Ferrari and its 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen etched a tiny notch on Formula 1’s history wall during pre-season testing at Barcelona on Thursday morning, when the Finn’s Ferrari SF16-H emerged from the pits with his helmet ensconsed beneath a ‘halo’ protection system designed to protect drivers from airborne debris at high-speed.
The system was being used for the first time in public and could be implemented by regulation for 2017. Should this happen, it could signal a fundamental shift in the way grand prix cars look and, potentially, how the sport identifies itself in the future.
The issue of drivers’ head protection has been prominent for a while and became more acute with the fatal injuries suffered by Marussia Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi in the 2014 Japanese GP and former F1 racer Justin Wilson in last year’s Pocono 500 IndyCar race. The FIA, the sport’s governing body, is keen to develop cockpit protection technology and wants it implemented as soon as feasibly possible.
The device that appeared on Räikkönen’s car was similar to that Mercedes is developing with the FIA. It comprises an arrow-shaped carbon structure with a central bar in front of the driver’s line of sight and is designed to prevent large debris, such as wheels or carbonfibre parts, from entering the cockpit zone. But without some form of hardened glass or perspex, with this version the driver is still exposed to a lesser degree to contact with smaller objects
From a human perspective, it seems obvious to explore ways to make the sport safer, and there is no doubt head injuries have been the most significant factor in fatal accidents recently.
But perhaps ideologically there is an argument to suggest that a part of Formula 1’s popularity has historically been founded on the fact that these individuals operate on the edge of human endeavour, and as such sign-up to an unavoidable aspect of danger inherent. It’s an emotive view, and one I only subscribe to in part.
Two fast-moving pieces of machinery, in close proximity, can never be 100% safe. And in the heat of competition one measure of this sport’s participants’ bravery is his or her willingness to push limits further than their rivals. It’s what made legends of racers like Gilles Villeneuve, Ayrton Senna, Ronnie Peterson. Most drivers buy that, but it doesn’t mean they have a death wish, or are unafraid of this eventuality, or do not deserve protection.
On the same ideological spectrum perhaps, traditionalists who argue danger is part of the game would also counter that an F1 car should have an open canopy and uncovered wheels.
This, they would argue, is all part of the sport’s very technical premise. If you want wheel covers and windscreen wipers, go and race a Le Mans prototype…
But why does that have to be the case? There was a time in the not-too-distant past when wings were new and unacceptable, just as semi-automatic gearboxes or more fundamental driver aids like traction control were once considered alien to the theory. Now they have been accepted. So would canopies.
The really important fundamental though is to make racing as safe as it can be, while acknowledging that you cannot sterilise all the danger. And making it safer should include eliminating the potential for unnecessary catastrophe. In the case of both Bianchi and Wilson, they died because they struck foreign objects, as was Henry Surtees in his fatal accident in an Formula 2 car at Brands Hatch in 2009.
In two of those cases above those foreign objects came from a damaged rival car. Could that debris have been prevented from being loose while other cars were passing at racing speeds?
One former F1 designer, who wishes to remain unidentified, believes that more work should be put in to improving existing tether technology to prevent cars disintegrating while still deforming to absorb energy. He believes it could be as effective as introducing canopies or ‘halos’.
The halo has some way to go before it is ready to be raced. At the moment, as Nico Rosberg said on his Twitter account, it’s a bit ugly.
“With a bit of thinking, it can look cool eventually, so I'm all for it,” he said. But like most of his contempories, he believes it is absolutely the right step to take. “This would have saved those people, so it's a huge step, definitely needed.”
And in the end, he is one of 22 drivers about to step into an 800bhp, four-wheeled, petrol-powered racing car and compete over 150 miles for two hours over 21 weekends this year… and who are we to argue with his very sound logic?