WHAT WILL race fans think of the “halo” when it encircles drivers’ heads for the first time at the season-opening Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel might have achieved sainthood, each with four world championships, but the supposed safety device might have been designed by the devil.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff says if only someone “would give me a chainsaw I would take it off”.
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, has shown it takes longer to get out of a car fitted with the halo as the flames from a potential fire leap higher.
The maximum time allowed by the FIA for a driver to leap for his life was five seconds. This was extended to seven seconds because the halo surrounding the driver made it more like pulling a cork from a bottle. Some corks get stuck.
A fire won’t wait another two seconds and, in any case, it took Bottas nearly 10 seconds to get out of the cockpit in a Mercedes test.
By this time a driver might have more than his pants singed after fighting his way free of the six-point harness and the paddle-like steering device, which also has to be detached.
Mercedes part owner and consultant Niki Lauda is also concerned about safety in the event of fire, having been trapped in a burning Ferrari after an accident at the German Grand Prix in 1976.
The scars and a missing right ear are reminders of how difficult it is for an injured driver to get out of an F1car, let alone climb through the halo hanging around his head like a piece of child’s playground equipment.
Other drivers stopped and pulled Lauda free. Getting out of a car was not always the best way of avoiding injury. When the Formula One world championship started in 1950, drivers did not wear a safety harness and many died after they were flung from their cars in an accident.
Rollover bars protect the driver, but there have been injuries from flying debris. This happened to Felipe Massa when a suspension part from another car smashed through his visor in the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009 and fractured his skull.
Henry Surtees, the son of former world champion John Surtees, died after a wheel from another car hit him in a F2 race at Brands Hatch, also in 2009.
I’ve told the story before about Lauda bending down to pick up a grizzled ear from the grass where he had his Nürburgring accident. It was a pig’s ear that had been put there as a joke.
But there is nothing amusing about the risk to drivers if they cannot extricate themselves from their car in time to escape a fire at Albert Park next month.
Toto Wolff says the frame, which unfortunately takes its name from the halo surrounding the heads of saints in early religious icons, can withstand a massive impact.
He says it could easily support the weight of a London bus, but needless to say there are no buses on the world’s racing circuits and wheels are now attached to F1 cars by cables that keep them from flying into the path of a competitor.
“You screw up the centre of gravity massively,” by putting the halo around the top of the cockpit, says Wolff. This can seriously affect a car’s handling.
Lewis Hamilton described the halo as the worst idea in the history of Formula One racing and Sebastian Vettel was just as scathing.
Williams’ chief technical officer, Paddy Lowe, thinks everyone will have forgotten the halo after Albert Park.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo thinks drivers and fans will be less aware of halo after Melbourne, but the Internet is full of warnings about safety being used as an excuse to enclose Grand Prix cars.
Driver safety was never a factor in earlier Grand Prix cars when the drivers perched high in their seats, without so much as a rudimentary safety belt. They would have been virtually decapitated in a rollover and some were.
Safety was not a factor. The Vanwall, driven by Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks, won the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1957, the first time a British car had won a world championship F1 race.
Brooks handed the car over to Moss when Moss’s car failed. Not only was it difficult for Brooks to get out of the Vanwall, which had an enveloping perspex windscreen, but Moss had to climb on to a rear wheel to be able to step down into the cockpit.
Drivers died on the Grand Prix circuits until Jackie Stewart, who was to win three world championships, made safety a priority for manufacturers when they were building their cars.
Drivers are now protected by a carbon-fibre cell, with only their helmets partly above the cockpit. These cars are not easy to exit. As well as making it more difficult for drivers to climb out in an emergency, the wishbone-shaped halo frame has a central pillar in front of the driver.
Imagine driving a 1950s sports car with a split windscreen. What might not be a distraction even when driving relatively fast may disturb a driver’s reactions at more than 300km/h.
Not all the drivers agree.
“It might sound silly, but I don’t notice it,” Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo said after testing at Silverstone last week. “Getting in the car and getting out obviously you do, but on track it seemed fine.
“I followed a couple of cars today and it seemed all right. I know it’s not that pretty, but other than that it’s fine.”
But try getting out in hurry as the flames burn higher. Fernando Alonso said the halo looked much more intrusive outside the car than it did from inside the cockpit.
“When I see the pictures I see the halo in the middle of the vision, but when driving you are focused on the long distance, you are not that focused on the middle part of the chassis,” said the McLaren driver.
“In the corners, obviously you are watching left and right of the centre pylon so it’s absolutely no problem.”
One problem that emerged was the way the halo diverted rain away from drivers’ helmets, so they could no longer tell when weather conditions had changed.
Carlos Sainz said it could become an issue when the track is getting slippery.
“When it started to rain a bit,” said Sainz at the Silverstone testing, “you could not see it on the visor. The halo was not allowing the raindrops to go on the visor.
“So, you were not really seeing if it was raining or not. You were just feeling it with your hands and your arse,” he said, referring to that part of the anatomy most likely to feel the heat.
“This kind of rain sometimes really bothers drivers because you don’t know if you can actually push 100 per cent or not, you just have to guess.
“Our visor was completely dry and outside it was raining. It was a bit tricky there.”
Driver reaction to the halo is not as universally dismissive as it was when the FIA decided the device would be introduced this season. That can be put down to drivers wanting to get on with racing and not appearing to show a lack of confidence that might transfer to the track.
Macho, macho man, I want to be a macho man, sang the Village People, who were decidedly not. Or balls to the wall, as an F1 driver once described it to me.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games.