Ever since the tragic deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, safety has been one of the key considerations when it comes to determining the rules and regulations concerning the cars and the circuits. Long gone are the days when death was just accepted as an inherent risk of the sport.
As a result of the FIA's new focus on safety, Formula 1 has only seen the death of one other driver in the years since Senna and Ratzenberger's passing. There have been numerous changes made to the cars over the years to make them safer, with one of the newest and most noticeable changes being the addition of the halo device.
Today, we'll be talking all about the Formula 1 halo, as well as the general history of safety in the sport.
The halo is one of many safety devices that have been added to Formula 1 cars over the years. It's also one of the newest safety devices to be added to a Formula 1 car, and one of the most distinctive as well.
The halo was first introduced in 2018 as a compulsory safety feature for Formula 1 cars. It's also a mandatory safety feature in several other open-wheel racing series, including Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula 4, Formula E, the IndyCar series, the Super Formula series, and the S5000 series.
Essentially, the halo is just a protective barrier designed to prevent large objects from entering the cockpit area. The halo consists of a semi-circular crossbar that surrounds the driver's head, with a support pillar that attaches to the car in front of the driver. The halo is made from titanium and weighs about 9 kg on its own.
When the inclusion of the halo on all future Formula 1 cars was first announced, it generated a lot of controversy among fans and drivers alike. The late, great Niki Lauda declared that the halo "distorted the essence of racing cars", and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen went so far as to say that the halo "abused the DNA of Formula 1".
Specifically, the common complaints were that the halo made the cars uglier, that it would obstruct the vision of the drivers inside, that it could prevent drivers from escaping their cars easily in the event of a crash, and that it went against the very concept of open-cockpit racing.
That being said, the halo also received plenty of support; former driver Jackie Stewart compared the halo to seat belts, which were another example of safety technology that received a lot of resistance at first but were eventually accepted into the vehicular mainstream.
In practice, there have already been a few instances where the halo has demonstrably shown to have prevented serious injuries among drivers. One of these incidents involved a collision between Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso, where Alonso's car was rear-ended by Nico Hülkenberg and sent flying on top of Leclerc's car.
Thanks to the halo, however, Leclerc didn't receive any injuries despite having another car literally on top of him. Leclerc later credited the halo specifically for likely saving his life, and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, despite originally being critical of the halo, said that despite its "terrible aesthetics" it was very much worth having the halo in place.
More recently, the halo saved the life of Romain Grosjean after he crashed into the barriers during the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. His car passed between two sections of the barrier, with the halo deflecting the top part of the barrier from hitting his head. Despite the presence of the halo and the fact that the car was on fire, Grosjean managed to climb out mostly unassisted.
Formula 1 will always be somewhat of an unsafe sport, simply due to the fact that the cars are capable of reaching such high speeds. Having said that, the sport is currently the safest it's even been, thanks to the introduction of various safety devices over the decades.
It's taken quite a while for us to get to this point, however. For example, helmets weren't even mandatory for the first two years of the sport. Even when they were introduced in 1952, the first Formula 1 helmets were open-face and didn't actually offer drivers all that much protection in the event of a crash. It took quite a while after that for full-face helmets to catch on.
The next big safety regulation to be put in place was the requirement of all drivers to wear fire-resistant race suits. Prior to 1963, drivers were allowed to wear basically whatever they wanted to a race. After 1963, it was required that all drivers wear overalls, and in 1975, this rule was expanded to specify that the overalls had to be fire-resistant.
In 1981, the survival cell was the next safety feature to be added to Formula 1 cars. Also known as the monocoque, the survival cell is the part of the car the driver sits in. The survival cell is designed to be the toughest, most durable part of the car, and is made from carbon fiber with a layer of Kevlar.
The safety car is another important safety feature that has been a part of all races since 1993. The purpose of the safety car is to ensure that all drivers stick to a safe speed in the event that something makes travelling at full speed unsafe. These days, a "virtual safety car" is often used in place of an actual safety car.
In 2003, the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device was introduced and its use made mandatory. The HANS device is essentially a brace that limits how far a driver can move their head and neck, which can prevent injuries in the event of a high-speed crash.
Aside from the halo, the other safety device introduced in 2018 was biometric gloves for drivers. These gloves contain sensors that measure a driver's pulse and oxygen levels, which can give medical teams more information about the state of a driver right away if they are involved in a crash.