Could the halo cockpit increase the risk to drivers in Bianchi-style accidents?

halo cockpit

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.

bianchi 2Had 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?

19 responses to “Could the halo cockpit increase the risk to drivers in Bianchi-style accidents?

    • There is also the snail-moving fire truck on the straight in Korea 2013 with no SC deployed which Vettel fortuitously noticed in time and slowed down, and Bianchi’s Marussia rolling down the hill and across the back straight in Nuerburgring 2013, with a tractor standing right at the edge of the track and marshals running around…

      The tractor that killed a marshal in Canada 2013 was operating at inches from the track and could easily have collected another hapless spinning car…

        • The recovery vehicle was brought forth and operated during the last few laps of the GP, while the track was active. I even recall one of the Sky commentators suggesting that they should just leave Sauber alone and finish the GP under yellow flags in that zone.

      • I was at that very spot in 2013. As soon as the car started rolling the movie in my head did too. Scared the shit out of me.

  1. As I recall, Massa was hit by a lump of Barrichello’s car which fell off and travelled, more or less horizontally, and hit Felipe’s helmet. To impact there, I doubt whether the halo would have stopped anything as the lump would have gone underneath the halo. Citing Bianchi’s (or Maria de Vilotta’s) incidents is not relevant as all parties have agreed that a halo would not have make a scrap of difference. Justin Wilson’s incident is different and perhaps a halo might have helped. However, Wilson was not driving an F1 car and Indy cars crashes do tend to be spectacular, especially when concrete walls are clouted and several car get involved resulting in much debris flying around. F1 incidents usually involve just one or two cars- Massa, Senna, Bianchi, de Vilotta. Where more cars are involved it tends to be at much lower speeds (Spa 1998…). In Bianchi’s case it was not debris but the presence of a 6 ton crane that caused the big problem. In Wilson’s case, the unprotected concrete caused the colliding car to shatter causing the debris which hit Wilson.
    The conduct and use of recovery vehicles while racing has been addressed in F1 (good!). Indy cars still allow unprotected concrete barriers at the most dangerous locations – and that is downright stupid.
    For 2017 F1 is considering a minimum weight of 722kg – in 2008 it was 595kg. Adding nearly 25% to the mass increases the energy to be dissipated in a crash considerably and that increases the danger to drivers as the energy has to go somewhere.

    • My understanding is that a cockpit halo can be expected to help in two instances: (1) if the car flips and rolls around (à la Massa in Germany 2014) the driver’s head and neck will be spared from sustaining the full weight of the car and (2) if there is a boat-sized object flying around like a loose tyre (or another car, think Spa 2012). It is unlikely to help much if at all with Massa 2009-like small projectiles flying around.

      • “My understanding is that a cockpit halo can be expected to help in two instances: (1) if the car flips and rolls around (à la Massa in Germany 2014) the driver’s head and neck will be spared from sustaining the full weight of the car”

        Your understanding is wrong 😉 For so many years, a line between the upper part of the car (the air intake) and the nose has not been allowed to intersect the area where the driver’s head would be. If the driver’s head was taking the weight and impact of the accidents, then just in recent years we would have lost (off the top of my head – no pun intended) Webber and Perez, if not more. [Webber/Kovaleinen, Perez/Maldonado].

        An inverted F1 car is pretty much not an issue these days from this point of view.

        A more important point is whether a halo would actually prevent a driver getting out of an inverted car. With fire being less of an issue these days, it’s perhaps less important – as long as the upturned driver is prepared to sit there and hope that all goes well until he is extracted …

        In the old old days, being thrown from your vehicle because you were not strapped into it actually saved lives … (mainly because they were fire traps at the time). But it just goes to show how “safety” is an evolving art: as the car’s characteristics and the technology change, so does the concept of what is considered reasonable safety measures. Perhaps this is a cycle that will always repeat – an important change to improve safety in one area only leads to more risk in another …

        • Unless the car found itself upside down (or rolling) in gravel… In that instance, depending on the actual geometry of the accident, the driver’s head may be exposed to sustaining the weight of the car, especially if the upper-side of the car has dug itself deep into the gravel. This type of accidents is one of the arguments used by those who believe removing gravel traps is improving safety… And while I’m not suggesting that this always happens, this is indeed a safety concern.

          Here’s Massa in 2014 in Germany. The car may have made its way all the way to the gravel trap upside down, or flip itself over to end up in an inverted position:

          While the severity of such accidents is debatable, a halo cockpit would likely add an additional layer of safety in such instances… Otherwise I definitely agree that MOST such security measures are at the end of the day trade-offs, and should always be discussed as such.

          Here’s Kvyat who rolls in gravel in Suzuka after hitting the tire barriers, but seems well protected by the air inlets…

          Here’s Kubica in Canada 2007, with half a nose the car still seems to protect the driver’s head well enough when it chooses to flip:

  2. Bigwigs pls note….motor sport is dangerous!! It say so on the damn entry ticket….however with that said the drivers and fans should be protected from themselves and others and the powers that be have a duty of care to the little people. The incident involving Jules (not an accident but a cluster f#@k of bad decisions) could have been provented if they had followed their own rules and so could many of the previous incidents but there will always be a Murphy’s chance of the unknown glitch. These band aids that keep getting placed are just a ACE(arse covering exercise) and as mentioned in the well wrote article, the halo in MHO would have only made matters worst. We can make our sport safe by removing the driver, limit the fans to TV viewers only and run the whole thing in a steel tunnel but this is not what we want. The drivers want an element of measured risk,the fans want to feel the atmosphere of a race so there will always be a chance of injury but it’s up to the higher powers to keep a check on what is an acceptable risk…and there is the word…acceptable,the thing that will make our sport safer is another word..accountable.someone,somewhere needs to be held responsible for the safety of our sport and sadly in this as we have seen its lacking.

  3. That thing, the halo, is ugly and stupid, if they want to go for closed cockpits fine, but do it right. Bianchi’s accident and all those close calls and others all happened for a simple reason: corruption. For Charlie Whiting is more important to keep the races fluid to please his master Ecclestone than enforcing the rules.

  4. Absolutely spot on about the FIA whitewash. But one thing we do know about the collision itself is that the helmet *glanced off* the steel counterweight of the crane. It wasn’t even cracked. As the photo shows, the car didn’t end up under the crane. It was deflected sideways, by 2m according to the FIA. So if a halo had been in place, it seems reasonable to think that the deflection would have been slightly greater, and the head contact and resulting brain injury would have been less.

    • Maybe the photo is from an angle that makes things more confusing. Perhaps this angle is better:

      Either way, the top of the Marussia was completely wiped off, and the tractor made a half-car-length jump (~2m, I guess) and something like 0.5m up. This couldn’t have happened unless the car went at least partly under the tractor, i.e. the impact wasn’t simply sideways.

      You can see the extent of the damage to the car here:

      • I agree the car went under the counterweight @landroni, and the roll hoop was engaged and ripped off. The helmet wasn’t broken though, so it must have glanced off, down and to the right, otherwise it would have been destroyed. FIA said the car stopped in 4.xx metres and moved 2 metres to the right.

        So a halo would have increased that rightwards deflected movement a little, don’t you think? And pushed the car down a bit more? It was pure acceleration that produced the diffuse axonal injury, and Bianchi lived for a year, so even a small reduction in the degree of engagement of the helmet could have made the difference. That’s how I look at it anyway.

        • Perhaps it would. However the actual accident geometry could have been a couple centimetres to the right with more of a scare than a tragedy, or a couple of centimetres to the left with a broken skull on the spot… I shiver when I look at what happened to the air inlet, and Bianchi’s head could just as easily found itself in that path… Or the tractor landing onto the driver instead of the rear tires. It could also have been two metres to the left, ripping the hapless marshal to pieces (before taking… err… head-on the tractor with no possibility of deflecting anywhere)…

          My point being: If the FIA is half-serious about avoiding Bianchi-style accidents, a halo cockpit may or may not help in some instances. But making sure that tractors (and humans) are not operating on an active track, on skidding trajectories, with cars travelling at near-racing speeds, is mandatory. Alternatively, making sure recovery vehicles are designed to withstand impact with single seaters. Otherwise, the source of systemic risk is not being addressed, while Monsieur Todt keeps eating caviar for breakfast in Place de la Concorde.

          • Oh I agree 100% @landroni, the halo is not an answer to the problem of cranes trackside, as a concept. Just in that particular case it might have been a benefit. I too thought it was a disgrace the way the FIA panel dismissed the crane’s presence in runoff after an aquaplaning off, and the lack of underrun protection. They were so intent on dodging the blame they avoided learning anything.

            Even a very, very slow impact could be fatal with things the way they are. I don’t know why they can’t just use a rope, sometimes.

  5. There is a certain amount of unavoidable risk in this sport; I am all for taking reasonable steps towards safety but I do not see this being a solution to a collision the likes of the one sustained by the late Jules Bianchi. As far as a potential for additional extraction time, this would seem the case in most deformations.

    If one wishes to avoid high speed collisions with recovery vehicles, the solution needs to be with recovery vehicle employment or the entry speed into the area. Had the recovery vehicle not been there and the car of JB had perhaps sheered off the limbs of one of the marshals, would the proposed solution then be to armor the legs of the marshals?

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