Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s chief executive, and the senior drivers’ representative, Sebastian Vettel, found themselves in conflict on Thursday as the sport rejected the introduction of the halo head protection device next season.
Vettel, at Hockenheim for the German Grand Prix, supported the idea, claiming “nothing justifies death” and 95% of drivers were in favour of it. But in Geneva the sport’s Strategy Group, consisting of Ecclestone, the FIA president, Jean Todt, and six team chiefs, met to turn it down.
Ecclestone denied drivers would be upset. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Most of them didn’t want it anyway. Everybody agreed. It was unanimously against.”
The Strategy Group argued for most of the day, eventually deciding to reject implementation in 2017. This followed months of testing of the head protection device as well as a presentation to the drivers at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
It had become a heated subject of debate among the drivers in the Hockenheim paddock. The Renault driver Jolyon Palmer came under fire from two world champions, Vettel and Jenson Button, both directors of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, for claiming there was a consensus among drivers against the new device.
Palmer said: “Most people I speak to are against it but don’t really voice it in the press, so I think there’s a bit of a divide; some of the older guys prefer it and the younger guys don’t.”
This drew an indignant response from Button, who said: “He’s incorrect and it’s very unfair for him to speak for other drivers as well because each individual should speak for themselves on a safety issue. We sat down for an hour with the guys from the FIA who developed the halo with Ferrari. It’s a great solution.”
There was a further rebuke from Vettel, who said: “I’m a bit surprised about these comments because we had a vote among the drivers and I think 90 to 95% voted for it. We don’t like the looks of it but I don’t think there’s anything really that justifies death.”
Nico Rosberg sounded as robust as Vettel when he said: “It’s very clear. The large majority are definitely for halo, a very large majority. We had the presentation from the FIA and you can only be for it. I understand people who have something against halo, I understand the purist and things like that, but nevertheless it’s the right thing to do.
“The best solution for now is halo but there is further development to be done to make it even better.”
He said he had told Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes motorsport, about his views but that the rest was beyond his control.
Vettel was wrong to suggest there was such a strong vote in favour of halo. At least five of the 22 drivers – Palmer, Kevin Magnussen, Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean and Daniil Kvyat – have come out against it, and others are wavering.
Grosjean said: “I don’t want to stop safety in Formula One but racing drivers make a choice to come to a dangerous sport, and I’m not at all in favour of halo. I think it goes against the DNA of Formula One, against all I’ve seen since I was a kid and since it started in 1950.
“We don’t know what it is going to be like when it’s raining, we don’t know what it’s going to be like on a track like Spa, that is up and down, we don’t know what it is going to be like in Singapore with the lights. Halo’s heavy and we already have issues with the weight, and it’s ugly, so I think for the fans and for everyone. If it comes, fine, but if I have to vote I will vote against it.”
The DNA of which Grosjean spoke refers to open cockpits being a tradition in Formula One, and many view the halo device as a halfway house leading to a fully enclosing canopy down the line. Palmer also claims halo “wouldn’t have helped Jules Bianchi [who died last year following his crash in Japan in 2014] and it wouldn’t have helped Felipe Massa [who suffered a head injury in Canada in 2009].”
He added: “It wouldn’t have saved a life in F1 for 20 years or even prevented an injury and there’s other downsides like visibility. I know a couple of the drivers who have said when you start to go up or down you’ve got something blocking your view.”
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, was one of the key figures in Geneva who spoke against halo. He said: “As a team we’re not fans of the halo system. I think it’s an inelegant solution and I’m not so sure it is a complete solution. Rather than do half a job it’s better to take a bit more time and do it properly.”
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