This past weekend, fans of Formula One (F1) watched in horror as, on the starting lap, one of the drivers had a horrific crash that severed the car in two pieces. Romain Grosjean, in an attempt to improve his position, made contact with another car, which sent his car careening into a guardrail at over 130 mph. The below video is stunning…
After watching the crash, I sat in astonishment at how he could walk away from this accident having his full faculties and only suffering burns on his hands. The car was literally split into two pieces, there was a massive fire-ball, and with the speed he hit the guardrail, surely there was no way he could survive? Except for the Halo.
Halo: A Safety Innovation
For those that are not F1 aficionados, the halo is a controversial, 3-piece designed titanium protection bar on the car that wraps around the driver’s head, as seen in the above picture. The engineering and testing began about 3 years ago, and was put into service with all teams in 2018. Some drivers expressed disdain for it, claiming it hindered vision. Fans were split on it as well, appreciating the desire to improve driver safety while hating the design and aesthetics. But the halo quickly showed its protective ability in 2018 when Fernando Alonzo’s car went airborne, landing on top of Charles LeClerc’s car, at the point where, without the halo, LeClerc would have been crushed or decapitated. It saved his life.
Fast forward to 2020 in Bahrain, and Grosjean’s horrific crash. Keep in mind driver safety has taken exponential leaps forward since the 70’s and 80’s, where a driver’s death on a weekend became more commonplace than an exception. Grosjean was wearing a fire-proof driving suit, had a head-and-neck (HANS) device on his helmet to protect his neck, and was driving in a super-strong carbon fiber monocoque shell designed to protect the driver at all costs. It was also only a matter of seconds before crews with fire extinguishers were on the scene of the fireball that was his car. But on this day, all that would not have mattered without the halo.
When Grosjean hit the guardrail at 130 mph, the impact was so great, and the angle of impact so precise, that the car sliced a huge gap into the rail, splitting the car into two pieces. The car also hit the guardrail at such an angle that the halo took the brunt of the impact around the driver’s head instead of the driver suffering what would have been a fatal blow to the incredibly strong and well-engineered helmet.
F1 has seen enormous leaps in innovation over the decades in safety, engine performance, weight reduction, transmission shifting speed, downforce capability and pit changeover agility. All of these innovations are built to deliver one thing: faster lap times. If the driver is safer, the car is lighter, the engine is more powerful, the suspension is taught and the transmission shifts in milliseconds, the driver has the best chance to squeeze every last piece of performance out of the car. But what F1 came to realize after the stunning loss of legendary driver Ayrton Senna to a freak accident that saw a suspension component hit him in the head and kill him instantly, is without the drivers, F1 is nothing. As F1 cars increase speeds and decrease lap times, the drivers’ body is put through enormous pressure and g-forces, and the risk of accident increases. Continued safety innovations are crucial to ensure the driver can pursue that faster lap time with confidence, yet survive with limited injury should an accident occur. In Bahrain, forces combined to deliver a “one-in-a-million” situation that would have ended in catastrophe had it not been for the innovative protection of the halo.