McLaren-Honda’s Fernando Alonso was involved in a horrific accident at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne last fortnight, with his car rolling over as it hit the barriers at Albert Park. Alonso walked away from the shunt at the time, but was later found to have sustained rib fractures. He has still not recovered from his injuries, with FIA doctors determining yesterday that he was unfit to race in Bahrain.
He was replaced for this weekend by McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne, who won the GP2 title in 2015 after a fast, consistent year of racing. While that may augur well for McLaren, the spotlight is now, once again, on safety for F1 drivers, given the tragic death of Jules Bianchi in 2015 after 9 months in a coma.
Bianchi, who died from complications of the injuries he sustained at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, was the first death in Formula One since that of Ayrton Senna in 1994. Many may argue that 20 years is a significant gap without injuries, especially in a sport that is predicated on high speeds and aggressive driving.
Former Formula One executive Mark Gallagher has worked with some of the best teams in the business. Jordan Grand Prix, helmed by the mercurial Eddie Jordan, who was arguably instrumental in helping put Michael Schumacher on the map – it was the team he made his Formula One debut with.
Ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Gallagher discussed the halo Ferrari debuted in Barcelona, and then spoke again following Alonso’s shunt in Melbourne.
Scuderia Ferrari debuted the halo at testing, with Kimi Raikkonen the first to use it. While other drivers and some fans complained it would hamper visibility, Kimi himself said it was “okay.” Having worked closely with cars and drivers for so long, what are your thoughts?
Safety has been the primary driver behind the regulation of Formula One since 1994, when Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed at the San Marino Grand Prix, and there is a big push for continuous improvement so that we do not become complacent. The sport is inherently dangerous, as witnessed by more than 40 F1 driver fatalities between 1950 and 1994.
The halo addresses a significant remaining area of concern - the likelihood of large objects striking the driver’s head and/or upper torso. We have become expert at preventing physical injury to the driver in a high energy impact, as the cockpit’s are made from carbon fibre, feature many absorbent crash structures, and a range of technologies designed to ensure that the most common causes of serious injury or death are largely eliminated.
Key among these was the HANS (Head & Neck System) which has dramatically reduced neck, spinal and head injuries - despite many drivers voicing their concern about the design, fit and how it looks. Today, no one would dream of racing without one.
The accelerated process of trying to introduce the halo was caused by a number of fatalities outside of Formula One; notably the death of Henry Surtees, son of former Formula One World Champion John Surtees, in a junior formulae race, in 2009, and by the fatal accident in an Indycar race in America involving former British driver Justin Wilson. Wilson’s helmet was struck by the nose section of a car which had broken off in a 200mph accident - he was killed instantly.
The halo, as currently configured, would not have prevented the most recent death in Formula One; that of Jules Bianchi who crashed at the Japanese Grand Prix in October 2014 and died as a result of extensive brain injuries in July last year. His car struck a crane, and the energy of that impact would not have been dissipated by the halo.
It is a fact that the halo is a significant safety improvement and would likely have saved the lives of both Surtees and Wilson. It does not present any significant visibility problem for the drivers whose eyes are focussed 200m-400m further up the track, and the central pillar of the halo is narrow.
What it does affect, however, is the visibility of the driver for the media and fans, and in this regard it damages a fundamental attraction of Formula One compared to other forms of car racing - the cockpit is open, the driver is visible.
Aside from the reality of how it affects the aethestics of an F1 car, it also affects the perception of risk within Formula One. Top drivers are supposedly to be inherently ‘brave’, ‘courageous’ and ‘risk taking’, but if you take the safety measures to an extreme, and the racing becomes 100% safe, this actually reduces the appeal for the fans and media.
It also calls into question the remuneration the top drivers receive, since one aspect of being the best is the willingness of a driver to accept a higher level of risk than a less capable driver.
The drivers are, by and large, happy to accept a level of risk. In my opinion, therefore, the halo represents a very clear line in the sand between a sport that accepts risk as part and parcel of its appeal, and a sport that has decided to mitigate risk to the point where none of its cultural or technical heritage remains.
Driver reactions have been mixed – what do you personally think of adopting the halo?
The fan inside me would prefer for the halo not to be adopted, therefore, but the professional me expects the governing body to continue to push for its introduction because the FIA has achieved so much in regards to safety since 1994 and wants to continue that excellent work.
The perception that Formula One is already ‘too safe’ has been voiced by fans, media and drivers in recent years. This is further underlined by the comments of drivers such as Nico Hulkenberg, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in recent days.