Why has the recently postponed cockpit halo proven to be so much more emotive for fans than pretty much all previous safety advances in Formula 1? There’s probably a ‘last straw’ element to it, but it actually runs deeper than that. For a very long time there has been a disconnect between what the sport sells and what the reality is. For many, F1 is an escape from the humdrum; gladiators wheel-to-wheel in a high adrenaline, dangerous game, walking the tightrope between glory and devastation. It’s not that people want to see death and injury. But they like to think they are watching a competition where the drivers are aware of that level of peril hanging over them – but choosing to do it anyway. It’s an appealing, romantic rejection of the safety and blandness of everyday modern life.
Now think about the sport’s major safety advances of the past few decades – car construction and materials, track design, self-sealing fuel valves etc – and they have not radically altered the look of the sport to the casual fan. He can still kid himself he’s watching that romantic narrative in his mind play out.
But the halo cannot be ignored. It’s right there, a hideous-looking thing, a visual suggestion that the element of danger that has always been implicit is no longer there, a visible trigger that’s made it impossible to ignore the creeping safety-led homogenisation. It’s a stark reminder that the driver is now performing on a tightrope that’s only a few feet above the ground. He may be every bit as on the limit (in qualifying at least) as drivers have ever been, and actually probably even more. But with relatively little jeopardy. That has been the case for some time – but the halo visually insists the spectator acknowledges this, wakes him from his beautiful dream.
Yet from the inside it’s not like this. From inside the cockpit it can still feel plenty real and dangerous. Jules Bianchi, Justin Wilson, Henry Surtees were all racing in the so-called ‘safety’ era, but are gone regardless. Like all F1 drivers from any time in history, they are not doing it from the perspective of how it was for their predecessors. Just like them, they are trying to minimise the inherent dangers with the best available knowledge and technology. That used to be cork helmets. Now it isn’t. It isn’t the fault of current drivers that the knowledge and technology have moved on to the point where it’s presenting the sport with a stark choice. “This would be the first time in the sport’s history it has chosen to ignore a safety advance,” says the GPDA chairman Alex Wurz.
Right there is the choice facing the sport. Technology is forcing it to acknowledge a disconnect that it has not previously even been aware of. The drivers, living in the very vivid reality of the cockpit, can’t relate to much of the fanbase’s perception of what the sport is – and even if they were aware would consider it a fantasy. The fans in turn cannot relate to how it really is for the drivers. Left in the middle is the guy trying to sell the show. So although it was presented as ‘The halo has been postponed for a year while it’s more thoroughly tested’, the suspicion is that the strong fan backlash is what was behind Bernie Ecclestone swaying things away from the halo’s 2017 introduction at the recent strategy group meeting. Only days before, the FIA had made a presentation to the drivers saying the halo was up and running, ready to go.
That same disconnect between how the sport transmits its image and what fans wants to believe they are watching is also behind why radio transmissions became such an emotive subject. The fans, understandably, did not want to hear drivers being instructed by engineers on how to drive. Hence the radio restrictions. But the fans didn’t like the resultant loss of ‘colour’ on the radio, the emotive, adrenaline-soaked stuff direct from the heat of battle. Furthermore, it was plainly ridiculous that a team could not tell its driver how to get around a safety issue. So – again driven by the fan backlash – radio restrictions have been removed. Driver coaching has returned through the back door in a classic case of ‘be careful what you ask for’. The difference this time is that you won’t hear it – because controller FOM will not be putting it out, as the broadcasters get only the messages deemed suitable by ‘the management’.
It’s too easy to stand back and rubbish such developments. They have arisen organically as technology and commerce have arrived at a point where choices need to be made. For the moment, F1 has deferred asking itself the fundamental questions and has merely attended to appearances. But now the disconnect is finally apparent to everyone, the sport can be better informed in its future choices.