The HALO: From Undesirable to Undeniable
In 2016, following multiple fatal crashes, a new revolutionary safety device was tested at Maranello. That little device would change racing forever.
Throughout motor racing's long and storied history, crashes and accidents have been an unfortunate and always looming danger. In the early days, survival was a rarity. Humans had not traveled at such speeds on something that they could control freely, and harnessing that power was a dangerous venture. From post-war racing to the early 90s, racing was perceived as increasingly dangerous, with hundreds of men killed behind the wheel over that time frame. However, by the early 90s, most major racing organizations had not seen a fatal crash in some time. Fans and drivers were beginning to feel comfortable with auto racing, even as the speeds and cars became more dangerous in and of themselves. Then, the black weekend occurred. Three drivers experienced massive incidents at the San Marino Grand Prix weekend. All three would suffer severe injuries, however, only Rubens Barrichello would survive his. Since that tragic weekend in 1994, safety became the number one point of concern in auto racing. The cars became much safer, in Formula One at least. Across the pond in America, NASCAR and CART were getting faster and faster. In the same year alone, NASCAR lost two drivers, Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr in one race weekend as well. Over in CART, things were a bit better. However, this was the era of the V8 monsters that CART became so well known for. Quick, exciting, and brutal to drive, these things tore around any racing venue they were allowed to race upon. From 1996-1999, three drivers would be killed in accidents in CART sanctioned events. The first would be Jeff Krosnoff during the 1996 Toronto street race, followed in 1999 by Gonzalo Rodríguez's qualifying accident at Laguna Seca. Just over a month later, the accident that would change CART's safety forever occurred. Greg Moore, one of the brightest rising stars in open-wheel racing at the time, would be killed in a crash at Fontana on lap 10. This was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Greg Moore poses with his iconic #99 Player's machine in 1998. Photo from the Motorsports Tribune.
Their competition over at the Indy Racing League also had their fair share of fatalities, even though their cars were relatively slower than CART's insane beasts. Rising stars Tony Renna in 2003 and Paul Dana in 2006 would lose their lives during testing and practice sessions, respectively. However, the quest for groundbreaking safety measures, across the wide range of open-wheel racing, would not truly begin until the start of a new decade. By 2011, fatal accidents in most major racing series were a rarity. Just like in 1994, management, fans, and drivers were settling into a new safer era of racing. NASCAR was fatality-free for over a decade, Formula One for nearly two, and the newly merged Indycar Series for roughly five years. Unfortunately, two of these series' clean safety records would come to tragic ends. The first incident to occur would be at the 2011 Indycar finale in Las Vegas. Former series champion and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon would be killed in one of the most devastating crashes in American open-wheel history. In a twist of tragic irony, he was the primary test driver for the all-new Dallara chassis that the series would race from 2012 onwards, which would later be named in his honor. Nearly three years to the day of Wheldon's accident, another crash would occur that would bring newfound attention and interest on the topic of driver safety. On lap 43 of the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, Jules Bianchi, a fast-rising star in Formula One, lost control due to deteriorating conditions at turn seven. He would collide with a recovery tractor, which was in the process of removing Adrian Sutil's wrecked Sauber. The Frenchman would suffer massive head injuries and would be placed into an induced coma. Unfortunately, in July of the next year, Bianchi would lose his battle at the age of just 25. These horrendous accidents sent shockwaves through the racing world. Something had to be done.
The Beginning of the HALO
Sebastian Vettel tests out the HALO on the 2016 Ferrari SF-16-H. Photo from Formula One.
Throughout development, various systems were proposed to help improve open-cockpit safety. Some made it into the testing phase, some died on the drawing board. Everything from a basic shield to a fighter jet-like cockpit was proposed. The one that stuck through it all though was the one that F1 would run with and take all the way to the 2018 season: the HALO. What many critics lovingly called, "a thong for a race car", the HALO began testing in late 2016, eventually being slated to debut on the grid at the 2018 Australian Grand Prix. The reception of this device, even after another tragic death during an Indycar race at Pocono in 2015, where Justin Wilson suffered fatal head injuries from an airborne nose cone, was mostly negative. Even former drivers, like Niki Lauda, argued against the device being implemented, whilst others like Sir Jackie Stewart welcomed it with open arms. The true test began in 2018, in what would become a trial by fire. During the first handful of rounds of the season, it seemed as though the need for this system was unwarranted, and just there to make the cars look worse. Soon, however, the HALO would begin to prove its worth. The first accident to occur that involved the device was during the Formula 2 sprint race at Catalunya when Tadasuke Makino and Nirei Fukuzumi collided. Fukuzumi's car would fly into the air, and land on his fellow countryman's front end, with some of it clipping the HALO. Critics ignored the incident or chalked it up to a freak accident, or some even saying that he would have survived anyway. During the third practice session at Silverstone, bad luck magnet Brendon Hartley would suffer a massive crash when his Toro Rosso turned into a torpedo. Around two races later, many naysayers would be silenced following a massive crash involving a two-time champion and a rising star. At the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix, on the opening lap, Fernando Alonso would be punted from behind by Nico Hülkenberg, before slamming into the rear of Alfa Romeo's star rookie, Charles Leclerc.
Alonso flies up and (almost) over Charles Leclerc's Alfa Romeo. Photo courtesy of Formula One.
It appeared as though Fernando simply went up and over the Monegasque's car. However, upon an inspection of the Alfa, and further review of the footage, showed that the HALO took a direct descending hit from the airborne McLaren. Of course, critics continued to say that he would have survived without the HALO being in place and that it was still pointless. Yet, it was beginning to become apparent, slowly but surely, that the HALO was proving its worth. Even Toto Wolff, who was against the device prior to Belgium 2018, admitted that the HALO had most likely saved Leclerc's life. Through the rest of the 2018 season, accidents that involved the HALO continued, including that of Marcus Ericsson at Monza the following race weekend. As 2018 turned to 2019, even after all of the potentially deadly crashes that the HALO had prevented, critics and naysayers alike still persisted. On an already tragic weekend at Spa in 2019, Italian Jesus impersonator, Antonio Giovinazzi spun out at the quick left-hander at Pouhon, hitting the barriers head-on at high speed. It was argued whether the HALO had saved his life or not, but ultimately was overshadowed by the death of rising F2 star Anthoine Hubert the day prior, and the emotional win by his longtime friend, Charles Leclerc. The very next race weekend, at a Formula 3 race at Monza, Alex Peroni would take to the skies after hitting one of the sausage curbs that line the exit of the legendary Parabolica. His Campos would pancake onto the surrounding tire barriers, before lodging in the catch fence. He would walk away from the horrific incident seemingly unscathed, but did suffer a broken vertebra upon further examination. This crash turned heads, and seemingly silenced even more of the HALO's critics, however, they still remained prevalent in the racing community. That would all change on November 29th, 2020.
Romain Grosjean emerges through the fire and flames following his seemingly unsurvivable crash in Bahrain. Photo from the Times.
The year of 2020 had already seen its fair share of incidents where the HALO (or Aeroscreen in Indycar) could have very well saved someone's life. At Iowa Speedway, an accident involving Colton Herta and Rinus Veekay helped quell the flames of hatred upon the introduction of the Aeroscreen, which was originally rejected by Formula One, at the start of the 2020 Indycar season. The next race was the Indianapolis 500, and it would see one of its most gut-wrenching crashes in recent history. Coming off turn 4, Spencer Pigot would spin and slap the outside wall. The worst was yet to come, however, as he would spin down the front straight at high speed before careening into the tire barrier that guards the end of the pit wall. Many of the tires came undone from their bindings, causing them to jet out into Pigot's car. Pigot credited the Aeroscreen for playing a role in keeping him safe. Across the pond in Formula One, HALO-involved accidents did lessen from the previous year. Aside from Charles Leclerc's scary excursion at Monza, Formula One seemed to be on a relatively safe heading. Bahrain, the third to final race of the 2020 season. With both championships already secured by Mercedes, it was now a battle of the midfield. Before the field could make it to turn 3, disaster struck. In an incident that had not been seen since the 1970s, longtime driver Romain Grosjean would veer off of the circuit after clipping Kvyat's front wing, sending him into the barriers at high speed. The front half of the HAAS went through the Armco barriers that line the trackside, with the rear ripping away from the sheer force of the impact. The fuel cell ruptured, engulfing the area in flames. For 28 excruciating seconds, Romain remained in the fireball. Dr. Ian Roberts and fire marshals could do nothing against the volatile inferno. It looked, for half a minute, that F1 would lose another driver to tragedy. Then, in a scene more akin to an action movie than an auto race, Grosjean rose from the fire and into the waiting arms of Dr. Ian Roberts and medical car driver Alan van der Merwe. There was no doubt, following this horrifying incident, that the HALO was a lifesaver. No more ifs, ands, or buts. One only has to look around half a century in the past to see what would have happened had the HALO not been there. Incidents involving François Cevert in 1973 and more similarly, Helmuth Koinigg in 1974 both suffered crashes that resulted in the vehicle breaking through the Armco barrier. Neither of the two young drivers survived their accidents at Watkins Glen. Without the HALO, Grosjean would have, undoubtedly, joined them on a list of statistics that no one wants to be a part of.
The HALO Today
The aftermath of RHR's involvement in the massive 2021 Honda Indy GP of Alabama accident. Photo courtesy of Motorsport.com
In 2021, speculation around the HALO and other head protection systems has nearly disappeared entirely. Unfortunately, there still are the few who believe looks should come before driver's safety. Since the introduction of the HALO on open-wheel series, no drivers have suffered severe, non-concussion, head injuries that would usually result from such crashes in years prior. Just this April, Andretti driver Ryan Hunter Reay was involved in a massive pileup at the start of the HIGPA at Barber Motorsports Park. From the car's onboard footage, it was apparent that, without the Aeroscreen protecting the cockpit, the tire from the wayward Josef Newgarden's car could have hit RHR's helmet nearly head-on at 116 MPH. I'm not going to pretend like I was a fan of it at the start either, I hated it. However, as time went on and it began to prove its worth, I realized that it was here to stay. Fortunately, I think that is what happened to the majority of the racing community following its introduction. It may not look the best, or truly embody the term "open-cockpit", but whether we like it or not, it is here to stay. Furthermore, it has undoubtedly saved multiple drivers, some of which are assuredly future world champions, from severe injury or death. Anything that can save the life of a driver and spare their family the trauma, grief, and sorrow that comes from losing their loved one in horrific fashion is more than welcome, in my book.