Safety in motorsport will always be a point of contention. There will always be people who believe that danger and risk comes with the territory and people who think that death and life-changing injuries should be made preventable where possible.
With the FIA announcing the implementation of the Halo for the 2018 season, the same arguments bubbled up again. A lot of people claim they’ll stop watching F1 once it’s brought in, other people are calling for them to just go the whole hog and close the cockpits already. But generally, the concept hasn’t been well received either because it feels to reactionary and rushed or because people just don’t like change. Which is strange because it’s not like we haven’t seen this song and dance before.
It’s been common practice to implement new safety precautions after fatalities in motorsport. It’s called progress. Safety belts weren’t compulsory until 1972 after it was agreed that being flung from a car and killed was more likely than getting trapped in a car with the belts. After Ronnie Peterson’s death in 1978, they arranged for the medical car to follow behind on the first lap to allow immediate access to anyone injured in a first lap collision. A fact that could well have saved Peterson’s life. This rule was implement that same season.
After Felipe Massa’s accident in 2009, there was a tightening in the rules with regards to helmet structure in 2011 in order to prevent debris from being able to tear it apart so easily. After Jules Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka in 2014, the Virtual Safety Car was created as a way of slowing all cars down to neutralise the race while recovery vehicles are on track.
The implementation of the HANS device is probably the most significant one of recent years. A piece of equipment preventing the head from moving so much during a crash, developed back in the 1980’s; it was largely ignored by motorsport for being unnecessary and more trouble than it was worth. It took the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna for Formula 1 to start seriously testing its validity. A lot of drivers complained that it hampered their movement while driving or was just plain uncomfortable. Many opted not to use it. It was only after Dale Earnardt’s high profile death that Formula 1 made it compulsory equipment in 2003 and it then became standard across all FIA series in 2009. It’s now become a normal sight and the new generation of drivers don’t know any different.
Almost all accidents have a cause and effect. So after the tragic deaths of Justin Wilson and Henry Surtees, it was obvious that something was going to need to be produced to stop it from happening again. Although some people would argue that these kinds of accidents are part of the job.
Yes, motorsport is dangerous. Yes, I believe it should be dangerous. But I don’t believe these drivers should be killed by preventable accidents. Sure, they should get stranded in gravel traps if they make ambitious moves but they should not have to suffer severe consequences from debris striking them in the head. That’s not “racing”. That’s not “what they signed up for. It’s 2017, not the 1960’s. There is no reason for these deaths to keep happening. Thus, the Halo.
I can understand people being concerned that it feels rushed. It does feel rushed but the FIA realeased a statement that proves that there have been extensive tests carried out, making the Halo the most viable option right now. I have no doubts that the FIA and the teams will continue to develop it and work towards a better solution but for now, this is what we have and we need to be happy about it.
Which brings me to my other point. We, as fans, should really have no say in this. I am firm believer in the fans being allowed more involvement in Formula 1, having more engagement in the way things are run. But in matter pertaining to safety? I think we need to quiet down and believe that the people in the cars know what’s best. I wouldn’t go to an action movie in the cinema and then complain when an actor doesn’t do their own stunts, swearing off action movies altogether. Because I don’t know what it’s like to be in that position. They do. It says in the FIA statement that the GPDA requested ‘swift’ implementation of a device. This is the drivers’ union. Who the hell are we – sat on our sofas and in the grandstands – to tell them what’s best for them?
From a purely aesthetic point of view, no I don’t like the Halo. As someone who wants to go into photography, it’s going to make helmet-in-cockpit shots a nightmare. The shield looked like a much better solution from an outsider perspective. But when Sebastian Vettel tested it at the British Grand Prix, he claimed it made him dizzy and impaired his vision somewhat. And that’s all there is to it. The Halo might not look great but it passed plenty of tests that were thrown at it and barely impedes the drivers’ view of the track so it’s the best solution for now.
So the motorsport world needs to suck it up and accept it just like they eventually have with every other change that’s come our way over the last 67 years.