The immediate reaction of Formula 1 fans was nearly universal midway through the Italian Grand Prix on Sept. 12, 2021: disbelief that Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Max Verstappen of Red Bull could crash out of the race in the same incident.
After a moment or two of contemplation, the reaction almost certainly changed: It’s Hamilton and Verstappen, it’s 2021, and the world’s two biggest names in motorsports were battling for the championship, resulting in multiple other crashes. So, of course, it was possible.
Once the safety car came out onto the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza circuit, giving the broadcast crew the chance to show replays of the wreck, the reaction changed with the speed of one of those imposing F1 machines roaring down a three-quarter-mile straightaway.
Lewis Hamilton could have died.
Hamilton is still alive in no small part because someone else, a man with much more clout than any Formula 1 fan, also changed his thinking along the way.
Toto Wolff owns one-third of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team and serves as the managing partner. Besides running that operation, Wolff carries weight in F1 circles because of Mercedes’ dominance in recent years, thanks largely to Hamilton’s driving.
In that context, here are two quotes:
“I’m not impressed with the Formula 1 Halo, and if you gave me a chainsaw, I would take it off.”Toto Wolff, 2018
“The Halo definitely saved Lewis’ life today.”Toto Wolff, Sept. 12, 2021
That’s quite a 180 by Wolff, but he’s almost certainly correct that the safety device, which is open-wheel racing’s version of a roll bar, saved Hamilton at the Italian Grand Prix. Moments after exiting the pits, the seven-time series champion tangled with Verstappen coming through turn 1. The Red Bull car went airborne and landed on Hamilton’s car. The Halo was the only thing preventing 2,000 pounds of steel, rubber, and driver from crushing Hamilton.
“It would have been a horrible accident that I don’t want to even think about if we wouldn’t have had the Halo,” Wolff said, according to The Sports Rush.
The Halo is a titanium appliance behind the driver in the open cockpit. In the event of a rare rollover, or the even more unlikely instance of another vehicle rolling on top of the car, it protects the driver from being crushed. It was touted in initial testing as being able to withstand the weight of a double-deck bus.
That did not impress Wolff at the time.
“This is a Formula 1 car, whether it has a bus on top or not,” he scoffed, according to Racecar Engineering.
Overbuilt or not and aerodynamic or not, it kept Hamilton alive. Though the crash took both drivers out of the race, preventing them from accruing points, Hamilton lived another day to stalk Verstappen in pursuit of his fifth straight championship.
Race stewards summoned the drivers and their team managers to a meeting after the Sept. 12 race to sort out what happened in the incident. After listening to Hamilton and Verstappen and viewing footage, the officials assigned the blame to Verstappen and penalized him three spots on the grid at the Russian Grand Prix.
Given that Verstappen and Hamilton are always threats to win the pole, the likelihood of the two starting just one or two rows apart in any future race is significant, making for yet another tense start in a season in which both drivers have experienced too much drama.
Verstappen and Hamilton crashed minutes apart at the Azerbaijan GP. Their cars tangled on the opening lap of the British GP, sending Verstappen into a brutal impact with a barrier.
Therefore, the Italian GP debacle was one too many close calls for Mercedes’ Wolff.
“Both of them need to leave space for each other, race each other hard but avoid accidents,” he said. “It was good fun until now, but we have seen a Halo that saved Lewis’s life today and Max had this heavy impact in Silverstone and we don’t want to come to a situation to intervene when somebody gets really hurt.”