x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Formula One should pull out all stops on pit lane safety urgently

Law of averages dictate that with the high number of pit stops in F1 something is bound to go wrong once in a while, explains Graham Caygill.

A crewman reacts as a tyre from Mark Webber’s Red Bull Racing goes flying while he was leaving his pit box during the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. The tyre struck a cameraman, sending him to hospital.
A crewman reacts as a tyre from Mark Webber’s Red Bull Racing goes flying while he was leaving his pit box during the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. The tyre struck a cameraman, sending him to hospital.

It was a case of good news and bad news for Pirelli at the German Grand Prix at the weekend.

The new rear tyres they supplied for the 60-lap race at the Nurburgring proved a success, free of the blowouts and delaminations that had dogged the British Grand Prix seven days earlier.

But unfortunately it was still a Pirelli product that attracted the negative headlines in Germany, namely the tyre that came loose from Mark Webber's Red Bull Racing car as he left his pit box after his first stop.

The tyre careered down the pit lane, scattering mechanics before it struck an unfortunate television cameraman on his left-hand side.

Paul Allen suffered two broken ribs, a broken collarbone, concussion and bruises from the impact and all of the F1 fraternity were grateful that while the injuries were indeed serious, it could have been even worse had the tyre struck him on the head.

If anything it reiterated something that is already taken for granted - just how dangerous the pit lane at a grand prix is, even when the cars are not going at racing speeds.

This is not the first time that someone has been struck in the pit lane, be it by a car or an errant tyre, but the injuries to Allen will rightly open up a new debate over safety levels.

A review to decide who should and should not be allowed around the cars as they change tyres and what extra safety measures may need to be employed should now be on the FIA's agenda.

Before 1994 there was no speed limit in the pit lanes, leading to cars charging into their pit box at dangerous speeds.

The sight of Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and other F1 drivers powersliding their way out of their stall, on coldish tyres, speeding down the pit lane to re-enter the circuit, was visually stunning, but also raised fears of what would happen if one of the drivers did not catch their slide or a tyre came loose.

Things changed for the better as a consequence of the tragic events at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

While the race at Imola is remembered for the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, an incident in the pit lane added to the sombre mood in Italy.

Michele Alboreto's Minardi had just pitted, but his right rear tyre was not fitted properly and came off as he powered down the pit lane, bouncing and striking a number of mechanics, leaving two from Ferrari and two from Lotus requiring medical treatment.

At that time, such was the blase attitude and disregard for their own safety that team mechanics would stand out in the pit lane, watching the action and what other teams were doing, even if they were not expecting a pit stop.

The Alboreto incident at least ensured new safety measures were implemented by the FIA, with mechanics only allowed out of their garage when they were expecting one of their cars in.

Also, a pit-lane speed limit was introduced – which was initially as low as 50 kph – but is presently 60 kph for practice sessions and 100 kph for qualifying and races.

However, Sunday's incident demonstrated that despite lowering speeds and minimising the number of people in the pit lane, accidents can still happen.

The ban on refuelling at the end of 2009 had already improved safety levels immeasurably.

The memory of half the Benetton crew in flames after the fuel rig had come loose during a stop for Jos Verstappen at the 1994 German Grand Prix still conjures horrific memories.

So, how to prevent a repeat of Sunday's accident?

Greater penalties for pit-lane infringements and unsafe behaviour would be a step in the right direction.

Red Bull were hit with a €30,000 (Dh141,362) fine by stewards for releasing the blameless Webber unsafely and starting the events that would lead to Allen spending a night in hospital.

It is probably safe to assume that nobody was more mortified than the Red Bull mechanics at what happened because of their mistake.

But they were working in a high-pressure scenario, trying get Webber out as quickly as possible so he could stay in the hunt for the lead.

With the high number of pit stops in F1 now something is bound to go wrong once in a while, and Red Bull are not the first, and are unlikely to be the last, to send their driver out without all wheels bolted on.

But would a bigger punishment act as a better deterrent to try to eradicate such potentially fatal mistakes?

Currently, teams are usually penalised with a drive-through penalty for any unsafe release, but that punishment is normally only enforced if one team releases a car into the path of another. Would disqualification from the race be too draconian?

Dangerous driving can lead to a driver being black-flagged and thrown out of a race.

Loose tyres bouncing around a heavily populated pit lane after mechanics have failed to properly fit them to a car can, rightly so, be regarded as just as serious.

The threat of disqualification could force teams to slow down their quick-fit routines - it can take less than four seconds to change all four tyres - to ensure everything is safely secured before the driver is signalled to go.

Disqualification maybe too severe as a first punishment, but the FIA must consider tougher sanctions, such as longer time penalties, fines and then disqualification for repeat offences, to try to curb the mistakes that bring danger to the pit lane.

Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, and Ross Brawn, his Mercedes-GP counterpart, both suggested that anyone in the pit lane should wear a helmet.

New rules for 2014 have confirmed all team personnel working on a pit stop will wear protective head equipment, but that should go for everyone, including media.

It was pleasing to hear F1 commercial rights owner Bernie Ecclestone yesterday say that from the next round of the championship, in Hungary at the end of the month, all cameramen stationed in the pits must be located on the pit wall, but that still does not mean the authorities should let any mistakes or oversights in the pits go unpunished.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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