The Formula One season started today in Australia, and a massive, scary crash on lap 18 provided an instant reminder why the sport will be adopting partially-closed cockpits next year. McLaren driver Fernando Alonso clipped the left rear of Esteban Gutierrez's Haas car while trying to execute a pass, slicing off Alonso's front right tire and sending the McLaren into the wall. The car then went airborne and barrel-rolled before slamming into a wall, finally halting the vehicle.
The crash left nothing but the cockpit of the McLaren intact. Fortunately, Alonso was unscathed, and stepped out of the utterly destroyed vehicle seconds after the dust settled. Gutierrez's car safely skid to a stop in the gravel pit. Alonso said in an interview afterwards, "It was a scary moment, a scary crash. You see the sky, the ground, the sky... you want to stop." He posted on Instagram: "I am aware that today I spent some of the luck remaining in life."
I am aware that today I spent some of the luck remaining in life, I want to thank @mclaren, the FIA for the safety on this cars. Also my colleagues and fans for the concern and unconditional support. Now it's time to rest and think about Bahrain, and get back in the car to get the first points of this year !! #australia
Scary accidents like these have led to calls for covered cockpits for years. Although modern Formula One has a sterling safety record, Felipe Massa was left in a coma after being struck by a spring on track in 2009. And last summer, Jules Bianchi was killed by injuries sustained after crashing into a tractor in a freak accident — the impact subjected incredible force to his helmet. Another accident last year saw racer Justin Wilson die after being struck in the head by debris in IndyCar, another open-wheel racing series.
A final design hasn't yet been confirmed for 2017, but the odds-on favorite is the "Halo" concept, a version of which was tested by Ferrari earlier this year. It's not clear if Halo would have helped in this particular case, but airborne accidents do put the driver of open-cockpit vehicles at particular risk.
Some have criticized the Halo system for making it harder to exit the vehicle after a crash, but Alonso's teammate Jenson Button noted today that "there was no need for him to get out in that situation," according to Autosport. He added, "There's more safety risk of things hitting our head than anything happening when the car's upside down." When asked about the controversy, Alonso said: "We need to see if with the Halo that [exiting the cockpit] would become more difficult." We'll undoubtedly hear more about the system as it undergoes further development in the run-up to next spring.
Update 5:06PM ET: Added comments from Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso on the Halo system.