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Pit Stop Madness

Maurice Hamilton July 10, 2013
The pit lane has always been a dangerous place, with a mechanic killed after falling off the narrow ledge in Zolder in 1981 © Sutton Images
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Grand Prix racing ought to be very grateful to Andy Murray and the British and Irish Lions. Were it not for such heady success in tennis and rugby union, F1 would have splashed the back - and possibly the front - of British national newspapers with melodramatic words and graphic pictures portraying Paul Allen being flattened by Mark Webber's rear wheel; a certain recipe on slow news days for revelations that motor racing is terribly dangerous and something really ought to be done about it.

I am not denigrating the seriousness of the incident in the slightest. But, while we may have been spared the patronising editorials, the biggest surprise is that the anticipated knee-jerk reaction has come from within the sport itself.

The FIA has implemented the use of safety helmets (which would not have helped the hapless Allen in the slightest) and lowering of pit lane speeds (again, not making any difference as Webber was barely up to speed and it was the powerful torque that supplied the impetus), plus removal to the pit wall of the limited number of thoroughly professional camera operators.

All of these measures amount to nothing more than cosmetic bandages applied proudly in public on a wound that is actually in need of major procedural surgery in private. The horrifying incident we saw in the Nürburgring pit lane was collateral damage. The cause was the pit stop itself.

Before examining the pit stop routine, is it permissible to ask the FIA just what effect they feel a €30,000 fine for unsafe release will have on the likes of Red Bull and their admirable desire to win? It's like telling Bernie Ecclestone the Cost of Living Index has risen to a record level just as he manoeuvres another million into the pockets of CVC Capital Partners. Pathetic wrist slapping is the term that springs to mind.

In any case, Red Bull need no reminding of the potential consequences associated with such a failure. The subsequent forensic examination in Milton Keynes will have been more thorough than anything the FIA could wish for. In truth, it is the governing body that ought to be investigating just how pit stops have been allowed to reach a state of frenzied activity that has more potential for tragedy than the provision of theatre.

Pit stops under three seconds are an extraordinary piece of orchestration. But nothing else. The aim is to break the two-second barrier. If that happens, so what? Will you, the viewer, notice the difference?

As it is, blink and you miss all that action teams spend thousands and thousands of man-hours rehearsing. With margins so fine, the chance of error is matched by massive pressure to succeed. The wheel guns themselves are absurd pieces of kit; revolving grenades that only a few strong men can handle without the risk of snapping their wrists. Could the FIA tell me precisely what this brings to the party?

And why do we need an army of 18 to 20 people surrounding the car and blocking much of the action from view during those brief seconds? A simple answer would be to cut the numbers by at least a half and have them attend to one side of the car and then the other. That way, the mechanics continue to play a significant part and, unlike the fast-forward madness of today, the process allows at least a second or two for an error to be recognised, never mind rectified.

Make no mistake, F1 has made massive progress in pit lane etiquette since, say, the 1981 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. There were no garages, the cars being worked on in an inner lane; the outer lane for the movement of cars being just as narrow. Every Tim, Pierre and Harry was allowed access, the inner lane often resembling an Oxford Street pavement at Christmas.

Worse than that, the signalling crews and team management had to operate from a narrow ledge. On the first day of practice Giovanni Amadeo, an Osella mechanic, lost his balance and fell between the wheels of Carlos-Reutemann's slow-moving Williams. The Italian later died of head injuries. Reutemann went on to win the race but the poor man was utterly devastated.

F1 is extremely fortunate that such feelings of despair are not being replicated in the aftermath of Sunday. But the chances of that happening will remain for as long as bursts of three-second insanity are allowed to continue in a sport that some say is being made as safe as humanly possible.

On another day, F1 could make the front page for all the wrong reasons.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live