Formula 1 Halo: Life-saving technology
F1 fans were treated to a thrilling race last weekend with the British Grand Prix. But, for all the dramatic overtakes and frantic final laps, many will reflect gratefully on what, fortunately, didn’t happen. The race was delayed for an hour after a spectacular crash at the first corner when Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu (JO GWAN-YOO) was flipped upside down onto the tarmac and span into - and over - the barriers at nearly 200mph. James Tytko spoke with science journalist Kit Chapman to find out how Guanyu came out of the incident unscathed…
Kit - When you go round a track at 195 miles per hour, there is of course an element of risk. There has been since the early days of formula one. But since the 1990s, in particular the death of Ayrton Senna, safety has become a major priority. There have been countless accidents where people have learnt, they've improved the cars and they've made them safer.
James - It's quite unfathomable for someone like me, who doesn't watch that much F1, to get my head around how someone comes out of a crash like that. And I think the term that was officially used to pronounce his state was 'uninjured.'
Kit - Absolutely. So Zhou was completely uninjured in the crash and that's for several different reasons. When you look at the design of a formula one car, what you've got is the monocoque, which is where the cockpit, where the driver is sitting, and that is designed around a crush zone. So that crush zone will dissipate energy when there's an impact. That's why the tyres end up twisted and bent around. Behind them, in the fuel tank, that's protected by kevlar and so it's very unlikely you're going to get a sort of spectacular fireball. Then, if you look at the actual design around the cockpit, you've got this roll bar, which basically is designed to protect the driver if the car does flip around. But of course the most important part is the halo, and this is a titanium beam that is just above the cockpit, and that is able to withstand the impact of 15 cars on top of it. And that is really what saved Zhou's life. Even if you have a perfect situation with your car and all the crumpling happens exactly where you need it to be, your halo works, your roll bars work, you're still suffering a huge amount of G force. Now 1 G is normal for us, six G is what you get on a roller coaster - this could be an impact of 60 to 80 G, which is huge. And that normally would be fatal for humans. They'll suffer what's called a basilar skull fracture, which is basically the bottom of your neck, your skull, fracturing and snapping. And so drivers also use something called the Hans device. It's basically a yoke that goes over your shoulder, and then there's a tether that attaches to your helmet and that prevents your neck from snapping forward. It keeps everything in line and it protects the head and neck and makes sure that you don't get that injury.
James - And if we can go back to talking about the halo, because there was some controversy wasn't there when it was initially introduced?
Kit - Yeah. The halo was one of the most unpopular ideas. People thought, "why do we need this extra layer of safety?" It was influenced by the death of a driver called Jules Bianchi, who was killed from complications during a race and drivers weren't particularly happy with it. Roman Grosjean was actually a huge critic of it when it was introduced. After the 2020 crash in Bahrain, the halo unquestionably saved his life. It actually bent over a barrier that would otherwise have decapitated him. He has become a complete convert. And now when we look at the halos, multiple drivers, including Lewis Hamilton, who had Max Verstappen's car land on him last season, have been saved because of this halo device.
James - And what have the F1 organization and community learnt from this, other than the effectiveness of the halo? Is this time for a pat on the back for everyone involved, or is this more of a reason to re-energise, to redouble the efforts on making sure the sport is as safe as possible?
Kit - It's always something that you have to improve. Formula one operates on a Swiss cheese model. Famously, Mark Gallagher of Red Bull has talked about this. And the whole idea is that you don't want a hole going all the way through the cheese, you want to make sure that there are barriers in place. And so those barriers are human; training, making sure that the medical staff are there. They're technological, making sure that there's safety features. They're just things like track layouts and making sure that the right type of barriers are used. But this crash will be analysed and poured over by F1's teams. Already, there's a load of dissection going on about the roll bar, on whether or not it crumpled effectively, or whether or not that's something that needs to be improved. And so they're going to look at this from every single angle, from angles we are never going to see. They've got black boxes on the cars and they're going to figure out exactly how they can prevent it ever happening again.