Act in haste, repent at leisure unsafe releases in F1

Daniel Ricciardo is pushed back to his pit in Malaysia after leaving without all four wheels attached ( Red Bull Racing, Getty Images)
21 July 2014 by Graham Keilloh | M

We’re now pretty much exactly one year on from last season’s German Grand Prix, that time at the Nurburgring. And perhaps by far one incident from that particular race most sticks in the memory. Not for positive reasons either.

Mark Webber pitted for the first time, and upon being released by his crew back into the action one of his rear wheels was not attached, and even at the low, artificially-limited, speed the torque upon his leaving the box was sufficient to fire the wheel down the crowded pit lane like a bouncing bomb, and it hit the back of the head of a FOM cameraman by the name of Paul Allen. All this too took place under the merciless gaze of the live TV international feed, beaming it into living rooms all around the world at that moment.

Allen’s injuries were thankfully light. It seemed nothing other than sheer fortune that worse, much worse, did not occur. 

A series of safety-minded changes to the personnel allowed in a ‘live’ pit lane, as well as the mandatory wearing of helmets of those working on the cars and a reduction to the pit lane speed limit were announced in short order by the FIA. And by the year’s end an automatic 10-place grid drop for an unsafe release was sanctioned, with additional punishments on top of it for the same offence permitted too, such as a drive-through or a 10-second penalty during that race. All very good it seems?

Hmm, maybe. Some of the more discerning suspected a few ulterior motives, which the wording of the FIA’s initial press release on the matter seemed to give away. ‘In order to reduce the risk of similar accidents in the future, the FIA, on the initiative of its President, Jean Todt, will be seeking to make changes to the Formula One Sporting Regulations.’

‘On the initiative of its President, Jean Todt’. The same Jean Todt who just happened to be seeking re-election that year. You do the maths.

It is admittedly rather easy to start bashing the FIA at such moments. And we shouldn’t forget the pressure that was on the governing body from the rest of us too at the time after the Nurburgring case, with rather a lot of us shouting for draconian retribution for unsafe release offenders – understandable given the sickening nature of what had just happened.

Yet whatever the motives for it all had amid the grandstanding a fitting and effective solution been settled upon no one would have minded. But it wasn’t. Instead what we got has revealed itself in practice to be a mosaic of the pointless and the brutalist – especially so in the retribution to drivers that was framed. Probably it underlines the risks in a general sense when one feels obliged to do something, and to do something quickly, firmly and noticeably, in response to a single extreme occurrence. Hard cases make bad law, or whatever the apposite phrase is.

Unsafe releases with wheels attached have continued to occur on occasion since, and in practice in addition to the automated 10-place grid drop the drivers involved (I refuse to say ‘guilty’ drivers but more of that later) have indeed been getting the additional whammy of a 10 second stop-go (not a drive-through note). This has applied both to Daniel Ricciardo in Malaysia and Esteban Gutierrez in Austria. And in both cases the incident itself had utterly ruined their races even before the stewards poked their noses in. Make it a triple-whammy then. As something of a portent Christian Horner noted back in Malaysia that Ricciardo’s sanction seemed ‘harsh’.

It hasn’t got easier since. Sebastian Vettel in Hockenheim mused at it all that it's ‘like going to prison for stealing a chocolate bar’, while Gutierrez lamented after his own sanction ‘You're already losing time by coming back for a five second stop-and go (it was actually ten seconds that Gutierrez got), and then you're ten places behind for the following race. It's way too much…it's something that should be revised because from a driver point of view, it was not really my mistake.’

Of course, it can be argued that all of this is appropriate, as the safety stakes are high – as was so horribly flirted with at the Nurburgring. But perhaps we should question whether all of this splurge upon splurge of driver sanction is actually effective. Presumably it’s intended as a deterrent to pushing the envelope in stops, and if we work on this premise then you have to doubt that it’s fit for purpose. I’m certainly not aware of any teams being more cautious as a result of the new penalties, or putting new, safer, procedures in place. 

And upon scrutiny we perhaps can see why. As an unsafe release with not all wheels attached is in itself a major deterrent, as the time lost from it alone will almost certainly ruin that driver’s race all by itself. Even in the case of Ricciardo who was sat pretty in P4 when he pitted in Malaysia he found himself after his release with a wheel loose, and his subsequent wheeling back down the pit lane to have it put right, languishing in P14 having lost roughly a lap. Not even the FIA tends to punish that harshly.

Certainly any further penalties within that same race such as the apparently standard 10 second stop-go are useless; you can only ruin a race once after all. Ruining it further seems at best rather pointless and at worst kicking someone when they’re down.

The pendulum swung after the Nurburgring last year; now there are signs that it’ll swing back at least to some extent. There are reports that the teams are gathering around a move to row back; make it all less harsh. Perhaps according to an FIA source it’ll all be in place as early as in Spa, after the summer break. F1 it seems has acted in haste and is now repenting at leisure.

If F1 cars leaving the pits with wheels detached seem more frequent than was the case years ago that’s probably because they are – as the passing of refuelling has not only far reduced the time available for the tyre change, the time taken to change the wheels has become the key – and virtually only – discriminator in the length of the halt, thus the car leaves at the very split second that all four wheels are supposed to be on. Therefore there is no longer any time ‘buffer’. 

What’s more, there has since about a year after refuelling was ditched been something of an arms race in squeezing more and more time out of the pit halt. The successive shaving of stop times from around four seconds per pop in 2010 to 1.9 achieved by Red Bull in Austin last year (to the point that now a four second halt is considered almost race-destroying) is testament to it all.

When I asked a few drivers over the Hockenheim weekend about the matter there tended to be the same spontaneous initial point made, and one that there was apparent unanimity among them on, that whatever is the case, however much a driver is part of the team, that such lead-laden punishment for an unsafe release should fall squarely, pretty much exclusively, on the driver is way unfair. After all the driver’s personal culpability is zero; all the driver does is see a green light and go. Their chances of seeing that a wheel is not on at that point are precisely zilch. Bianchi, Perez, Guiterrez and Magnussen all said pretty much the same.

The chat is that the revised system to be brought in will indeed seek to punish the team more than the driver. All laudable, though a perennial problem in this sport is how to punish a team meaningfully without tangling up a perhaps innocent pilot (see Ricciardo and fuel flow meters in Melbourne for one case in point)? It’s easier said than done.

Docking constructors’ championship points seems the most obvious way but how to make that equitable? After all, a 25 point penalty right now would cause the most minor of ripples at Mercedes but would knock the stuffing out of, say, Toro Rosso. Perhaps it could be done as a percentage of current points, but what about teams that haven’t scored points like Sauber, or never do like Caterham? What about Marussia, for whom being off zero is far and away the main thing, meaning likely only a 100% deduction would worry them?

Team fines meanwhile – with the grand outlying exception of McLaren’s post ‘spygate’ – almost always seem powder puff. 

It’ll be fascinating to see what is come up with this time.

But as previously intimated the deterrence approach doesn’t seem to be working in any case. As Jules Bianchi noted in Hockenheim teams will still push the boundaries; threat of sanction enters into heads barely it seems: ‘You cannot do anything because you’re trying to do the pit stop as quick as possible and it’s part of everything, it’s a mistake you know and a mistake can happen to everybody and you cannot do anything to change that. I don’t think there is something really to improve (the system).’

Nico Rosberg meanwhile was more reflective, noting that whatever is the case the inherent dangers shouldn’t be forgotten: ‘Obviously it is one of the most dangerous situations for all of the people working in the pit lane you know. So definitely it should be harsh to try to avoid people doing that or things like that happening. We need to find the best way, what sort of penalties to do.’

But if deterrence isn’t going to work then what can be done? Before we go further I’d like to bust (or at least seek to bust) a couple of proposed solutions. After the Nurburging incident last year a few argued for a reduction in the number of personnel permitted to undertake the pit stop itself; perhaps even have a minimum pit stop time. I thought then and I still think that I’d really not welcome any of this. Partly it’s out of sheer prejudice.  I’ll admit that I adore the modern F1 pit stop, seeing it as poetry in motion, and the never-ending efforts to make tiny time savings exactly in keeping with the sport’s dearest principles. 

As well as this I thoroughly detest on a visual level pit stops in categories wherein they do place such restrictions – all apparently disparate individuals scuttling around the car doing one job then shuffling along to the next. I sometimes too wonder what the uninitiated make of them – ‘can’t they afford enough people or something?’ Same would go for a minimum pit stop time – do we really want in this game an entire pit crew after their work is done standing around awkwardly like friends of friends at a wedding while the car is held, for what will likely seem to the eye an interminable stretch?

But also I’m not convinced that in the case of restricting the personnel numbers it would make things much safer anyway. It doesn’t really matter how many (or how few) are involved in a stop, as so long as the last link in the chain goes too early there will be cars realised with wheels not attached. And while some may be shouting at this point, yeah but in Indycar and Le Mans where they have restrictions of this ilk you virtually never see cars released without wheels on, while that may be so therein they do have refuelling, which brings us back to the previous point. So the comparison isn’t a perfect one.

But I wonder more broadly why F1 doesn’t box clever on this one (pun not intended). I’m not the most technologically savvy person on earth (you could probably tell), and while saying ‘if they can put a man on the moon then why can’t they…’ often sounds to me like an unhelpful spouting of a cliché, still I find it hard to believe that it’s beyond the wit of clever people to come up with something that would make it impossible for a car to leave a pit box without all four wheels attached. Prevention is better than cure, as they say.

At the time of the initial swathe of post-Nurburgring changes mentioned at the outset, Will Buxton in an excellent article on the matter titled appropriately ‘Dealing with consequence, ignoring the cause’ concluded that such a technological solution offered the best way out of this, saying: ‘The best suggestion I’ve seen thus far was to reintroduce clips in the wheel nuts, which we used to have in the days of refuelling. These clips had to be secured before a car was allowed to leave the pits.’ To my knowledge that one was never pursued.

Perhaps it, or something like it, should be pursued now.



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