An eyesore no more: how acceptance of F1's halo saved Lewis Hamilton from potential tragedy

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Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (L) and Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen collide during the Italian Formula One Grand Prix at the Autodromo Nazionale circuit in Monza, on September 12, 2021 - AFP
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (L) and Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen collide during the Italian Formula One Grand Prix at the Autodromo Nazionale circuit in Monza, on September 12, 2021 - AFP

It is too easy to dismiss near misses in motorsport as miracles. At the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday, the halo was again called into action, helping protect Lewis Hamilton from serious injury as Max Verstappen’s Red Bull rolled over onto the top of his Mercedes. Hamilton escaped with a sore neck and a bump to the head, but it could have been far, far worse.

The injuries that the high-strength titanium-built halo has prevented in the past four seasons and lives that have been saved are not miracles. They are down to the commitment to increasing safety and ultimately valuing the lives of those who risk theirs.

The halo is the latest and most prominent example of Formula One’s drive for safety, kick-started in the Sixties by drivers like Jackie Stewart and continued in earnest since the death of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994.

Were it not for the halo, it is possible that F1 could have been facing another era of multiple tragedies.

Initial fears: 'It destroys the DNA of an F1 car'

When the halo was introduced for the 2018 season, the concept was far from universally liked. Although its aim was to improve safety by saving drivers from the very real problem of debris and potentially fatal crushes and crashes, it would fundamentally change the look of open-wheel single-seater cars at the highest level. That was a step too far for many.

Although many things had changed in F1 over the decades – rear and front wings, rear-engined cars to name just a couple – the driver’s head being exposed and visible was ever-present.

Triple world champion Niki Lauda, who knew a thing or two about dangerous crashes, was scathing, saying that the halo was the “wrong decision” that destroyed the DNA of an F1 car.

His fellow Austrian Toto Wolff was similarly negative. “I’m not impressed with the whole thing and if you give me a chainsaw I would take it off,” the Mercedes team principal said at the time.

Martin Brundle, meanwhile, said he expected that the device would “cause as many problems as it fixes” and “further hides the gladiators away”.

Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing sits in his Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer fitted with the aeroscreen in the garage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russi - Getty Images Sport
Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing sits in his Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer fitted with the aeroscreen in the garage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russi - Getty Images Sport

Before the halo was introduced in F1 – and the FIA's Formula 2 and Formula 3 series – several other proposals were tried and tested including the Red Bull’s aeroscreen and Ferrari’s shield, which attempted to solve the same problem but with a different but more sympathetic design.

Saving lives and winning over critics

It did not take too long before the halo had some serious work to do. In only the third round of the 2018 F2 season, the halo prevented serious injury to Tadasuke Makino after a collision with Nirei Fukuzumi in Catalunya. After coming together at turn three, Fukuzumi’s car's rear end rolled over Makino’s cockpit, but the enormous load was deflected by the halo.

At Spa later that season it faced another real-life examination when Fernando Alonso’s McLaren was launched over the top of Charles Leclerc’s Sauber by Nico Hülkenberg in a chaotic first corner. Again, the halo stopped Alonso’s front right wheel from hitting Leclerc’s head.

After the Leclerc-Alonso incident, it was clear that the halo’s critics were starting to change their minds. “That gave all the justification,” Wolff said. “I think the aesthetics are terrible but having saved Charles from harm and injury makes it all worth it.” As soon as these incidents happened, then came the acceptance.

Alex Peroni’s horrific airborne crash in F3 at Monza in 2019 was another where halo likely played a pivotal role, showing that its introduction was vital not just at the very top level of motorsport but at the junior levels, too.

Romain Grosjean's Haas pierced the barriers but the halo remained intact - Getty/Shutterstock
Romain Grosjean's Haas pierced the barriers but the halo remained intact - Getty/Shutterstock

Romain Grosjean’s crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2020 is remembered for it becoming an inferno and the Frenchman only just escaping from his burning car in time. But it was the halo that likely saved him from potential decapitation as his Haas car split the metal ArmCo barriers.

Of course, some of these incidents come with ifs and buts. Perhaps the roll hoop would have done its job and prevented injury too, without the halo. Maybe, but “better safe than sorry” applies here. Still, that the halo is designed to withstand 125 kiloNewtons (or 12 tonnes) of weight from above is part of why it has been so effective.

An eyesore no more

It would be difficult to find someone who, even now, thinks that the halo does not make a single-seater car look worse. But part of its success is also how easily the eye got used to it being there, despite it obscuring the view of the driver’s helmet.

As well as its universal acceptance for safety reasons – there were no calls to remove it from the newly designed 2022 cars – it has also become accepted aesthetically. Yes, more could be utilised in the way of using different colours to identify each driver now their helmets are largely obscured, but overall, it appears almost natural.

Alex Palou competes during an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, in this Sunday, July 4, 2021, file photo. Only 62 points separate Palou and four other drivers with four races remaining and Palou was dealt his third pre-race penalty before he even arrived at Gateway. Honda has pulled the engine from Palou's car for a third time this season — twice this month — before a change was permitted under IndyCar rules - AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar, File
Alex Palou competes during an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, in this Sunday, July 4, 2021, file photo. Only 62 points separate Palou and four other drivers with four races remaining and Palou was dealt his third pre-race penalty before he even arrived at Gateway. Honda has pulled the engine from Palou's car for a third time this season — twice this month — before a change was permitted under IndyCar rules - AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar, File

It is a matter of personal preference, of course, but look at the bulky and awkward looking aeroscreens on the current generation of IndyCars. Can you honestly say that you would want that on an F1 car? At least the halo looks sleek and the aerodynamic bits and bobs that teams have since added make it look more integral – it is, crucially, structurally integral – rather than bolted on.

Yet, the greatest test of the device’s aesthetic acceptance is that we now only talk about it after incidents like the one that happened at Monza on Sunday.

An unquestionable part of not just F1's but motorsport's future

When the halo was first being mooted, Hamilton was another not in favour.

“This is the worst looking mod in Formula 1 history.” He wrote. “I appreciate the quest for safety but this is Formula 1, and the way it is now is perfectly fine.”

Understandably, his views have since reversed and on Sunday he acknowledged the halo’s importance.

"Honestly, I feel very, very fortunate today. Thank God for the halo. That ultimately saved me. And saved my neck."

Unlike Hamilton, triple world champion Stewart was in favour of the halo from the off. And his comments from several years back seem especially pertinent now.

“I believe the halo should be there. Preventative medicine is considerably better than corrective medicine,” he said.

The work done in F1 since the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger 27 years ago has been enormous. But they came after two tragic and fatal accidents. Stewart has been proved right with this one.

Perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire: if the halo did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It has become an unquestionable part of F1's future, but will also become integral to every single-seater category across the world.