At around this time each year, the Formula 1 teams launch their new cars for the season ahead. And, usually, they look roughly the same as the old ones.
Sure, a rule change might mean that the wings are a little narrower or the tyres are a little wider. A big sponsorship deal might entail a new colour scheme for one of the teams. And the quest for speed might demand small modifications to the bodywork: higher sidepods, perhaps, or additional elements on the front wing. But, from a distance, the 2016 Mercedes looked very much like the 2015 Mercedes - which in turn looked very much like the 2014 Mercedes.
This year, however, there is one conspicuous addition that sets the 2018 cars apart from their predecessors. It’s a titanium structure around the front of the cockpit, which has been dubbed the ‘Halo’.
What is the F1 Halo?
The Halo is designed to protect the driver’s head from collision with large objects, other cars, or the barriers. Tests have shown that it can withstand the impact of a loose wheel – weighing 20kg – flying towards the driver at 140mph. Mercedes’ Technical Director, James Allison, says it can take ‘roughly the weight of a London double-decker bus sitting on top.’
What do F1 drivers think of the Halo?
Despite the good intentions behind the Halo – and general agreement about the need to better protect drivers’ heads – the new feature hasn’t met with universal acclaim.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen has described it as ‘very ugly’, while Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg says it ‘looks stupid’ and argues that ‘the likelihood is minimal that an accident will happen in which Halo is actually helpful.’ Mercedes boss Toto Wolff went a step further at the team’s launch last week: ‘If you give me a chainsaw,’ he said, ‘I would take it off.’
Others have been more willing to accept the change, though. McLaren driver Fernando Alonso is firm that ‘there should not be any debate’ about a device to make racing safer. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel says he is ‘pretty sure that everyone will get used to it’.
And while Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, isn’t a fan, he doesn’t think it’s that big a deal. ‘I don’t love the look of it,’ he wrote last week. ‘But I think it’ll be fine and we’ll have other things to talk about pretty quickly.’
What effect will the Halo have on F1 racing?
Apart from the aesthetics, what effect will the Halo have on racing? It’s been carefully designed not to hamper the driver’s view, so that shouldn’t be a problem. But it does add a significant amount of weight to the car, which might disadvantage some of the heavier drivers.
The sport’s rules set a minimum limit for the combined weight of the car and its driver. In 2017, that was 728kg, but it’s been increased by 6kg this year to accommodate the addition of the Halo. However, the Halo and its mountings actually add around 14kg, so it might push the heaviest drivers and their cars over the minimum weight.
To account for this, new rules are being developed for 2019 that would set separate minimum weights for the driver and their seat (80kg) and the rest of the car (660kg). That way, lighter drivers will simply have extra ballast added to their seat, eliminating any advantage they’ll gain this year.
Of course, although the Halo is a hotly debated change for 2018, it's far from the only talking point ahead of the season. We'll have our full season preview on this blog before the first race in Melbourne.
Image: Artes Max