible outside the car and have become one of the easiest ways to differentiate between team-mates (that's why the FIA introduced a rule forcing drivers to keep the same helmet design for an entire season). Unfortunately, the halo will further obscure the drivers—but it would be even more unfortunate if another driver were killed by a head injury that could have been prevented.

"If it is going to come in I hope we have an option to use it or not because I will not be using it on my car," Hamilton said, according to ESPN F1's Nate Saunders and Laurence Edmondson. "I hope that's not what they're bringing, I really do. Ultimately it's the driver's protection so we should have a choice individually."

That comment sounds eerily like NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt's rejection of the HANS device shortly before his death from the very injury the device was designed to protect against.

As former F1 medical rescue coordinator Gary Hartstein pointed out in the aftermath of Bianchi's accident, drivers cannot necessarily be trusted to make the best decisions for their own safety. They have spent their lives training to race as quickly as possible, so it is understandable that they would have a negative reaction to anything they might view as a threat to their ability to perform at their peak.

If the FIA determines that additional cockpit protection is necessary and that it will save lives—rather than just being a superficial fix in the face of recent tragedies—then it must be mandatory for all drivers, whether they like it or not.

The argument, "but the cars have always had open cockpits—we've always done it that way," does not stand up. If decisions on F1 regulations were made because "we've always done it that way," we'd still have front-engined cars, no seatbelts and cloth driving caps.

The cars look better without the halo, but nothing looks worse for the sport than a dead driver. In the end, that is what must drive the decision on cockpit protection—whether it will save lives—rather than race car aesthetics.

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