It sounds a bit like a money-grab movie by Marvel, but there are going to be a lot of people in motorsport, both fan and industry professionals, paying very close attention to Formula 1 and IndyCar this 2018 season. Of course, there will be interest in all of the regular drama and racing action, but this year people will be evaluating the two different cockpit protection systems that Formula 1 and IndyCar have deployed to shield drivers from potentially hazardous debris.
Formula 1 has chosen to go with a halo system, whereas IndyCar has chosen an enhanced and enlarged windscreen. While Formula 1 is deploying its cockpit protection system this season, IndyCar is still in the evaluation phase of its windscreen-based system. Before we launch into an analysis of the two systems, we need to keep in mind that these are systems, not singular tacked-on elements. On a race car, everything is connected to everything else, therefore everything affects everything else.
Formula 1 Halo
Readers of The Parc Fermé are already familiar with the decision-making process behind the FIA’s choosing of the Halo system. If you’re not familiar with the background, check out our article, Why Halo is the right decision. The Halo system is incredibly strong, the strongest element on the car in fact, capable of bearing forces up to fifteen times the weight of the car itself. This strength enables it to handle large impactors such as a wheel, large body panel, or wing with ease, and provides additional rollover protection.
The Halo system’s ability to guard against large impactors adequately addresses the incidents that claimed the lives of Henry Surtees and Justin Wilson. However, it doesn’t address the small-object events such as Massa’s being struck by Barrichello’s spring. Light debris such as bits of klag or carbon can be safely deflected by the driver’s helmet, but larger, more massive objects such as a spring, a wheel nut, or a suspension member carry energies capable of overwhelming even modern helmet systems.
The IndyCar solution is really nothing more than a thick wind shield placed on the leading edge of the cockpit opening. It’s also not something brand new to open wheel racing in general and IndyCar racing specifically. Wind shields, in one form or other, have been around since the birth of racing machines. It’s been only since the mid-1990’s that there’s been no transparent shield on the cockpit of IndyCar or CART/CCWS machines.
Of course, the current windscreen deployment is higher-tech and differently motivated from its 20th Century counterparts. PPG’s Opticor ploycarbonate laminate material (here’s the datasheet for the technically minded) is a major improvement in protective transparent materials. While not providing as much structural strength as Formula 1’s Halo system, its strength is significant and capable of shrugging off bird strikes at 400 mph.
In pre-season testing at Phoenix, Chip Ganassi Racing driver, Scott Dixon, evaluated visibility through the proposed windscreen in varying lighting conditions. One downside of using a windscreen is that debris will inevitably collect on it necessitating full shield tear-offs much like what are used in prototype sportscar racing.
- Very strong
- Rollover protection
- No tearoffs
- Minimal protection from small impactors
- Opaque structure directly in front of the driver
- Open to aerodynamic exploitation by teams
- Cannot be retrofitted onto existing chassis (important for junior formula series)
- Transparent so there’s no obstruction of driver’s field of view
- Identical system for all teams
- Can be retrofitted onto existing chassis
- Although strong, it’s not as strong as the Halo
- No rollover protection
- Klag, rain, and other detritus can impair visibility
Aesthetically, the Shield solution beats the Halo solution by a mile. The impetus for the creation of these cockpit protection systems, though, is not to be pretty, but to protect drivers. Both systems appear to do exactly that, even if they do have their respective strengths and weaknesses.
I like the strength of the Halo system, and I wonder if such a system would have saved the life of Dan Wheldon. Perhaps it would have, perhaps not, but the Halo would have stood a better chance of survivability. The Halo would have been minimally effective at preventing the spring that struck Massa from intruding on the cockpit. This is an area where the Shield system is substantially more effective.
The real unknown for both of these systems is what are the unintended consequences? What negative outcomes are there that have not been considered in development and have not been encountered in testing? This, I think, will be the final part of calculus of driver protection that will tip the scales one way or the other. It will be interesting to see how the Halo and Shield systems perform in actual race conditions and additional testing, respectively.
What’s your take on this? Which system do you feel is the better path forward?