In 2017, right before Halo was introduced, some leading figures from Formula 1 (F1) called it an "overreaction". But looking at the horrendous crash of Zhou Guanyu -- and how he emerged from it 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 motorsports. Here's its story.
"But it's ugly"
Zhou Guanyu was in 9th place in the opening lap of the Silverstone race when he was accidentally hit by another driver. What ensued was a horrific crash that had Zhou upside down zooming across the track and crashing over the barrier. It was an extremely tense moment and one that, ten years ago, may have well ended in a lost life. But this time, the driver didn't suffer a fracture or any other major injury.
“I’m ok, all clear,” Zhou tweeted. “Halo saved me today. Thanks everyone for your kind messages!”
As he himself acknowledged, Halo probably saved him. The same day, in another race, Halo probably saved another driver. However, if some drivers would have had their way, Halo would have never been installed.
Halo was introduced in 2018 and was very controversial at first, for a surprising reason: aesthetics. Lewis Hamilton, who holds a joint record of seven World Championship titles, called Halo "too drastic" and the "worst-looking" modification in Formula 1 history. "I understand safety is a huge issue and something we have to work towards, but this is not the one," he said.
Other leading figures, including 1996 world champion Damon Hill, also disagreed with implementing Halo, as did many fans. Kevin Magnussen, another driver, said, “When you look at the car and it is ugly, F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly.” Max Verstappen, another driver, said that Halo isn't only ugly, but also unnecessary. “There needs to be a certain element of risk. You can improve the car but we don’t need this thing on top of it. It’s not just the looks, I don’t think it is necessary," Verstappen said.
But, as it turns out, it is necessary. Halo wasn't introduced just 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.
Soon after its introduction, Halo had already started making an impact. In a Formula 2 race in Spain the first season Halo was introduced, one driver's halo was landed on by another car, and the driver was saved from potentially fatal damage by the system. The same thing happened shortly after, in an F1 race. It didn't take 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 any major injury.
In 2021, a severe collision happened between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, two of Halo's most vocal critics. Verstappen's wheel would have landed on Hamilton's head, had it not been for Halo's protection. Hamilton later said Halo "saved my neck".
How Halo works
The idea behind Halo is to improve driver safety by preventing large objects entering the car's cockpit. Since F1 has an open-cockpit policy, the cockpit itself can't be closed or covered. Crash helmets can prevent some injuries, but having a frame can offer even more protection.
The system consists of a bar that's connected by three points to the vehicle frame. It's made of titanium, a high-strength, rigid, and low-weight material. According to initial studies by the FIA (F1's governing body), the frame improves the drivers' chances of survival by 17%, while weighing only 9 kg (20 lb). The results were supported by another study, and now they also appear to be backed by real-world events, where Halo is improving driver safety.
While Halo was intended mostly to protect against large objects, it was also found to provide protection against smaller debris, preventing the helmet from coming in contact with a barrier on multiple occasions. The system can withstand 15 times the static load of an F1 car and the impact of a 20Kg wheel at 225kph.
It's a fairly simple and straightforward system, but it gets the job done.
Not the hero F1 wanted, but the hero it needs
Imagine coming out of that car above, from an open cockpit, conscious, without a fracture, and without major damage. In the few years since it was implemented, Halo was put to the test several times, and it passed with flying colors.
It's striking how much Formula 1, a motorsport known for innovation and technology, opposed the introduction of this safety system. Nine out of ten factory teams opposed it. It may have never been introduced had it not been for the support of the likes of John Surtees.
Surtees is the only person to have won World Championships on both two and four wheels. His son Henry was killed during a Formula Two race in 2009 after being struck on 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've been prevented by a development like this," he said.
A few other drivers rose in defense of Halo, before it was introduced. Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel had said the device can be as "ugly as possible" as long as it helps 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 injury or fatal accident as we had in the last two years," said the two-time world champion, referring to the fatal injuries sustained by Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson. Now, as the benefits of the system have become clearer, opposition to Halo has dwindled, but the fact that the drivers' safety was balanced against aesthetics and "risk taking" is a bad mark for the F1 community.
Even if the risk is small, are aesthetics and the perceived appeal of a car really more important than a driver's life?