So the question of the day seems to be “Which do you prefer? Halo or Aeroscreen?” Let me tell you what I think.
Ten-fifteen years ago, there were days on which I could think of nothing except Formula 1. I recall with great clarity – to the point that I can re-live the smell and feel of the fabric – the season finale of 2000, when every fibre in my being wanted Michael Schumacher to finally win the world championship for Ferrari.
It is true that I am older now. But if you had asked that red Ferrari T-shirt wearing 20-year-old in 2000 if he could imagine there would be days in the future when he told his wife he wished he didn’t have to write about Formula 1, he would have said absolutely not. That, however, is where I sometimes find myself today.
Then – every two weeks as the cars weave their route through the massed ranks of mechanics and celebrities on the grid in the last quarter-hour before a grand prix – I forget why I hate Formula 1 and I love it again. So it’s not all bad.
Indeed, I don’t even mind writing – day-in, day-out – about the poisonous political atmosphere that now engulfs the paddock as massive egos with Euro-signs in their eyes and power on their minds plot their schemes and fight their corners. It may be slowly killing F1, but at least it’s fun.
But when it comes to ‘Halo or Aeroscreen?’, I just have to draw the line. That’s because Formula 1 – in my mind, at least – is now in serious peril of reaching some kind of tipping point. If not a hundred times, I must have watched the replay of that epic Schumacher versus Hakkinen battle at Suzuka in 2000 at least 15 or 20 times in the last decade and a half. The battle, the characters, the passion, the challenge — it’s summed up beautifully by that race.
So much has changed since then. And I fear that ‘Halo or Aeroscreen?’ could be the symbolic final nail in the coffin of that sport that I so loved.
Don’t get me wrong — I understand the safety arguments. I’m aware that arguing against radical head protection for the drivers sounds an awful lot like arguing against tree-free circuit verges, seatbelts and full-face helmets all those decades ago. I recall with great clarity when the ‘HANS’ devices became mandatory, and my primary fear was that watching my heroes go through their pre-race equipment routines might now be spoiled by its awkwardness. But I didn’t fear for the sport itself.
Now, I do.
That is despite the fact that – it’s true – a ‘Halo or Aeroscreen’ may actually have saved the life of a Henry Surtees or a Justin Wilson, or meant that Felipe Massa did not have to go through the horror of nearly losing his life in 2009. But I’m not callous. I just love watching my heroes race. I love motor racing.
I remember with clarity the first time I saw an F1 car in action. It was Adelaide, 1985, I was just 6 and I recall almost nothing else about being so young. What I do remember about being 6 is seeing that gush of colour and hearing that soul-altering sound and thinking “There cannot REALLY be a man in that thing!” From that point on, I was transfixed to the notion that there are men in the world who can do that. Who are willing to do that.
Now, I have to be honest and admit that, when I look at Lewis Hamilton, I do not see a man who amazes me. I see a very lucky guy who has an amazing job. Undoubtedly, Hamilton is as talented as the best of any generation that preceded him. But what they do today does not amaze me.
That’s not to say F1 does not still have its heroic moments. Fernando Alonso, overalls littered with gravel, putting his hands on his knees in pain and dizzyness is a recent example. But it’s very possible to imagine how that rare heroic moment in Melbourne might be completely diminished by a series of variables. Imagine he wasn’t doing 300kph, he was buzzing along at Formula E pace. Imagine his McLaren-Honda didn’t first strike a concrete barrier, it was gently caught like a baseball in a glove by the latest generation of Tec-Pro 2.0. It didn’t take off like a Concorde by hitting an area of grass sideways, it meandered with scientific planning across billiard-table smooth asphalt run-off that we already see at ultra-modern Hermann Tilke circuits today. He pulls the clutch and re-enters the race. F1, it seems, wants this to be the heroics of the future.
Now – again – don’t get me wrong, you don’t (and shouldn’t) watch Formula 1 for the crashes. I don’t want drivers to smash their ribs and collapse their lungs. The fatalities, mercifully now rare, are awful. But F1 is not golf. It’s not tiddlywinks. It’s the absolute pinnacle of motor racing. It’s guys strapped to awe-inspiring rockets, confounding the young minds of 6-year-olds who might one day be inspired to devote their entire professional career to those guys and rockets.
I, for one, would not have been amazed in Adelaide, 1985, if my heroes were wrapped in cotton-wool. This essay would never have been written. ‘Halo or Aeroscreen?’ For the love of F1, please, neither.