Formula 1's teams and the FIA have agreed to introduce a protective structure, known as a "Halo," for the 2018 season. It's designed to protect drivers' exposed heads, after a series of sometimes fatal accidents.
All of 2018's F1 cars will use the Halo system, as agreed at Wednesday's meeting of the so-called F1 Strategy Group.
For the first time, after complaints that the group did not represent the smaller teams, every team was present at the Strategy Group meeting. However, Renault, Toro Rosso, Sauber and Haas only sent "observers" to the meeting, as the FIA described them in a press release.
Designers had to walk a tightrope: seeking to provide maximum protection without spoiling a driver's visibility, or their ability to get out of the car swiftly in an emergency
F1 teams unanimously agreed a year ago that some form of protection was required to counter the most common source of serious injury in modern open-wheel racing, when debris collides with a driver's exposed helmet and head. But progress was slow as engineers sought a solution that wouldn't block the driver's view of the road ahead, and wouldn't trap a driver inside the cockpit when they needed to get out.
"The FIA confirms the introduction of the Halo for 2018," the FIA said. "With the support of the teams, certain features of its design will be further enhanced. Having developed and evaluated a large number of devices over the past five years, it had become clear that the Halo presents the best overall safety performance."
However, specialist publications like Autosport Magazine reported, citing sources, that nine of the 10 teams had opposed the introduction of Halo next season at the meeting.
'Halo' trumps 'Shield'
An alternative system, a translucent windshield that had been dubbed a "Shield," had been considered the front-runner for use - not least when it was rolled out again at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone last weekend for one last test.
The perceived advantage of the Shield over the Halo was that it would also protect against small pieces of debris - while the Halo can only really stop larger objects like car wheels or pieces of bodywork. However, championship leader Sebastian Vettel complained after testing the Shield system that he was suffering from poor visibility and buffeting from the wind caused by the extra structure. Vettel also complained of becoming "dizzy" and disoriented, as he looked partly through and partly over the low windshield.
Teams were reportedly impatient for the FIA to settle on a system because work designing 2018's cars is already well underway. The addition of the halo will have considerable impact on cars' aerodynamics, the most important performance aspect of F1 design.
Years in the making, after multiple warnings
A string of similar crashes and near-misses exposed the need for F1 to consider some kind of cockpit protection years ago.
Felipe Massa sustained serious injuries at Hungary in 2009 when a tiny spring from a car in front came loose and pierced his helmet. Henry Surtees, the son of late F1 world champion John Surtees,was killed in a junior series in the same year when a loose wheel struck his head.
Manor driver Jules Bianchi spent months in a coma and ultimately died in 2015 after a crash at Suzuka, Japan, where his car went underneath an emergency vehicle that had deployed to deal with another stricken car at the same corner. Bianchi's head took the brunt of the impact. Manor's former test driver Maria de Villota lost an eye in a similar collision with a parked truck in testing in 2012, she died a year later.
Fernando Alonso also had a very near miss at Spa Francorchamps in 2012, when Romain Grosjean's Renault crashed into him and went over the top of his Ferrari, narrowly missing Alonso's head.
No other Strategy Group decisions of note
The F1 Strategy Group discussed several other issues in Wednesday's meeting, but little genuine progress was reported afterwards.
Ongoing discussions about changing the cars' power units by the 2021 season were tabled until the next such meeting in September.
The FIA also said that "a new approach to cost control was presented and received unanimous support," albeit without offering many concrete details. The plan will apparently involve the formation of "a dedicated Working Group" that "will be tasked to come up with innovative solutions aimed at ensuring the sport remains sustainable in the coming years."
Finally, the FIA announced that a series of sporting measures seeking to "improve the show" were debated at the meeting, and that "specific studies will be carried out to assess these."