Lewis Hamilton had the halo to thank for his lucky escape in his crash with Max Verstappen at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix. Since its introduction, the halo has averted several potentially life-changing accidents and has proved itself despite its early opponents. With the benefit of hindsight, the halo was long overdue.
Safety in Formula 1 has been slowly evolving ever since the sport’s inception. Only in its third season did helmets become mandatory in 1952, and seatbelts were not compulsory until 1972. It took until 1994 to introduce a pit lane speed limit to protect the dozens of mechanics working in the pit lane, and only in 2010 was refuelling banned after Heikki Kovalainen’s loose fuel hose briefly set Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari alight.
It is only against this backdrop of late safety changes that the opposition to the halo can be understood. When this latest safety innovation was brought in for the 2018 season, fans and drivers alike felt that the halo could detract from the purity of single seater racing. Many were concerned that it could deaden the thrill resulting from the inherent risk of motorsport. Others simply felt that it was an eyesore that would also create an extra headache for the teams who had to figure out how to integrate the halo into the aerodynamic package of their car. In the three years that followed, the sport has quickly adjusted to the halo, to the point that most motorsport fans would hardly notice the halo on modern single-seater cars now.
At the 2021 Italian Grand Prix, the halo’s early opponents were proved wrong once again. As Hamilton emerged from the pits and defended his position going into the Rettifilo chicane, Verstappen, in attempting to go around the outside of his title rival, ran over the orange sausage kerb and made wheel-on-wheel contact with Hamilton, launching him into the air.
The rear of the Red Bull smashed into the engine cover of the Mercedes, with Verstappen’s rear-right tyre crushing Hamilton’s airbox before rolling forward over the cockpit, landing on the halo, and actually hitting the back Brit’s helmet as he ducked down in his seat.
The incident made for extremely uncomfortable viewing, with Hamilton fortunate to escape with only a sore neck. Without the halo, which prevented the full force of Max’s tyre from connecting with Lewis’s helmet, he could have sustained a serious head injury.
Just one such incident is sufficient to vindicate the halo’s integration into single-seater cars. However, its effectiveness has been demonstrated on several occasions since its introduction.
The clearest example of the halo’s life-saving potential can be found in Romain Grosjean’s horrific crash at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. While jostling for position, Grosjean turned across the front of Daniil Kvyat’s car, making contact with the Toro Rosso and spearing into the barrier. His Haas car went head-first into the barrier, splitting it open and piercing through its centre with the nose and then the halo, before the top of the car impacted with such violence that the rear of the car was ripped off.
Without the halo, Grosjean’s head would almost certainly have made direct contact with the barrier at well over 100mph. It is incredibly difficult to imagine someone serving such an extreme head trauma. Thanks to the halo, the Frenchman walked away with burns to his hands and ankles as his most severe physical injuries. Having initially been against the introduction of the halo, in a message posted to his Instagram, Grosjean said “Without [the halo] I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today.”
The first incident that left the entire F1 paddock grateful for the implementation of the halo was the turn 1 accident at the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix. Fernando Alonso was hit from behind by Nico Hülkenberg, launching the Spaniard over the top of Charles Leclerc’s cockpit. Alonso’s front right tyre struck Leclerc’s halo at high speed, and the subsequent FIA investigation suggested that although the tyre might have missed the Monégasque, the front wing of the McLaren would likely have made contact with Leclerc’s helmet, which could have caused a serious head injury.
The halo has been adopted beyond F1 and is being used on the vast majority of single-seater cars, from Indycar and Formula E to Formula 2 and Formula 3. When Tadasuke Makino and Nirei Fukuzumi came together during an F2 race in Barcelona in 2018, the halo protected Makino’s head as Fukuzumi’s car landed on top of his cockpit in an incident strikingly similar to Hamilton and Verstappen’s clash in Monza. Makino credited the halo with saving his life.
Now that the halo has become commonplace in single seater racing, and has demonstrated its life-saving potential, it is easy to look back at previous incidents and wonder why the halo or some other head protection was not introduced sooner.
The tragic loss of Jules Bianchi in 2015 was one of the incidents which lead people to ask if some level of head protection was necessary. The young driver eventually succumbed to the severe head injuries he had sustained at the Japanese Grand Prix nine months earlier. It is impossible to say whether or not Bianchi could have survived the impact with a halo fitted to the car, but the head protection it would provide would surely have increased his chances.
The deaths of Henry Surtees and Justin Wilson serve to underline the importance of the halo. Surtees was struck in the head by a wheel that had come loose from a car which had collided with the barrier in front of him during a Formula Two race in 2009, and would succumb to his head injuries later that day. Wilson was driving at Pocono in Indycar in 2015 when the leader crashed, with the nose cone of the car detaching and striking Wilson’s head. Wilson would pass away the following day.
Amongst these unlucky victims of such devastating accidents are countless drivers who were extremely fortunate to narrowly avoid serious head injuries. Romain Grosjean’s Lotus only just missed the helmet of Fernando Alonso when it catapulted over the cockpit of the Spaniard’s Ferrari at Spa in 2012. After Michael Schumacher spun round 180 degrees in Abu Dhabi in 2010 he was lucky to emerge unscathed when Vitantonio Liuzzi hit him head-on and climbed up the front of the seven-time world champion’s Mercedes.
When compared to the other incidents mentioned here, these two crashes, and many other similar to them, become chilling reminders of how fragile these superhuman drivers are without the proper head protection.
Safety measures in F1 will continue to evolve as does every aspect of human society, as previous practices are looked back on in horror that we ever allowed such a high level of risk. The halo has established itself as a landmark in safety, and one which will continue to protect the brave drivers who light up our sport.