Addressing Hamilton’s comments that danger is part of the attraction of F1, Whiting said that he believes it would be remiss of the FIA not to act when it has identified a fundamental threat to drivers’ safety.
“That we are aware that accidents like this can take drivers’ lives and we are aware of a solution – then I think it is incumbent on us to do our best to make sure we can protect drivers more,” he said. “I do not think there is any doubt about that.”
Hamilton has acknowledged and supported the FIA’s work towards safety, but has been critical of both the devices proposed for the 2017 season – the halo design and the aeroscreen – and before the Russian Grand Prix he expressed his belief that maintaining an element of jeopardy was essential. “When I get in that car, I know that there is a danger,” he said. “That’s a risk that I am willing to take and that every single driver that’s ever got in the car has been willing to take. Everyone comes to me who’s just started watching Formula One and says: ‘It’s so dangerous.’ That’s a large part of why they are so in awe of what you do.”
However, the FIA’s Whiting, who has said that a decision on which device will be adopted will be made by 1 July, does not accept this as a basis for rejecting cockpit safety improvements. “I take his point, but there will always be risks,” he said. “If you are driving a car that quickly. When you look at them on track, it’s not until they go off the track that you realise how fast they are going and just what damage can be done. Cars will still look dangerous. Our job is to try and make them look dangerous without being dangerous.
“You only have to have an accident to see that it is dangerous. There is nothing better than to see a driver get out of an incredibly damaged car like we saw with Fernando Alonso [in Australia]. Everyone expects it. We want to improve the chances of that happening while the spectacle is still there.”
The sport has made huge advances in safety since the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994, not all of them initially embraced. The Hans – head and neck support device – was not universally welcomed but it has proved extremely successful and its use is compulsory in international FIA events. That Alonso could emerge effectively unscathed after his huge accident in Melbourne also proved how effective safety rules on wheel tethers and side, frontal and inverted impacts have been.
But the cockpit is still exposed and the move towards some form of head protection has been under investigation by the FIA for some time, not least since Felipe Massa suffered a skull fracture after being hit by a spring in 2009 at Hungary, the same year Henry Surtees, son of the former world-champion John, was killed at Brands Hatch during a Formula Two race having been struck by a wheel that had broken free from another car.
The FIA were already testing jet fighter canopies in 2011 when Dan Wheldon died in an accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, after his car landed cockpit-first in the catch netting.
The British driver Justin Wilson died after after he was hit by a piece of flying debris in an IndyCar race at the Pocono Raceway last year and Whiting believes the FIA simply cannot do nothing to try to reduce the threat, despite concerns from some, on the grounds of both aesthetics and that any device would make it harder for fans to see drivers. At the Russian Grand Prix, F1’s chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, said he did not believe the sport needed the aeroscreen or the halo.
“We are aware that driver’s heads are exposed to a certain extent,” Whiting pointed out. “Far less than they were 20 years ago, of course. But do you ever stop with safety research? Look at road cars 20 years ago some of the things you see on road cars now you would not believe would be necessary but they are now normal.
Hamilton’s team-mate, Nico Rosberg, who won in Russia and is 43 points ahead of the British driver in the championship is, in contrast, firmly in favour of implementing a device. “We need it,” he said. “It’s the biggest danger zone which remains in our sport as we have seen. There have been some fatalities. It’s an area where we need to keep pushing safety.”
Whiting believes Rosberg reflects a relative consensus across the drivers. “Some drivers have said to me this is not F1 and won’t be F1 any more but then other drivers, most drivers I would say, are in favour of it, in fact very, very insistent upon it being introduced,” he concluded.
Having first employed the aeroscreen in practice at Sochi, Red Bull will test their design again at Spain and Monaco, with the ultimate decision in the hands of the F1 commission.
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