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Explained: How a device that can take the weight of two elephants saved Romain Grosjean’s life

Romain Grosjean wasn’t happy when the Halo was introduced in 2018, but like many others in the sport, has changed his mind now.

Written by Nihal Koshie , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 1, 2020 8:11:33 pm
Romain Grosjean, Romain Grosjean car crash, Haas driver Romain Grosjean, Bahrain Grand Prix, halo safety device, what is halo safety device, express explained, indian expressHaas driver Romain Grosjean's car is aflame after he crashed during the Formula One race in Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, on November 29. (Photo: AP)

Haas driver Romain Grosjean credited the ‘Halo’ safety device for saving his life after his Formula One car split into two, crashing into a barrier and going up in flames at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday. The Frenchman wasn’t happy when the safety device was introduced in 2018, but like many others in the sport, has changed his mind now.

Romain Grosjean crash: What is the ‘Halo’?

In one word: Ugly. But also life-saving, as Grosjean will testify.

Made out of titanium and supplied to teams by three approved manufacturers, the Halo loops around the cockpit and is attached to the car at three points, including one right in the middle of the driver’s line of vision. The safety shield is meant to protect drivers during a crash and from larger flying debris, like an untethered wheel.

Illustration: Suvajit Dey

Why were Grosjean and other drivers unhappy initially?

In July 2017, just after FIA, the governing body for Formula One, confirmed the Halo would be introduced from the following season, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen echoed the views of many of his fellow drivers when he said: “F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda. It is to do with passion. If it looks shit, it is shit.”

Grosjean, a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association back then, called it a “sad day for Formula One” and also questioned if enough tests had been done to ensure the Halo didn’t impair vision. Max Verstappen wanted Formula One to retain the element of risk.

However, not everyone objected. Current world champion Lewis Hamilton had first objected but came around when FIA’s study showed it improved safety of the driver by 17 per cent.

How did the Halo save Grosjean’s life?

In the first lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Grosjean’s right rear wheel clipped the left wheel of Alfa Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat. Grosjean hit the barrier at about 140 miles per hour. The force of the impact (53G) was such that it split the car into two, and shattered a barrier before it caught fire, a scary image which reminded everyone of the risks drivers take.

The Halo, according to preliminary reports, prevented Grosjean’s head and helmet from crashing through the barrier and cushioned most of the impact.

World Champion Hamilton, the winner of Sunday’s race, was thankful: “I’m just so grateful that the Halo worked. I’m grateful the barrier didn’t slice his head off,” Hamilton said.

It took Grosjean about 30 seconds to emerge from the ball of fire and the mangled remains of the car. The Haas F1 team on its Twitter handle posted a video of Grosjean, being treated for burns on his hands, saying: “I wasn’t for the Halo some years ago, but I think it’s the greatest thing that we brought to Formula 1 and without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today.”

Burns because of the fire were limited because Formula One has strict rules about fire-resistant suits, gloves and shoes.📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Are there other drivers who have been protected by the Halo?

Two years ago, at the Belgian Grand Prix, Alonso’s McLaren was launched into the air after being hit from behind, and landed on Charles Leclerc’s Sauber. The Halo sustained damage and there were visible tyre marks on it. “I have never been a fan of the Halo but I have to say that I was very happy to have it over my head today,” Leclerc said.

Open-wheel racing like Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula 4 and Formula E have also made the Halo mandatory. Two years ago, in a Formula 2 race at Catalunya, Nirei Fukuzumi’s car, following wheel contact, landed on top of the cockpit of Tadasuke Makino’s car, but the Halo took most of the impact. Last year, Formula 3 driver Alex Peroni’s car landed upside down after it flipped when it hit a curb. Peroni, who suffered a fractured vertebra, credited Halo for saving his life.

How strong is the Halo?

According to the FIA website, the Halo can take the weight of two African elephants (about 6,000 kilograms each) and is ‘sturdy enough to deflect a large suitcase at the speed of 225 kilometres per hour’. A wheel and assembly weighing 20 kilograms was also fired at the Halo at 225 kmph to test it.

Grade 5 titanium, used in the aerospace industry, goes into making the Halo. The FIA website says it can withstand 125 kiloNewtons of force (12 tonnes in weight) from above for five seconds without any part –– including the mountings –– coming off, and can absorb the same force (125 kN) from the side.

FIA calls the Halo the ‘strongest part of the car’.

Also in Explained | Does winning the World Cup make Maradona greater than Messi?

Has the crash raised safety issues?

Ever since Aryton Senna’s death at the 1994 San Marino GP, the sport has been trying to make cars safer. But Sunday provided a grim reminder of the dangers.

A Formula One car hasn’t caught fire following a crash in three decades, so the fireball following Grosjean’s crash is worrisome. With cars carrying up to 110 kilograms of fuel, fuel lines are not supposed to leak or break even on high impact. The car splitting into two and breaking through a barrier is also a major concern for the crashworthiness of the car and also the structural integrity of a barrier.

F1 managing director Ross Brawn was relieved that safety measures saved Grosjean’s life but also admitted he was concerned.

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“We have to do a very deep analysis of all the events that occurred, because there were a number of things that should not have happened,” Brawn said. “The fire was worrying, the split in the barrier was worrying.”

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