Words: Michael Cords
Here we are, just days away from the start of the 2018 Formula One season, in which we will see a new area of F1 car shaped by safety regulations. The cockpit protection Halo makes its race debut to the collective groan of most F1 fans. One cannot argue against protecting drivers from harm. Injuries and death should be eliminated from modern F1 as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree how that is accomplished or appreciate the results it has on the look of the car.
The design and associated aesthetics of Grand Prix cars have always been the slave to safety rules. One can argue that pure, unadulterated racing machinery peaked in the mid- to late-60s. The cars were sleek, clean, and beautiful. Yet the quest for performance led to the governing board reigning in these advancements with safety regulations. The 1969 Spanish GP at the Montjuïc circuit was a turning point. The Lotus cars showed up with the de rigueur high rear wing. The resulting downforce was underestimated, and the strength of the wing supports were overestimated, leading to savage accidents for drivers Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt. From then on, the dimensions and location of the rear wing were strictly regulated.
1983 saw another major safety-related change to car design. Gone were the ground-effect “wing cars”, to be replaced by the axle-to-axle flat-bottom undertrays still seen today. The innovation pioneered by Lotus and used to such pronounced effect by Williams and Brabham was deemed too unsafe. The massive downforce generated led to ridiculously high cornering speeds and rock-hard suspension. The toll on the drivers was evidenced by reigning World Champ Nelson Piquet almost fainting off 1982 Brazilian GP podium. By the end of the decade, the driver would also be moved backward, feet behind the front axle centerline. The shape of an F1 car was now drastically different from just a few years before.
The death of Ayrton Senna in May 1994 sparked several changes that would continue throughout that season. Some, like the power-reducing holes cut into the side of the air box, were temporary while others became permanent. Senna’s tragedy, along with Karl Wendlinger’s accident at Monte Carlo, urged Sauber to introduce the high cockpit bolster which would later be adopted into the rule book. Despite larger cockpit openings, the driver was reduced further into the car; surrounded and protected but hidden from outside view. Tires had already been narrowed, and by the end of the 90s would have speed-reducing grooves. To many purists, this was not what a Formula One car should look like.
It is said that a “real” F1 car is defined as that which was present when one first becomes enamored with the sport. For me, that explains why I find the mid-80s example to be so satisfying aesthetically. Younger people may prefer the winglet-laden early 2000s look. Perhaps there are children today who will watch the 2018 season and, years from now, yearn for the classic Halo styling. They will complain about the modern cockpit Cage™ and that one can no longer see the top of a driver’s helmet or his knuckles at the wheel.
The look of an F1 car will always change at the behest of safety. But we don’t have to like it.