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F1: Halo on car protects Charles Leclerc after crash with Fernando Alonso in Belgian GP

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SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) Fernando Alonso’s McLaren car spiraled into the air and bounced – yes, bounced – on top of Charles Leclerc’s Sauber during a dramatic first-lap crash at Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Both Formula One drivers walked away unscathed, with the halo protective device surrounding Leclerc’s cockpit appearing to save him from a serious head injury.

“I don’t know how it would have ended up without it. I am happy it was there,” said Leclerc, a 20-year-old driver from Monaco. “It all happened very quickly. At the time, I knew there was an orange car, I thought it was Fernando. I felt the impact, but it wasn’t that big in the car. I was lucky.”

Motorsport governing body FIA made the head protective device mandatory in F1 this year in order to protect drivers from potentially fatal impacts such as loose tires barreling at high speed, other flying debris and – in this case – one car landing on another.

“What is clear is the significant tire marks on the chassis and the halo,” FIA race director Charlie Whiting said. “It doesn’t take much imagination to think the tire marks could have actually been on Charles’ head.”

The FIA has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi – who was a close friend of Leclerc’s – died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

In Sunday’s crash, Leclerc’s head would most likely have been hit, if not for the halo.

“(Alonso’s car) would probably have made contact with his head,” Whiting said.

Last Sunday, Verizon IndyCar Series driver Robert Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

Wickens’ car flew into a fence and darted back toward the exposed head of another driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who ducked down and escaped unharmed.

IndyCar has also been testing a windscreen to improve protection around a driver’s head.

Whiting says the FIA is sharing all of its halo information with IndyCar.

“We are talking to them,” he said.

Alonso, who was sent airborne by Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault ploughing into the back of his car, was thankful no one was harmed.

“On the positive side we are all OK, with Charles, with the halo. It’s good news all three of us are OK,” Alonso told television broadcaster Sky. “It’s good proof (for the halo). We didn’t need any proof, but it’s a good thing.”

The halo forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting the head without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as four-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Others, like two-time F1 champion Alonso and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel were outspoken in backing its usage.

Former F1 champion Nico Rosberg tweeted: “We can end the HALO discussion now. It will save lives.”

Valtteri Bottas takes pole position for season-opening Austrian GP

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas upstaged Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to take pole position Saturday for the Formula One Austrian GP.

The Finnish driver edged out the world champion by 0.012 seconds to claim the top spot for the season opener at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. He clenched his fist as he climbed out of his car and shared a hug with Hamilton.

“It’s something special when you push the car to the limit,” said Bottas, who is chasing an eighth career win. “Feels so good. It’s very impressive (from the team).”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third, and Lando Norris gave McLaren a boost by finishing fourth. Verstappen has won the past two years here, including 2019 when he started third behind Hamilton and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

“It’s going to be interesting quite a bit warmer tomorrow and hopefully this will play to our advantage,” Verstappen said. “Today, Mercedes was on a different level, unfortunately. Last year we were also a little bit off in qualifying so I expect we will be a bit better in the race.”

Bottas had the leading time when drivers embarked on their final laps and beat his own mark before sliding off the track into the gravel.

Hamilton was chasing a record-extending 89th career pole. He was ahead but then dropped off slightly as Bottas secured a 12th career pole.

“Great job by Valtteri. It’s a great start to the season,” Hamilton said. “We show year on year that we continue to be the best team. We’re open-minded … constantly learning from each other and pushing the boundaries.”

Ferrari struggled for speed, with Leclerc nearly one second behind in seventh and Sebastian Vettel failing to make it into the third and final part of qualifying, known as Q3. He starts the race from 11th on the grid.

Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the season with his future in F1 uncertain.

Earlier, Hamilton posted the fastest time in morning practice. The 35-year-old British driver was also quickest in both sessions on Friday.

Midway through third practice, F1 newcomer Nicholas Latifi misjudged the exit of a turn and spun his Williams car into a protective tire wall.