Formula One travels to Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix on 30 July in a deep state of ambivalence after the sport’s governing body decided to mandate a controversial form of driver head protection for the 2018 season.
The so-called ‘halo’ device is a carbon fibre frame encircling the cockpit and attached to the car at three points: once on either side of the cockpit and once directly in front of the driver on the chassis centreline.
Though it boosts driver safety by deflecting large bits of debris or errant wheels, the halo has proved divisive due to its unappealing aesthetics.
The F1 strategy group, an internal decision-making body, was reportedly deeply conflicted over its implementation in its 19 July meeting, but the governing body, the FIA, is able to guarantee the device’s passage by using its veto over safety regulations.
The drivers, too, are torn in their support for the halo. Lewis Hamilton memorably described it as “the worst looking mod in Formula One history” when it was first debuted for evaluation during preseason testing last year.
The official drivers body, the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA), has long tapped out of the debate, however, instead choosing to support only the FIA’s push for greater safety rather than backing any particular method.
“Us drivers respect the FIA’s stand on safety and support their ongoing quest to make racing safer,” GPDA chairman Alex Wurz told Autosport.
“Whilst the halo solution might not be the most aesthetically pleasing for everyone, us drivers will nevertheless race and push as hard as we can on track, which is the key for F1 to continue its growth and popularity.”
The halo was to be implemented in 2017, but the sport was keen to explore alternative solutions that could appeal to both safety and design.
Red Bull Racing backed its in-house designed ‘aeroscreen’ — a short, flat windscreen — but it encountered problems with glare and grime on the outside surface.
At this year’s British Grand Prix Ferrari tested a second alternative, termed ‘the shield’. Shaped like the front half of a jetfighter canopy, Sebastian Vettel, who used it for one lap during Friday practice, immediately panned it, complaining that the distortion in the curved plastic made him dizzy.
With no workable alternatives ready for 2018 implementation, the FIA has chosen to push ahead rather than delay for another 12 months.
“Safety in motorsport is a paramount concern for the FIA,” the governing body said in a statement. “Halo [is] able to withstand 15 times the static load of the full mass of the car and was able to significantly reduce the potential for injuries.”
That the design will be refined further ahead of its racing debut next season will come as little comfort for teams and drivers at this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix.
Ferrari, however, will be more concerned about turning around its midseason slump ahead of the imminent August break.
The Scuderia hasn’t won a race since the Monaco Grand Prix two months ago, and its thorough outclassing at the hands of Mercedes in Silverstone has done little to lighten that burden.
But Budapest’s Hungaroring will suit the Ferrari SF70H, with its slow and twisty turns and warm climes likely to favour its easygoing car over Mercedes’s more temperamental machine.
Aiding Mercedes, however, will be Lewis Hamilton, whose five Hungarian victories make him the most successful driver to race in Budapest.
Mercedes’s three wins from the last four races, illustrating its recent performance gains, have earnt the Silver Arrows a 55-point lead in the constructors standings, while Hamilton’s victory at Silverstone closed his gap to drivers title leader Sebastian Vettel to just one point.