Changing My Mind on the Halo Safety Device

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In last Friday’s post, I mentioned that we have enjoyed watching Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix. Seasons One and Two cover the 2018 and 2019 Formula One seasons respectively. It was confirmed over the weekend that Season Three, covering the truncated 2020 season, will drop in on March 19. If you haven’t watched it, now would be a good time to catch the first two seasons – just before the third season becomes available. This is an excellent series and I wish something similar could be produced on IndyCar – perhaps available on Peacock.

In watching the first two seasons, it dawned on me how much better the halo looked on the Formula One cars than the current aero screen looks on an Indy car.

This has been a point of discussion since Dan Wheldon was fatally injured in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas. Proponents of cockpit protection immediately began lobbying for some type of canopy to protect drivers. Detractors pointed out the problem of getting out of a burning car with a canopy. The debate went on for years and picked added traction when Justin Wilson passed away at Pocono in 2015.

Tests were conducted in 2018 with what was essentially a very thick Plexiglas-like windshield. Scott Dixon first tested the screen at Phoenix. I attended an open test at IMS in April of 2018. At the end of that test, Josef Newgarden tested the windshield at IMS and I snapped photos of it.

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I was pleased that it really didn’t affect the looks of the car. After all, IndyCar had just gotten the cars out of the hideous aero kit era. For once, the cars looked really good again – better than they had in a couple of decades.

Unfortunately, this version of cockpit protection did not make the cut for whatever reason.

In May of 2019, IndyCar released a carefully crafted rendition of the aero screen – shown from a clever angle that did not reveal how awful the car looked from head-on. It also sort of obscured the fact that there was a Formula One-style halo lurking behind the solid polycarbonate laminated screen.

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It wasn’t until we saw testing photos from the fall of 2019 that we saw how the aero screen ruined the aesthetics of the car. The profile shot didn’t look that bad, but the frontal view looked that like there was a giant funnel sitting on top of the cockpit. We were told we would get used to it. I guess I can get used to having a broken wrist, but that doesn’t mean I’ll like it or never notice it again.

Throughout the entire 2020 IndyCar season, I never not-noticed it (if that’s really a phrase). Although the pandemic forced us to watch most of the 2020 season from home, we did actually attend Road America – so I’ve actually seen the car in-person. It looked no better, up close and personal.

I am all about safety and certainly understand the need for cockpit protection. But the canopy zealots who think that the aero screen didn’t go far enough, tend to shout anyone down if they dare bring up the aesthetics of the car with an aero screen. We are told how shallow and superficial we are to put car beauty above safety. Some even go so far as to make the outrageous claim that if you don’t like the aero screen, then you obviously like to watch drivers die. Please. Granted, I am a very shallow person – but that has nothing to do with my dislike of the aero screen. So we will leave aesthetics out of the rest of this argument. It’s just a sidebar that I think it has ruined the looks of a pretty good looking race car.

Let’s first talk about handling. It has been said that the aero screen adds more than fifty pounds to the top of the car. I think it’s fair to say that some teams and drivers came to grips with the difference in handling quicker than others in 2020. I know nothing about engineering, but I don’t think you need to hold a doctorate to know that adding that much weight and height to an Indy car will greatly affect the handling. Remember, this is not an integral part of the chassis. It was just bolted on to an existing chassis that was beginning it’s ninth year of service when it was added. What softened that blow is that it affected everyone the same way across the board. If a team or driver was able to adapt to it earlier than others – then good for them!

Then there is the problem with heat. An open cockpit car never had a problem with ventilation. But with the mostly enclosed cockpit, it was not uncommon to have cockpit temperatures exceeding 130° F with the aero screen. Although several attempts at solving the issue were tried, it was a problem that was never really resolved throughout the 2020 season.

My biggest concern about the current aero screen is still safety. Although this is a safety device, I think there are still some unintended consequences associated with it – some of which, we don’t even know about yet. It is still untested in the event of a major fire, and I’m still not convinced a driver can escape as quickly as they could without the aero screen. That test will come. It didn’t come last year, and it may not come this coming season – but it will eventually come. When it does, I hope I’m proven wrong. I will take no joy in crowing about being right, if a driver ends up being severely burned – simply because he or she could not get out quickly enough, because they were impeded by the aero screen.

There is also the issue of rain or oil on the solid screen. If a visor gets wet or sprayed with oil in an open cockpit, a driver would simply wipe the visor clean with their gloved hand. If a car directly ahead has an engine let go, the wind screen is going to get covered with oil. They can’t reach out and clean it off, so if that happens – how does the driver see? That issue never surfaced in fourteen races last season, but the possible scenario is not far-fetched.

Getting back to watching the F1 series on Netflix, I began to notice that not only did I not notice the halo near as much as the obstructive aero screen – I also noticed that the F1 drivers had very little trouble getting in and out of their cars. Have you noticed how cumbersome a driver appears, squeezing down into the now much taller cockpit of an Indy car? It’s even more cumbersome watching them when they are trying to crawl out.

The F1 halo does not appear to be near as high as the IndyCar aero screen. I’ve never heard anyone criticizing the F1 halo for being too low or unsafe. The halo also appears to be wider, making for easier driver access in and out of the cockpit.

Romain Grosjean justifiably credits the halo for saving his life as he crashed through a barrier last fall at Bahrain. I don’t recall anyone saying that he would have been even better off with a much taller polycarbonate laminated screen surrounding him. I would be curious to hear his opinion of the the IndyCar aero screen, after what he experienced just a few months ago. Does he look at it and think this would have been even better, or will he squeeze himself in and out of his Dale Coyne ride and think this would have made his escape much harder?

IndyCar officials should seek his opinion and input on this matter. Being one of the few, if not the only one in the world, to experience a horrifying crash with a halo, then climb into a similar type car with an enclosed aero screen – I would love to hear what he says on the matter. If he is critical of the aero screen, we will probably never hear about it and that’s fine. They don’t need to tell us, but I hope they will value his opinion and do something about it.

When the halo was first introduced in Formula One for the 2018 season, I thought it was just another ugly piece on an already ugly car. Formula One cars have not been aesthetically pleasing for a couple of decades now – so it really didn’t detract from the looks. But when compared to the clumsiness of the IndyCar aero screen and the inherent problems that have come with it – I am going to say something I never thought I would ever say – I wish IndyCar would adapt the F1 halo for its own cars.

I think the drivers have been instructed to be in lock-step regarding the aero screen. It appears they are to either praise it publicly or keep their mouth shut. They have been way too united in their praise for the device. Not a single negative comment was made about the aero screen all of last season. You normally can’t get drivers to agree on anything, why would this be any different when there have been so many questions surrounding it?

But that doesn’t mean that IndyCar is too stubborn to change course. Jay Frye is a very smart individual, and he has a good team around him. I don’t think they are so far down the road with the fully enclosed aero screen, that they wouldn’t reverse course if driver input told them that the halo is a better idea.

Formula One has three seasons of halo experience behind them. That’s a total of fifty-nine races. IndyCar has fourteen races with the aero screen to draw from. Normally, I don’t like comparisons between Formula One and IndyCar – but I think IndyCar would be wise to listen to those that have a lot of experience with the halo.

I have completely changed my mind regarding the halo. Personally, I think the halo is now the way to go for cockpit protection. There are fewer unintended consequences. Yes, there is the odd bolt or small spring that might get through to the driver; but I think the chances of a tire being deflected by the halo are much greater. For once, it might be wise to analyze the possibility of the unintended consequences and do something about them now, before having to make a change due to something disastrous happening.

I would be curious to learn Romain Grosjean’s thoughts on it.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Changing My Mind on the Halo Safety Device”

  1. Good article and I totally agree. I did not like the halo initially, now I don’t see it. I’m pretty sure that Romain given the choice would be relieved that he had the halo for that crash. Would the Screen have ‘wedged’ that gap open in the armco?

  2. Brandon Wright. Says:

    In case you haven’t seen it, here’s an animation showing just how the halo saved Romain.

  3. Jack in Virginia Says:

    Having just finished watching the two seasons (so far) of “Formula One: Drive to Survive”, I agree that the halo is really not objectionable and appears to do what it was designed to do. Grosjean’s crash was horrifying (mostly because it took so long for the safety crew to get there).

    I wonder if Indycar did any high speed impact testing on the aeroscreen. In 1975, when I was a newly minted mechanical engineer working on the initial design of the F-16 jet fighter, I was working in the Crew Station (cockpit) group when we performed the impact testing on the F-16’s polycarbonate canopy. We used a compressed air cannon that could propel a 7 pound chicken to 350 knots to slam into the canopy. We had an instrumented cockpit dummy sitting in the pilot’s seat, and started with the same thickness (5/8″ polycarbonate) that had been used on the YF-16 prototypes. We were pleased that the canopy appeared to be intact after being hit with a 7 lb. chicken travelling at 350 knots, until we looked at the test dummy and realized its helmet was split open. The impact had caused a deflection in the plastic that travelled up the length of the canopy, hitting the pilot in the head with enough force to kill him.

    As a result of this testing, the production F-16 canopies were increased in thickness to 3/4″, which allowed the deflection wave to be small enough to miss the pilot’s head, at the cost of an extra 100 lbs. of weight.

    I don’t know what the thickness of the aero screen is, but from my experience with a 7 lb. chicken hitting the F-16 canopy, I would wager that a tire and wheel travelling at 200 mph would deflect the plastic enough that the driver may still be in danger from the wheel hitting him.

    Besides, it’s ugly.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Your comments more than merit being sent to Jay Frye and asking if when testing the canopy did they perform an equivalent deflection scenario?

    • billytheskink Says:

      Indycar is not as transparent as I would like about the aeroscreen’s specifications, but they did report that high speed impact testing was done on the aeroscreen. The only reported size of the item used in ballistic testing that I could find was 2-3 pounds (which was tested at up to 220 MPH). Perhaps the thinking there is that heavier debris would be large enough to strik not just the screen, but also the structure supporting it, but that is simply my own speculation. The aeroscreen was also load-tested and can apparently bear 17 tons, which is said to be comparable the F1 halo (understandable, since the aeroscreen essentially contains a halo itself). This was probably the most widely reported of the device’s testing results.

      IndyCar’s first aeroscreen prototype, seen in George’s first photo, did not stand up in impact testing, though exactly how was not reported that I recall. That screen was reportedly 0.4″ or 0.5″ thick. The current screen is said by some to be a similar thickness, though I cannot find any record of Indycar confirming this.

  4. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    The problem with the halo is that it won’t stop debris from hitting the drivers head. Sorry George, in this case I’m not agreeing with you.

  5. Tony Dinelli Says:

    Aesthetically, the aero screen is absolutely ugly. There is no other way to put it. F1’s HALO makes sense for them since they only race on road/street courses and don’t have the issue with debris on ovals. I wish there was a way to incorporate that look with the screen as well. We all know WHY it’s there but we don’t have to like it’s look.

  6. Petr Sedina Says:

    I think the best solution for indycars and F1 is Beatty´s concept https://www.chrisbeatty.design/velocity-concept-car

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Sorry George, I completely disagree on this, both in the aesthetics department (the halo looks like a thong sandal) and from a safety standpoint. In fact, I would not be surprised to see F1 incorporate some kind of screen in the not-too-distant future, especially if they have a debris incident that slips through the halo. I think both devices have proven their worth in preventing injuries in their short service lives despite neither improving the look of the car, a trade I am more than fine with.

    While driver criticisms of the aeroscreen were not particularly loud, they were present, especially about the cooling issues. Conor Daly in particular was critical of the aeroscreen in that regard.

    I do agree that the aeroscreen appears to be taller and narrower than the halo, but I have heard from some folks who claim to have up close experience with both that they are very similar in size. With new cars every year, F1 teams have been able to build cars that more effectively “hide” the halo, while Indycar continues to use a device the car was not originally designed for. Even so, I keep expecting large Monty Python-esque feet to come down from the sky and start wearing F1 cars like flip-flops.

  8. “I guess I can get used to having a broken wrist, but that doesn’t mean I’ll like it or never notice it again.” I loved this line George!

    I too would like to see IndyCar switch to the Halo. I think the Halo would suffice in preventing the type or size of debris that causes fatalities. For example, perhaps I’m wrong, but I think the Halo would have saved Justin Wilson. Then again, I recall Hinch getting a concussion at the Indy GP some years ago from debris that probably would have slipped through the Halo, so I understand the counter argument.

  9. Petr Šedina Says:

    As I have mentioned already before in case we need to protect driver the Chris Beatty´s solution looks well .
    The link to visualisation : https://vimeo.com/188279314

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