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Two separate incidents at Silverstone on Sunday could have resulted in very different outcomes had the F1 Halo not been introduced five years ago.
Two drivers were able to walk away from terrifying incidents during Sunday’s racing action at Silverstone, very much owing life and limb to the never-ending push for safer cars which the FIA has made the most important facet of its ethos towards single-seater racing.
While the negatives of the push for safety have resulted in ever-weightier machines, it is a small price to pay when you consider Zhou Guanyu and Roy Nissany have both been able to reunite with their families unscathed after their terrifying incidents on Sunday.
Nissany, racing recklessly against Dennis Hauger during Sunday morning’s Formula 2 race, pushed Hauger off the track as the pair approached the Vale corner. Hauger slid through the gravel and was vaulted through the air when he drove over a sausage kerb, his car making direct impact with the side of Nissany’s car – at head height. Replays clearly showed the Halo cockpit safety device did its job in protecting Nissany’s head as it deflected the weight of an F2 car, full of forward momentum, up and into the air – a tremendous amount of force that the safety device coped with perfectly.
Just hours later, the Halo proved invaluable again during Zhou Guanyu’s incident at Turn 1 at the start of the F1 race. Sliding upside down through the gravel, Zhou was saved from serious injury – or worse – by the Halo acting as his last defence against the barriers after his roll hoop had failed during the initial impact.
Taken for precautionary checks, Zhou was back in the paddock by the end of the race and acknowledged his life had been spared by the improvements made to safety in the last few seasons.
“It was a big crash and I’m glad I’m okay,” he said.
“The marshals and the medical team at the track were fantastic with their quick response and I also owe my thanks to the FIA and Formula 1 for all the work they have done, and they keep doing, to improve the safety of our cars. The Halo saved me today and it goes to show every step we take in improving our cars has real, valuable results.”
While the governing body has come in for heavy criticism in recent months, credit must be paid where it is due and it was a particularly determined then-president Jean Todt who mandated the use of the Halo in F1 five years ago – going up against a sport that simply did not want it at the time.
Following the tragic deaths of Henry Surtees at Brands Hatch in Formula 2 in 2009, Justin Wilson at Pocono in IndyCar in 2015 and Jules Bianchi’s passing months after his 2014 Suzuka crash, both IndyCar and the FIA began evaluating the options for better head protection for drivers. While IndyCar pursued the Aeroscreen (developed by Red Bull Technologies), the FIA chose to go down the route of the Halo for their single-seater series and led the way on writing them into the regulations.
Of course, there was backlash against it, and plenty. Fans decried it as ‘ugly’, the drivers bemoaned it as unnecessary and when the FIA announced the Halo would be mandatory from 2018 onwards, it set off the usual overly-dramatic cries of ‘never watching F1 again’ that any sort of change results in.
One of the biggest naysayers was Romain Grosjean, a particularly strong voice given his then-position as head of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. His opinion was: “We don’t need anything for this. I’m against all of them – the Halo, the Shield [Aeroscreen], whatever, it’s just not F1. The Shield is just as bad as the Halo.”
Undeterred, Todt and the FIA pushed through with it. Introduced for the 2018 season, the Halo became part of the integral design of the cars rather than an add-on and after a short period of adjustment, became effectively invisible. To the extent where, nowadays, watching an F1 race from pre-2018 makes the driver’s head look incredibly vulnerable, and the cars naked.
Curiously, given F1 had gone for so long without any fatalities or debilitating injuries, it is astonishing just how many incidents have happened since 2018 to underline the importance of its introduction. There have been numerous crashes over those five years where the Halo has come into its own, with the best example from the first season being at the start of the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix when Charles Leclerc’s Sauber took a huge impact from Fernando Alonso‘s McLaren.
As the negativity surrounding the Halo began to die down, it took until 2020 for the cockpit protection device to finally ensure there was simply no argument to be had against it anymore. The 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix was marred by Grosjean’s horrific accident which, to this day, remains his last moments in an F1 car having switched to IndyCar after that season.
While the flames and fire left an indelible mark on Grosjean and the hearts of everyone who watched that day, it was the imprint of the Halo on the barriers that showed F1 just how fortunate it had been. Without the Halo in place, or had the crash occurred at the 2017 Bahrain GP instead of the 2020 edition, Grosjean’s helmet would have taken the face-on impact with the barriers. He would have died in similar, and horrific, circumstances to Francois Cevert at Watkins Glen in 1973, or Helmut Koinigg in 1974.
Zhou and Nissany are simply the latest names to be added to the ever-growing list that, in an alternative timeline, would not have walked away from their crashes. But there are still lessons to be learned and more improvements to be found. For instance, the investigation into Grosjean’s crash resulted in the FIA introducing even more stringent fire tests for the drivers’ race suits and gloves.
The new standards forced race suit manufacturers to ensure complete flame resistance at a temperature of 250 degrees for a minimum of 12 seconds. This is almost double the time that was required under the FIA’s old standard of 2020.
The next item on the FIA’s agenda is likely to be that of roll hoop strength, given Alfa Romeo’s unique design failed completely in the Zhou accident. Ironically, it was the same team that led to a rule change regarding roll hoop strength 22 years ago. In 1999, Sauber’s Pedro Diniz walked away with a stiff neck after a first-lap crash at the Nurburgring, in which his C18’s roll hoop failed during its lateral impact with the ground. It resulted in an unofficial rule change to double the roll hoop strength for the 2000 season.
Article 13.3.1 of the 2022 Technical Regulations outlines the roll structure of the cars must withstand “a load equivalent to 60kN laterally, 70kN longitudinally in a rearward direction and 105kN vertically, applied to the top of the structure through a rigid flat pad which is 200mm in diameter and perpendicular to the loading axis”.
While Zhou’s C42 passed this FIA test, the failure of the structure at Silverstone is likely to result in an FIA response to ensure even stronger standards going forward.
There are also the ongoing question marks about sausage kerbs – a direct contributor to Nissany and Hauger’s collision and also the catalyst behind Alex Peroni’s terrifying F3 crash at Monza in 2019 , another driver saved by the Halo when he landed upside down on the tyre barriers.
There is a saying in aviation that regulations for aircraft and flying have been “written in blood”, and this is equally true of motorsport.
The collective knowledge of more than 70 years of Formula 1, along with the 52 driver fatalities in those years, have given the drivers of today, and the rescue and safety teams, the best possible opportunities and equipment to survive almost all foreseen circumstances.
Indeed, Grosjean’s stance on the Halo was, unsurprisingly, completely changed after returning to his wife and children after Bahrain: “I wasn’t for the Halo some years ago but I think it’s the greatest thing we’ve brought to Formula 1 – without it, I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today.”
Carlos Sainz was also effusive in praise for the FIA after seeing Zhou emerge unscathed from his Alfa Romeo: “It was incredible, the crash. The fact he came out of it, I don’t know, it’s crazy.
“We sometimes criticise the FIA but in these cases, you need to give it to them how much they have been helping us.
“If you see the crash this morning in F2 [Nissany], what happened with the Halo, today, they have saved probably two lives. We need to give it to them, the amazing work they are doing in safety.
“I feel so happy to be racing in Formula 1, in an era when we are pushing each other at higher than 300kph like you saw today, racing. You cannot imagine the speeds we are doing in the high-speed and taking directions, fighting for position, and knowing you can do that safely, or within a safety window. I thank them for this because I just feel it’s great to do it. And I love this sport for that.”
On a weekend when F1 again benefited from the “luck” the FIA have engineered into the sport, let’s be grateful for the efforts and research from countless individuals, as well as the late Professor Sid Watkins, the late Charlie Whiting, Bernie Ecclestone, and the FIA organisation as a whole.
For the FIA, this weekend is another small victory but one that should not trigger complacency. Hard work has been done, but it is only getting started.
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