Today, at Heathrow, the FIA and technical representatives of the teams of the Formula 1 World Championship are meeting to debate next year’s regulations. Among the topics for discussion is the concept of increased driver safety, with the FIA believed to be keen to push through the much reported “Halo” concept as a legal requirement from next season.
Driver protection in the sport is a controversial and complex issue. Many self-proclaimed purists fear that the greater the increase in head protection, the further away from the notion of an “open-cockpit” formula the sport becomes. Others argue that enough is enough, and that racing cannot come at the cost of mortal risk, when steps are available to limit the danger.
In almost every concept of Formula 1’s future, from the renders released to the public by the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull, to those drawn up from outside the F1 paddock such as the design released today by Chris Beatty, closed cockpits and canopies feature heavily.
Following the tragic deaths of Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson, the push to implement better driver protection has doubled in pace, with the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association placing itself this week behind calls for the “Halo” concept to be brought forward for implementation from 2017.
Anthony Davidson has raced in both open-cockpit Formula 1, and the closed cockpit World Endurance Championship LMP1 class, taking the Drivers’ Championship in 2014. Crucially, he has also tested the Halo design of driver protection making him one of very few drivers to have experience of all three.
This afternoon, as the future of Halo is debated, he shared with me his thoughts on the concept, the knock on effects of its potential implementation, its potential effectiveness, and the need for better driver protection in Formula 1.
WB: You have tested the Formula 1 Halo concept. What can you tell us about visibility for a driver?
AD: Basically, side vision doesn’t seem to be too different at all compared to what the drivers would be used to, but the version that I tried had a central fin or post. I think a lot of the teams have been working on that [design] in conjunction with the FIA to come up with the best solution. It’s not ideal. It really is not an ideal solution and it’s never going to be.
As I’ve said before, the more you try and increase protection for the safety of drivers, the flipside is you suffer with visibility and the central post is, honestly, like a big aerial sticking up in many ways which the drivers already have to deal with. It is a distraction.
I’d say it’s quite a big distraction, but I only drove it for a couple of laps and that was on a simulator and not in the real world. It might be easier in the real world. Visibility is quite difficult at the best of times in a simulator compared to reality. Hopefully it’s not as difficult when they start running them in anger. But it’s never going to be as good as not having one for visibility.
You say side vision isn’t too different, but the height of the cockpit sides is going to increase in 2016.
Yeah, I wasn’t actually aware of that until recently. I’ve driven F1 cars in the days when you had hardly any head protection at all. They were visibly quite a bit different to how they look today. It’s funny because you sit in one of those cars today, like in a run up Goodwood or something, you feel so exposed and I wouldn’t say it necessarily feels dangerous but you do feel exposed and that was only back in 2002 / 2003. There was a lot more protection than in the 80s or 90s but it shows how much things move on all the time.
With that progression in safety, the flipside was that you lost a bit of visibility to the point where if you were the car being overtaken you had to make sure that you actually had to make a concerted effort to look around and see your surroundings rather than judging things by your peripheral vision because you’d lost a bit of that from the shrouding.
How much does the current cockpit protection affect your peripheral vision?
A lot. It definitely does. It’s one of the things where you have to take it into consideration when you are making a quick judgement in an overtaking situation, if there’s a crash between two cars. People always forget how limited the visibility is in cars today because of that reason. It’s a necessity to have it though. But I always try and give drivers the benefit of the doubt in terms of when a car comes up and one of them turns in, you’ll never appreciate how hard it is in terms of a lack of visibility from inside the car and you almost have to rely on a sixth sense around you to feel where the car is that’s overtaking you, rather than actually seeing it sometimes. And then, of course, in sportscars that is tenfold. It’s even worse.
Moving back to the Halo, you said the central post is an issue. When does that come into play the most?
I found that actually in cornering, that was the one time you could forget about it. It was on the straights and looking at things on the horizon straight ahead of you, like trying to pick out an early braking marker board, I found that it sometimes would obscure the view. Actually in the corner, in the apex, looking for the kerbs and picking out the details you normally look for, that didn’t change at all. I was quite relieved about that. It was more just straight ahead. Obviously one thing you can’t account for in the virtual world is what it’s going to be like in close combat with another car, when you’re completely behind them. I don’t know. But that’s going to be another challenge I think.
Things might have moved on since I last had a go. I’m sure a lot more work has been done. Maybe they can make the central pillar thinner, and the thinner you go obviously it might be weaker in a side impact but every step you can go in terms of thinness will help the driver see more clearly.
What about looking up, start lights and track undulation?
It didn’t seem to be that bad. The only thing was the central post that obscured your view. It was quite a neat design actually. I haven’t seen all the iterations from different teams, but you can really see that every effort has been made to make them look aesthetically pleasing and for them to perform well in terms of impact from a wheel or a big piece of debris. They’re trying to tick all the boxes.
From a drivers’ point of view, even getting in and out of the car, it didn’t seem to make much difference but then again I’m used to climbing inside the tiny cockpit of a sportscar. I still felt a lot more free and it still felt like you’re in a proper open cockpit car. It was nowhere near like a closed canopy, and when you’ve got the helmet on and visor down and the big visor strip, that really does limit your view anyway in terms of what you see in terms of height through undulation. The letterbox that you look through is actually a really small aperture anyway. The one thing standing in your way was the central post.
You’re used to LMP1, how would you say it compares to the feeling of being in an enclosed cockpit?
The big “A Pillars” on the sportscar are your worst enemy really. They’re the thing that really limits your peripheral vision. They’re part of the car’s rigidity and they have to be quite big, like on a road car really, as they add to the structure of the car. They have to be there. That, combined with the big wheel arches, really compromises your ability to see the apex massively compared to an open cockpit car. So in a sportscar, the first time you drive an LMP, it does take a bit of time to get used to the fact that you can’t see the wheels so that makes braking really hard, it makes judging where you place the wheels in relation to kerbs really hard.
The wraparound screen kind of distorts your view as well. You have a central wiper that is a bit of a distraction. It moves slightly as well so that’s tough. And obviously when the screen gets dirty there is no way of physically cleaning it until you come to the pits which can be horrendous at Le Mans when the sun is rising or setting. You’re praying to be called into the pits. It’s like when you run out of windscreen washer in your road car. It’s a nightmare.
Compared to that… it’s not an issue at all.
That is quite a big difference. The Halo isn’t a screen, it’s an open space. With that in mind, how much protection do you think it would afford in the case of debris coming towards a driver at head height?
I think in terms of it making an object deflect and bounce away, it is always going to do a better job than being there in an open cockpit car with just your helmet. I can see why they are making steps to try and solve that problem. In trying to keep it in keeping with an open cockpit solution. They’re trying to tick every box and in a way it is an impossible task to please everyone.
Aesthetically it’s not going to look as pretty as an open cockpit car, visibility is not going to be as good as not having one in the first place, but the argument against it doesn’t really hold, I think. You have to accept it because it can’t carry on the way it has been with drivers dying because of a blow to the head.
Would it have saved [the driver] in every single scenario? It’s yet to be seen, but in the same way that we wear the HANS device now it is accepted. It’s still uncomfortable at times, I find, but I’m glad it is there. I’ve had big crashes with it, and it’s hard to say whether I’d have been OK without it. The fact it is there and so many tests have been done with it is a good thing. You have to embrace [improved safety] because it is good that things are done to stop the issues that we’ve had in the past.
I’ve really thought long and hard about it, and I think it is the best solution for now. I don’t think full closed canopies in Formula 1 are necessarily the right way. If you had a wheel hit a sportscar canopy, I don’t know if it would bounce off or come through. I’ve seen them break in the past. I don’t think that a full canopy necessarily gives you full protection.
You say it’s the best solution for now, but also not an ideal solution. So how do you weigh those two against each other? Some of the designs appear as though it would be retro-fitted to an open-cockpit design. In order to work most effectively, should it not be integral to the design philosophy?
It’s not going to be an add-on I don’t think, from what I’ve seen so far. It won’t be just bolted on to an existing open cockpit. It has to be and it will be integrated into the whole design of the car, in the same way that a sportscar is formed around the concept of being an enclosed car with closed wheels, so the teams will try everything they can to make sure it does not just look aesthetically pleasing but also that it does its job. Just like a helmet. It has to look good as well as do its job.
It will be designed from the ground up, with that concept in mind as a basis of design. I don’t think it’s going to be like bolting a roll cage into a road car to turn it into a racing car.
You tested it some months ago now. How many drivers have been consulted?
I’m obviously not the only driver who has tested it. [I’m sure] every driver would have been consulted and every driver has been trying to come up with ideas, surely, to try and make them safe but also not getting in the way in terms of visibility.
No one person has got an ideal solution to the problem. All I know is that the argument for not having one doesn’t hold. “It doesn’t look very good.” “F1 cars have always been open cockpit.” I’m sorry but that’s not enough for me, for things to carry on this way.
Alex Wurz is pushing very strongly for the Halo concept. As, until very recently, your team-mate at Toyota, have the two of you discussed it?
We have discussed it quite a lot. It’s been an on-going discussion for the last few years. Actually what kick-started it was the incident involving Henry Surtees. We were driving sportscars at the time and I think that is where it all stemmed from. Alex has always been a thinker and an analytical guy, and he and I have really talked it over in regards to how would you make a Formula 1 car, an open cockpit car, safer but without losing its looks, losing its appeal, and without upsetting the drivers.
Really was a closed canopy the right idea? What were the drawbacks based on our experience in sportscars, and also bigger picture in terms of helping out the marshals coming to the aid of the driver who might have been hurt or if the car has landed upside down, extraction, all these things were taken into consideration.
Through lots of thought you come to a conclusion that there is no easy solution. But for now, this seems to be the best compromise.