Racing lines: March 2018

The knowledge that there is a vulnerable human at the heart of the machine is crucial to the appeal of motor racing. Let’s not lose it

This year modern Formula 1 embraces the controversial ‘halo’ cockpit protection system. It marks a pivotal moment in single-seater racing on both physical and philosophical levels. Superficially speaking this simple-looking assembly changes little apart from the cars’ look, but to the purist it means the pinnacle of open-cockpit racing is no longer truly open. Sacrilege? I don’t feel qualified to comment, but judging by the quotes I’ve read at least half the drivers on the grid seem to think so…

The upside is those same F1 drivers will be afforded significantly increased (if not complete) protection from the freakish types of single-seater accident that claimed the lives of Henry Surtees, Justin Wilson and, if you have long memories, maybe even poor Tom Pryce. Viewed in the context of those tragedies it’s hard to argue against the the halo, yet it still troubles me that yet another layer of clutter has been placed between us and seeing our heroes at work.

Think back to the days before roll hoops or seatbelts, when a driver’s best hope of surviving a crash was to be thrown clear of the tumbling carnage and inevitable conflagration, and it’s clear attitudes towards risk and safety had to change. And change they did, though not before F1 endured a brutal era in which countless drivers lost their lives. Strange, then, that despite our sport’s ever-present dangers there remains an instinctive reticence towards additional safety measures.

Such impassioned contradiction is odd but excusable, at least when dealing with the highest-profile race series of them all. Danger is a shadow that has stalked Grand Prix racing since its inception and, while this took a heartbreaking toll, it cannot be denied that the dangers also bestowed hero status on those prepared not only to accept those risks, but who excelled while confronting them.

Whether this attitude has a place in modern motor sport, and if so what level of risk is deemed acceptable, is a hugely emotive topic. Confusing, too, when in the wider world – that which exists beyond the jurisdiction of the safety-campaigning FIA – extreme sportspeople (ironically almost always funded by Red Bull) regularly perform truly death-defying feats that leave the YouTube generation rightly awed (and make F1 seem a bit tame).

To see what’s missing you only need look to F1‘s two-wheeled equivalent, MotoGP. Not only is the racing far, far closer and consistently more exciting, but you get to see the riders clamber all over their machines, working handlebars and footpegs to balance the bike and aid traction, then leaning so acutely in the corners that their legs, elbows and upper arms are brushing the tarmac.

It’s a truly remarkable spectacle.

Grand Prix cars have never demanded such dynamic athleticism from their drivers, but there was a time when we could clearly see them in the cockpit, working the wheel, shifting gears and fighting against the g forces. In addition the way the cars behaved meant we could see (and hear) their artistry in action, individual driving styles expressed through deft precision, edgy commitment or exuberant showmanship. What a contrast to today’s F1, which requires a forensic eye to spot and interpret the differences between cars and drivers.

It might not be politically correct to say so, but safety has played its part in reducing and homogenising the show. Not I hasten to add because there’s pleasure to be had from seeing cars crash and people get hurt, but with drivers sat lower and more reclined, the cockpit sides getting higher and thicker and now the cumbersome halo framework further obscuring our view, the stars we watch from trackside or sofa are almost entirely hidden from view.

In the dim and distant pre-war days, drivers sat bolt upright, unrestrained with elbows out and chests in the breeze, their begoggled phizogs grimacing beneath flimsy leather or cotton headgear. After the war drivers slowly began to wear more substantial headwear, then as front-engined designs made way for the now ubiquitous mid-engined layout, so cars began to sport roll hoops and drivers were restrained by harnesses. Yet still the men behind the wheel were centre stage.

No one epitomised that era with more panache than Stirling Moss. Whether driving a Mercedes W196 or Rob Walker’s Lotus 18, his relaxed straight-arm style and pristine white crash helmet cocked nonchalantly to one side was a defining image of the age. Once he famously raced at Monaco with the side panels of his Lotus removed. It was ostensibly to keep him cool, but it also offered a unique window into the hidden realm of the world’s best driver at the top of his game.

Fast-forward to the ’80s and ’90s and, despite the advent of full-face helmets and carbon fibre monocoques, the drivers were still the stars. Look back at race footage from those halcyon days and the expressive, slightly manic style of Jean Alesi is a joy to behold, while the effect of Ayrton Senna’s yellow, blue and green crash helmet appearing in his rivals’ mirrors is the stuff of legend. 

And no, I haven’t forgotten he was killed by just the kind of cranial impact the halo is designed to prevent, but then nor have I forgotten his accident led to the introduction of wheel tethers – a brilliant and highly effective (though not infallible) safety measure that did nothing to erode or dilute F1’s essence.     

When a driver is injured – fatally or otherwise – it’s a sickening moment. Yet as competitors and fans, I believe we know deep down that its the visceral notion of there being a vulnerable human at the heart of the machine that makes motor racing so compelling. Nobody wants a return to F1’s dark and dangerous days, but there are positive lessons to be learned from its past. Making the drivers – and their dazzling skills – more visible to all is surely one of them?

Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings