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“Thoughts on pitstops, safety and entertainment”

July 24, 2013

When a loose wheel from Mark Webber’s Red Bull brutally hit FOM cameraman Paul Allen during the German Grand Prix, the sport was again left to look at its operations.

Two-and-a-half weeks on from the incident, one is forced to ask if the FIA and FOM have been looking in the right direction.

There is no doubt about it – a wheel flying you can be a truly frightening moment. It is probably unlikely that Allen knew what had hit him at first.

The FOM cameraman had swung around as cars ventured out of the pits, turning his back on the action behind, leaving him vulnerable. Within moments, Mark Webber’s errant tyre struck, breaking some ribs and a collarbone – Allen got very lucky.

In the time since, there has been much talk of making the pitlane a safer place, firstly by removing approved media crew to the pitwall and secondly by restricting pitlane access for all other non-essential personnel.
A touch nonsensical maybe. The idea that an errant wheel is incapable of jumping a barrier after departing a moving car at speed and ploughing a gantry is a rather naïve notion.

Fingers have been pointed at the placement of non-essential crew, such as media, in the pits during sessions, while others have blamed the drive for ultra fast pitstops that may win or lose valuable points.
Such is the intense nature of the competition within Formula One, the desire to claw any advantage possible had led to ever more ludicrous tactics and technology during pitstops, leading many to ask if the illustrious “sub two-second pitstop” ever be achieved during a race?
Rather than make the pitlane safer for those working within, these measures feel a lot like a governing and commercial bodies placing a simple band-aid plaster onto an amputation in the hope it might stop the bleeding.

Once again, from the outside, this appears to come down to how valuable the notion of entertainment is in the balance of the sport. The elephant in the room should not be the placement of crews in the pitlane or the speed in which stops are taking place, but whether mandatory tyre stops should be happening at all in a sport apparently obsessed with safety.
In 2005, the tyre regulations stipulated that a set of tyres needed to last the race distance (as well as the final qualifying stint) and by the end of that season, both companies had got a relatively good handle on it, with Michelin coming out on top in both performance and durability {note 1}.
Come the close of the 2010 season, Bridgestone – by now the sole supplier – were once again providing quick, rock hard tyres for cars on full tanks, that required changing due to mandatory pitstops rather than an overly aggressive wear rate.

So why does Formula One require mandatory pitstops? The answer – as with everything in this sport – is to improve the television product, also known as “the show”.
Sending the current generation cars out to race with no need to refuel or change their rock hard, fast tyres will probably not make for the most interesting viewing. As drivers make fewer and fewer mistakes, only wet weather or accidents could turn races into keenly watched events.
Tyre companies are incredibly aggressive beings – set them a task and they will surely succeed, just in the same way Pirelli have succeeded in creating jelly tyres for the sake of the television audience. Yet surely the current tyre regulations, which vastly increases the number of stops as the FIA encourage Pirelli to create fast wearing tyres, only makes the sport a far more dangerous animal for those situated in the pits?

Again, it may come down to Formula One’s apparent inability or unwillingness to address the problem of cars with far too much downforce, exasperated by the vortexes or dirty air that the rear wings, exhausts and diffusers (et al.) create {note 2}.
Like the introduction of fuel stops for the 1994 – which were also unnecessary to the practicalities of the sport – mandatory tyres stops just feel like an effort to induce a tone of artificial excitement, where dealing with the original problem seems to be too much effort.
In the end, refuelling was deemed far too dangerous and too predictable and it was rightly banned after the end of 2009. When tyre strategies again become predictable as they tend too in the second half of a season, one wonders what changes the rule makers will consider next.
But television rules and so for now, the stops remain unaffected by the developments of the past few weeks.

While the beautifully balanced ballet of an ultra-efficient stop can be dazzling to watch, life in the pitlane remains incredibly dangerous.
Let’s make no bones about it. These practically unnecessary pitstops will not be banished any time soon, so unless something else changes, the danger will remain – not just for media, but for other mechanics as well.
As so, one cannot help but think entertainment has been placed as a higher priority than safety in motorsport’s highest category and that is both a great shame and a great hypocrisy.

{note 1}
The only notable exceptions to this being at the Nurburgring – Kimi Raikkonen repeatedly flat-spotted his left front, eventually sheering his suspension apart as he closed in on a victory – and, of course, Indianapolis, which descended into one of Formula One’s most farcical races and crass political battles, which may have been solved had the parties involved wished to play ball.

{note 2}
Yes, there is more science to it than that, but for the sake of brevity, one hopes the point is relatively clear.

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2 Comments
  1. When I first heard the stories about removing media personnel from the pit lane (on Twitter), I offered the solution of fixed-gantry cameras that pivoted in either x, y or z plane – ideally all three – and controlled remotely. Positioned in various places along the pit lane, it would make for more interesting angles and viewing in my opinion, whilst also being safer.

    As you rightly point out though, the ‘need’ for pit stops comes down to television companies wanting value for money.

    What would be interesting is what happens if the ban on ‘free development’ was lifted… How about a set of rules that says:
    1) No tyre changes or fuel stops, or pit stops of any kind, unless deemed necessary for safety (i.e. a black/orange flag from race control, or a puncture)
    2) Each vehicle must be fitted with between one and three front and rear wings
    3) Vehicle must fit inside a set-sized box (with wheels on)

    Only other constraints would be for safety (e.g. driver protection, side impact, crush zones etc).

    Let’s not forget some of the best racing was pre-1980’s, when the rules were FAR more relaxed than nowadays.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Thanks for the comment Matt and apologies for taking so long to respond,
      You make some quite interesting suggestions; however I fear Formula One as a television product has probably travelled too far to something so radical, Although I would love to see the regulations opened up again.
      The two major changes between racing from 30 years ago and now has been the intensity with which aerodynamics is applied to design and the huge improvement in reliability, both of which have altered the face of motorsport beyond recognition.

      As an aside, I believe the fact that in 1980, Formula One (in the UK at least) enjoyed only 30-40 minute highlight shows per race weekend, thereby cutting out most of the fluff that audiences might consider “boring”, while today audiences get to see much more and have it explained to them a thousand times over.
      While racing is still racing, the manner of its presentation is utterly different and that sometimes gives the impression that the “good-old-days” provided far more exciting competition than it really did.
      How many people have ever watched the full 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon? So many fans know of that fabulous battle between Villeneuve and Arnoux over the final five laps, but few remember how painfully dull the previous 75 tours were, but then again, the highlights package of the day showed very little of the first 75 laps.

      Far too often I remember watching races that were won by a minute or some cases an entire lap, but again that’s racing. Right now, the sport has Balance of Performance techniques in play in everything but name.

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