In 2017, just before Halo was introduced, some Formula 1 (F1) figures called it an “overreaction”. But looking at Zhou Guanyu’s horrific accident – and how he emerged relatively unscathed – it’s hard not to praise it. Halo, essentially a crash protection system consisting of a curved bar above the driver’s head, has already saved a few lives in the dangerous world of motorsport. Here is his story.
“But it’s ugly”
Zhou Guanyu was in 9th place on the opening lap of the Silverstone race when he was accidentally hit by another driver. What ensued was a horrific crash that knocked Zhou upside down on the track and crashed over the barrier. It was an extremely tense moment and one which, ten years ago, could well have ended in a loss of life. But this time the driver did not suffer a broken bone or other serious injury.
“I’m fine, everything is clear,” Zhou tweeted. “Halo saved me today. Thank you all for your kind messages!”
As he himself admitted, Halo probably saved him. On the same day, in another race, Halo probably saved another driver. However, if some drivers had succeeded, Halo would never have installed.
Halo was introduced in 2018 and was very controversial at first, for one surprising reason: aesthetics. Lewis Hamilton, who holds a joint record of seven world championship titles, called Halo “too drastic” and the “worst” modification in Formula 1 history. “I understand that the Security is a huge issue and something we need to work on, but it’s not the one,” he said.
Other figures, including 1996 World Champion Damon Hill, also disagreed with Halo’s implementation, as did many fans. Kevin Magnussen, another driver, said: “When you look at the car and it’s ugly, F1 cars aren’t supposed to be ugly.” Max Verstappen, another pilot, said that Halo is not only ugly, but also useless. “There must be some element of risk. You can upgrade the car, but we don’t need that extra thing. It’s not just the looks, I don’t think it’s necessary,” Verstappen said.
But, as it turns out, he is necessary. Halo was not only introduced in Formula 1, but also in Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula Regional, Formula E and also Formula 4, as well as other open-wheel racing series like IndyCar Series and Indy Lights.
Shortly after its introduction, Halo had already started to make an impact. During a Formula 2 race in Spain, the first Halo season was introduced, a driver’s halo was landed by another car and the driver was saved from life-threatening damage by the system. The same thing happened soon after, in an F1 race. It wasn’t long before another such event happened, and another, and another. Crashes and accidents that could have been fatal (one such accident decapitated an F1 driver in 1974) ended without major injury.
In 2021, a serious collision occurred between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, two of Halo’s most vocal critics. Verstappen’s wheel would have landed on Hamilton’s head if not for Halo’s protection. Hamilton later said that Halo “saved my head”.
How Halo Works
The idea behind Halo is to improve driver safety by preventing large objects from entering the cockpit of the car. Since F1 has an open cockpit policy, the cockpit itself cannot be closed or covered. Hard hats can prevent some injuries, but having a frame can provide even more protection.
The system consists of a bar connected by three points to the vehicle frame. It is made of titanium, a high strength, stiff and lightweight material. According to initial studies by the FIA (F1’s governing body), the frame improves the chances of survival for drivers by 17%, while weighing only 9 kg (20 lb). The findings were backed up by another study, and now they also appear to be backed up by real-world events, where Halo is improving driver safety.
While Halo was primarily intended to protect against large objects, it was also found to provide protection against smaller debris, preventing the helmet from repeatedly coming into contact with a barrier. The system can withstand 15 times the static load of an F1 car and the impact of a 20 kg wheel at 225 km/h.
It’s a fairly simple and straightforward system, but it gets the job done.
Not the hero F1 wants, but the hero it needs
Imagine stepping out of that car above, from an open cockpit, conscious, with no fractures and no major damage. In the few years since its implementation, Halo has been put to the test many times, and it has passed with flying colors.
It is striking how strongly Formula 1, a motorsport known for its innovation and technology, opposed the introduction of this safety system. Nine out of ten factory teams opposed it. It might never have been introduced without the support of people like John Surtees.
Surtees is the only person to have won world championships on two and four wheels. His son Henry was killed in a Formula 2 race in 2009 after being hit in the head by a stray tire – something that could have been prevented by something like Halo
“I suffered the tragedy of losing Henry which certainly could have been avoided by a development like this,” he said.
A few other pilots stood up to defend Halo, before its introduction. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel had said the device could be as “ugly as possible” as long as it helped save lives. Fernando Alonso, another former world champion, also said the halo device was a “necessary” step.
“It will be the future of F1, because we cannot afford any serious injuries or fatal accidents like we have had for the last two years,” said the double world champion, referring to the fatal injuries suffered by Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson. Now that the benefits of the system have become clearer, opposition to Halo has diminished, but the fact that pilot safety has been weighed against aesthetics and “risk taking” is a bad mark for the community. F1.
Even if the risk is low, is a car’s aesthetics and perceived appeal really more important than a driver’s life?