Musings on the Past

Formula One halo’s aesthetic criticisms are stupid

If you haven’t been watching Formula One, you are missing out on the best motorsports show in years. The 2018 season has been nothing short of a blockbuster with plenty of tense racing moments, team dramas, and unexpected finishes. Nothing summaries this season thus far like the opening seconds of the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend.

With Formula One season resuming after their three week summer break the grid was more than ready to take out their pent up zeal and got back into the groove of things by piling into one another on the first corner of Spa-Francorchamps.

While it’s all fun and games till someone loses an eye, the opening melee very nearly took a tragic twist as Sauber driver Charles Leclerc narrowly avoided getting his head crushed by the flying McLaren of Fernando Alonso after the Spaniard was piledrived into the Sauber’s rear by an over-enthusiastic Nico Hulkenberg.

Luckily for Leclerc, his neck was saved by the controversial halo device, which deflected Alonso’s car away from crashing down onto the cockpit. Miraculously all three drivers walked away from the incident amidst the flurry of carbon fibre fragments and annoyed expletives.

As is with any sporting incident these days the online discussions were lit up with opinions that the halo either did its job and prevented an otherwise fatal accident or didn’t do anything except look ugly as sin as it always had since its first proposal last year.

Slow motion replays show that while Alonso’s car managed to clear the top of Leclerc’s car, the halo did prevent the wheel from hitting the Monegasque driver in the face – a similar set of circumstances that took the lives of Henry Surtees and Ayrton Senna.

But like any internet discussion there is no dissuading the anti-halo brigade who says it is making open-wheel racers ugly and should be removed for their viewing pleasure, which is weird. Since when were race cars designed to be pretty?

Of course, racing history is full of beauties like Fangio’s Maserati 250F,  Moss’ Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, Ford’s GT40s, or Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72, but race fans are confusing cause and causation.

Nobody sets out to build a racecar to be beautiful – unless you are Andy Warhol. Race cars are built to be effective on the tracks, it just so happens that many of the most beautiful race cars came from a time before aerodynamics was fully understood and taken seriously. Those smooth and sensuous bodies of yesteryears were shaped by the wisdom of the age which believed smoother bodies made for faster cars.

After racing teams finally learnt what made Colin Chapman’s mid-1970s Formula One cars tick, out went spanners and in came the wings, diffusers, and turbines. Of course, these trick aerodynamic aids started to spiral out of control and after a few accidents in 1982 and ‘83, the FIA eventually imposed regulations on the whole lot.

Nevertheless, teams continued to find new ways to extracting more grip and speed with strategically placed vents and boards on their cars, just as the FIA would continue to assess the risk these tweaks would pose both to the driver and the viability of the sport.

Times and engineering fundamentals may be in a state of constant flux in racing, but the goal of race car design has remained steadfast. As rules evolve to take into account new technology and new considerations, the halo is nothing more to the teams than enforcing a regulation they had all agreed on, just as they had agreed on higher cockpit sills following Senna’s tragic end in the 90s.

Aesthetic critics can bemoan all they want, but to be honest, nobody racing really gives a damn about their concerns because it’s not their business. If you want pretty cars, they are already doing their part with the business side of racing, race liveries. In fact, you can thank livery designers for doing their best to integrate, or even camouflage the halo, and credit where it is due, half a season in and you’d barely notice the contentious bar anymore.

Furthermore, many race cars owe its lasting appeal to the liveries it wears, such as the John Player Special Lotuses, Martini Racing Porsches, and anything with the Gulf Racing colours. Like the aerodynamics that forever altered the shape of race cars, you can credit the emergence of liveries to the same man who pioneered the same aerodynamics that had changed the game, Colin Chapman.

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