How innovation has saved lives in motorsport
Formula 1. Instantly, you think of the fastest cars, the world’s greatest tracks, drivers at the top of their game, and huge risk. Combined, this makes for a great sport to watch; however, safety has always been an issue.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke about how 3D printing was now beginning to save lives. Technology and innovation are the elements helping modern-day businesses survive—something F1 knows all about. They’ve been instrumental in the development of hybrid engines—all teams have had to adopt these since 2014.
Technology developed in F1 eventually makes its way to standard production cars, but I’d like to focus on an innovation that has nothing to do with making cars faster, saving money or making more money; simply, to save lives.
It’s called the halo. It’s a large, titanium bar that goes around the driver’s head to provide extra protection. You may think this is what helmets are for. To an extent, you’d be right; however, the extra structural protection takes the driver’s body out of harm’s way in the event of a crash. Despite weighing around 6 kilos, it’s the strongest part of an F1 car and it’s capable of holding the weight of a double decker bus.
Racing at 200 mph exerts so much G-force onto the human body that drivers have to train their physiques, especially their necks, to cope. If just driving the car causes such stress to the body, imagine how dangerous an F1 crash is. F1 cars are designed to crumple and break into ‘safe’ pieces, though debris still flies everywhere. Smaller bits of debris can be deflected by the driver’s helmet, but what about larger chunks?
An F1 car with a halo above the driver
Wheels can become loose and detach from the car. This isn’t meant to happen, as another innovation has resulted in strong ropes being attached to each tyre, so that they don’t shoot off a car and become a huge hazard. Sometimes, however, the force of a crash is so intense that the wheels do become loose; in this instance, a helmet will do very little to save the driver. With the halo, the risk of any life-threatening injury from a wheel is significantly reduced. The wheel would instead bounce off the life-saving device.
It’s when a car becomes airborne that the halo really comes into its own. Should an F1 car leave the ground, there’s no roof to protect the driver. Previously, there was very little to stop a car landing on another driver’s head; now the halo takes the impact.
Surely, such an innovative, life saving device like this would’ve been welcomed into motorsport with open arms. It wasn’t, though. It was met with heavy criticism, with many fans, and even drivers, believing it would ruin the essence of F1 racing. Even F1 legend Niki Lauda criticised the halo, despite the injuries he sustained from the sport. In 1976, Lauda crashed at the Nürburgring and his car burst into flames. This left him with severe burns and damage to his lungs from the toxic gasses he inhaled. Despite the experience, he was still against the halo and the protection it offered F1 drivers.
Despite the initial backlash, the halo is now mostly accepted in the sport, thanks to the many instances in which it has saved drivers from serious injury—if not death. It recently, arguably, saved two lives in one weekend, during the 2022 British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
An F1 car without the halo, exposing the driver's head
Firstly, in Formula 2 (where younger drivers compete in the hopes of making it to F1). Dennis Hauger lost control of his car. It hit a kerb, which lifted his car into the air. It landed on top of Roy Nissany’s car. Previously, Nissany would have been lucky to come away with his life. He was shaken up, but he walked out of his car unaided.
Later in the day, it was the turn of rookie Alfa Romeo driver Zhou Guanyu. The Chinese driver was involved in a collision, which saw his car flip over. It continued travelling in this manner, through the gravel trap (designed to slow the car down, to reduce the force of the impact), before traversing over a wall of tyres into a guard fence designed to protect the crowd rather than the driver.
Watch Zhou Guanyu’s horror crash and you’ll be in no doubt as to why the halo is so important. Another high-profile case was Romain Grosjean’s dramatic crash in the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. There can be very little doubt that, without the halo on that day, Grosjean would’ve lost his life. He was involved in an incident that sent his car into a solid metal barrier. His car split in half then burst into flames. Somehow, he made it out of his car with his life. He suffered some bad burns, but nothing life threatening.
I watched the crash as it happened that day and remember thinking the worst. When you see a car collide with a solid metal barrier that’s not designed to reduce impact, at such a speed, before bursting into flames, your heart sinks. To see him get out of his car and walk through the flames was nothing short of a miracle. After these incidents, no one should be any doubt as to why motorsport requires the halo.
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