Formula 1 bigwigs are currently mooting the introduction of a halo cockpit for 2017, ostensibly to improve driver safety. The “urgent” need seemed to have gained ground in large part as a result of the tragic events of Suzuka 2014, under the mantra of needing to do more to protect the drivers’ head. However a halo cockpit is unlikely to have prevented the injuries suffered by Frenchman Jules Bianchi, who died last July, nine months after his Marussia collided with a recovery vehicle during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. If anything, could a halo cockpit actually increase the risk to the driver’s life in ferocious, Bianchi-style impacts?
The whitewash, two-page summary report investigating the circumstances of Bianchi’s accident had precious little to say about the presence of a recovery vehicle not designed for impact with F1 machinery on an active track. In fact, none of the published Bianchi report recommendations discussed the tractor ride-height as a contributing factor to the severity of the sustained injuries or for the matter the presence of objects non-properly designed for impact (i.e. tractors or humans) on a track when cars are running at near-racing speeds (even under double yellow flags, as per Charlie Whiting’s March 2014 technical directive).
So it is safe to assume that a copy-cat incident is in the making, e.g. a car impacting at significant speed into a tractor with a 0.5-1m ride-height, or a marshal… In fact, the seasons prior to and after the Suzuka events have featured a number of occasions where marshals have entered an active race track (sometimes even without the nominal protection of yellow flags). The 2015 Russian GP near-miss has sent cold shivers down the spine of those who still remember Kyalami 1977, prompting Sebastian Vettel to utter a sharp-tongued missive: “Now it’s clear that we have a very brave Russian running across the track.”
This is far from being an isolated example. Near-misses involving recovery vehicles are nothing new, either. The 2007 European GP (held in Nürburgring) featured Suzuka-like atrocious weather conditions. The rain-affected laps were featured by some half a dozen cars aquaplane and skid off Bianchi-style while several marshals and recovery vehicles were active on the wrong side of the barriers. It is a miracle that no tragedy occurred that day:
In light of these events it would seem that the FIA treats with a very light heart the safety concerns arising from improperly designed recovery vehicles (or humans) operating on an active track. It is thus not unreasonable to expect that a near-miss or even a full-blown impact to occur at some point in the future. How would a halo cockpit affect that?
From the only footage publicly available of the accident in Suzuka it was clear that the impact was savage! Even if Jules Bianchi’s car was travelling only at around 210 km/h, the design of the recovery vehicle meant that the driver’s head took the full impact of the accident, fully supporting the colossal weight of the tractor at one point (to the point of lifting it slightly) before the counterweight of the tractor played its part in shearing off the top of the Marussia.
Had a halo cockpit been on Bianchi’s car, would it have had the structural integrity to soften the blow or otherwise protect the driver’s head in any meaningful way? In fact, the question arises whether the halo cockpit would have been deformed towards the head of the driver, thus adding another dimension of deformation to their helmet, and potentially complicating extraction operations.
Indeed, what are the chances that in a copy-cat impact the narrow parts of the halo (the sharp edge situated in front of the driver’s head) could be wedged straight into the pilot’s helmet, à la Massa 2009? Would it make it more likely (not less) to kill the pilot on the spot?