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Safety Matters
Steven Roy

Steven has been obsessed by motor racing in general, and Formula One in particular, for as long as he can remember. He can always be called upon for informed opinion on any aspect of F1, be it the sport, technology, business and politics or its history.

Unchained reaction // A logical approach to making the pit lane safer

Published

We all watched in shock as Mark Webber's rear wheel parted company with his car and headed unaccompanied down the Nürburgring pit lane hitting a cameraman. We have seen loose wheels before and every time the potential damage they can do is obvious and terrifying.

Pitlane safety message
Credit: Allianz SE

As in many cases when there is not a fatality the FIA's response is baffling and inadequate. It does not tackle the fundamental problem and instead deals with the precise detail of that one incident. A cameraman was hit by a wheel so if we remove the cameramen from the pitlane then it is impossible for one of them to get injured there again.

While the logic is infallible the response is inadequate and incompetent. The cameramen may have been removed but imagine the pits as a sudden heavy rain shower hits. Each team will have between 20 and 25 people in their pit. Additionally you have team personnel on the pit wall and assorted marshals around the area. Let us say we have a total of around 400 people in the target area. That of course assumes the rogue wheel does not enter a garage or clear the pit wall and head on to the track or into a grandstand.

There has been a lot of discussion of this subject amongst the Sidepodcast community recently and I plan to nick a few of the ideas because frankly we came up with far better solutions than the FIA.

I am a great believer in taking a logical approach to safety. Knee jerk responses which the FIA seems to favour simply do not make sense. They have removed the cameramen from the pits but what happens at the next race if a mechanic or driver gets hit and killed? I find it amazing that drivers' heads could still get hit because after Henry Surtees died the FIA had all sorts of plans to stop it happening again but they have done nothing. They made a lot of noise at the time but as far as I can see, apart from launching a couple of wheels at a canopy, they have done nothing.

The fantastic four

It is clearly impossible to remove people from the pitlane so the only logical thing is to stop wheels parting company with the cars at high speed. A simple risk assessment will identify the reasons why it happens. Firstly it is impossible for the lollipop man to check all four corners of the car and check for approaching traffic in the two to three seconds a pit stop takes. It doesn't matter who does the job or how many people are involved it just is not possible to guarantee that everything is correct before releasing the driver.

Red Bull Racing ready for a pitstop
Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty

So the first thing we have to do is make the pit stops longer. Personally I would like to see the end of all pit stops but for the sake of this post I will assume that there will be stops. The easy way to increase the time and make the lollipop man's job easier is to cut the number of mechanics involved in a pit stop. I think there should be no more than four mechanics involved in wheel changing. This is something that has been done in everything from NASCAR to IndyCar to sportscars. NASCAR pit stops are far more entertaining to watch than F1 stops.

There should be no more than four mechanics involved in wheel changing

I would also like to see the wheel changer give a far more positive signal that his wheel is on so that there is less chance of a car being released prematurely. My favoured method would be that the car can't be released until the final mechanic has crossed the line between the pits and the garage. The current method of the wheel gun man putting his hand up when he is wearing the same colour as everyone around him is never going to work. You would think the teams would have figured out that if all their mechanics are wearing black for example the four wheel gunners should have orange sleeves so they stand out.

Five for fighting

For decades F1 wheels have had one wheel nut. This has many advantages for quick pit stops but it is not ideal for safety. If there is one nut and that nut is not put on properly the wheel is going to part company with the car. NASCAR wheels have five nuts. If three of them go on properly the wheel is going to stay attached. The driver may feel a vibration and can then pit and have the situation resolved. Having five nuts also slows pit stops which makes the lollipop man's job easier because pit stops will be longer.

F1 mechanics make adjustments to front wheel hub
Credit: Caterham F1 / Creative Commons

Once you have made the lollipop man's job easier by slowing down the stops and have attached the wheel in a more positive manner the next thing is to stop the wheel heading down the pit lane after it has parted company with the hub. If the cars were fitted with wheel arches or even a couple of bars in the shape of a section of wheel arch if the wheel nuts failed the car would fall and trap the wheel. It is always a good idea to keep safety measures simple and fail safe. There is nothing more fail safe than gravity dropping a car if there is not a wheel there to hold it up.

The other thing we have to look at is what we do if despite all our precautions the wheel does separate from the car. Needless to say we have an answer to that too. While the car is in the pits the ECU should dramatically cut the torque fed to the rear wheels. This could easily be done and the less torque a wheel receives the less speed that wheel will have when it parts company with the car. The momentum the wheel possesses is directly proportional to its speed. So if we can cut the speed by cutting the torque the wheel will have less momentum and cause less injury if it hits someone. There is a big difference between a wheel bouncing down the pit lane at 30mph and one rolling away at 5mph.

Six degrees of separation

So there you have it:

  • Make the lollipop man's job easier so that cars are not released prematurely
  • Reduce the number of mechanics to increase the stop time
  • Don't release the car until an absolutely positive signal is given
  • Increase the number of wheel nuts to decrease the chance of a wheel falling off
  • Retain the wheel in a wheel well
  • Cut the torque that launches the wheel



  • One thing. Teams have buttons on the wheel guns to signal completion so the lollipop man isn't watching for hands any more.

  • One thing. Teams have buttons on the wheel guns to signal completion so the lollipop man isn't watching for hands any more.

    Exactly the point I was going to make. This traffic light system seems to be the direct or indirect cause of a lot of problems in the past and I strongly believe that the teams should be forced to have a lollipop man as part of their pit crew.

    There are a few more changes I would make to the current pit stop system. First off, lets stop teams double stacking their cars. Sure it makes for entertaining chaos, but increases the possibility of error unnecessarily. It would also have the potential of mixing up the field for the remainder of the race.

    Secondly - and we all know that money/sponsorship/RedBull rule the world so it won't happen - the penalties for serious errors in pit stops need to be looked at. In my opinion, Webber's accident should have lead to an instant disqualification from the race. It was a serious failure of the team to ensure that the car was released back safely to other competitors, marshalls and spectators.

    The FIA should also be looking at race bans for major and multiple offences. I can guarantee that had the threat of suspension been hanging over Red Bull before the German GP, then the mistake would not have happened.

  • One thing. Teams have buttons on the wheel guns to signal completion so the lollipop man isn't watching for hands any more.

    out of interest, do every team have such a system in place now? i haven't checked, but assumed the likes of marussia have other financial priorities.

  • One thing. Teams have buttons on the wheel guns to signal completion so the lollipop man isn't watching for hands any more.

    I really don't like that system from a safety point of view. If there is a problem and the wheel gun has to be swapped etc it is very easy to accidentally press the button.

    Secondly - and we all know that money/sponsorship/RedBull rule the world so it won't happen - the penalties for serious errors in pit stops need to be looked at. In my opinion, Webber's accident should have lead to an instant disqualification from the race. It was a serious failure of the team to ensure that the car was released back safely to other competitors, marshalls and spectators.

    Couldn't agree more. How someone can lose a wheel that mows down a photographer can re-join the race is beyond me? It also baffles me that Paul di Resta did not get at least a drive through and instead the team only got a pathetic fine. Fines are no deterrent to F1 teams.

  • I really don't like that system from a safety point of view. If there is a problem and the wheel gun has to be swapped etc it is very easy to accidentally press the button.

    Which is what precisely happened in the Red Bull stop. The button was accidentally pressed when the gun slipped. Red Bull have changed their system to stop that but who knows how effective that actually is.

    out of interest, do every team have such a system in place now? i haven't checked, but assumed the likes of marussia have other financial priorities.

    If anyone is missing this type of system, it's likely to only be Marussia. I don't believe it's much more expensive than the wheel gun itself.

  • I think that Steven misunderstands the problem.

    Single wheel nuts have been around for a very long time and have historically been very reliable. The recent problems with wheel nuts have all come about since the 2010 refuelling ban. Without the constraint of refuelling time, teams have a much stronger incentive to minimise the wheel change time through technical development. Some teams have had no problems with their wheel nuts, while others have been plagued with failures.

    Rather than any heavy-handed regulation that would change the character of the sport, there's a very simple solution. Amend the FIA regulations to mandate a single standardised wheel retention system, developed for safety rather than speed. Pre-2010 wheel nuts had a secondary retaining pin, installed by hand after the nut had been tightened. The pin was capable of retaining the wheel at speed, even if the wheel nut failed completely.

  • I completely agree that keeping the wheels attached to the car is the safer approach. So, why not make it practically impossible to leave the pit bay without all wheels attached?

    My idea - use the standard ECU and a couple of sensors on each wheel to limit the use of the gearbox until all wheels are safely in place. Having 2 sensors on each axle hub, one to sense that the wheel nut is in place and the other to sense that the locking pin on each hub is in the locked position should do the trick. I am assuming here that all teams are using spring loaded pins on the hub that retract when the wheel gun is placed on the wheel nut and then lock once the wheel nut is screwed in to place and the gun removed.

    If, while the pit speed limiter is selected the ECU stops the driver from selecting a gear, or forces the gearbox into neutral, unless all four wheels are secured, then it will become very difficult for a wheel to come loose.

    This approach may have saved not only the Webber at Nurburgring 2013 incident, but also Webber at China 2013, Button at Silverstone 2011, Buemi at Japan 2011, Alguersuari at China 2011, Alonso at Hungary 2009 and many others.

    Sure, sensors can fail and ruin somebody's race, but under the current procedures humans can err and ruin somebody's life.

  • Steven, nice summary. I would only add that the pit lanes themselves could stand some reevaluating/reassessing (geometry, dimensions) to improve some of the safety deficiencies. (By the way, I'm still apologizing, still embarrassed, for totally misreading/misunderstanding/misinterpreting your tweet from the other article on this subject. I'll be embarrassed for awhile.)

  • If, while the pit speed limiter is selected the ECU stops the driver from selecting a gear, or forces the gearbox into neutral, unless all four wheels are secured, then it will become very difficult for a wheel to come loose.

    I like this idea. Not sure how the sensors would work considering where everything is placed but definitely doable.

  • Which is what precisely happened in the Red Bull stop. The button was accidentally pressed when the gun slipped. Red Bull have changed their system to stop that but who knows how effective that actually is.

    Doesn't surprise me. Damn silly system. Can't believe they thought it was a good idea.

    I think that Steven misunderstands the problem.

    Single wheel nuts have been around for a very long time and have historically been very reliable. The recent problems with wheel nuts have all come about since the 2010 refuelling ban. Without the constraint of refuelling time, teams have a much stronger incentive to minimise the wheel change time through technical development. Some teams have had no problems with their wheel nuts, while others have been plagued with failures.

    I understand exactly how long single nuts have been around and how reliable they are. However I have seen far too many loose wheels flying around in recent years inluding before the refuelling ban. The problem with one nut is if it gets cross-threaded or whatever 100% of your wheel nuts are not functioning properly.

    Rather than any heavy-handed regulation that would change the character of the sport, there's a very simple solution. Amend the FIA regulations to mandate a single standardised wheel retention system, developed for safety rather than speed. Pre-2010 wheel nuts had a secondary retaining pin, installed by hand after the nut had been tightened. The pin was capable of retaining the wheel at speed, even if the wheel nut failed completely.

    This is the kind of thing that really annoys me about F1. They had a system that worked but rather than write the regs so that they mandated a failsafe device they allowed something that was safe to be replaced with something that is not.

    My idea - use the standard ECU and a couple of sensors on each wheel to limit the use of the gearbox until all wheels are safely in place. Having 2 sensors on each axle hub, one to sense that the wheel nut is in place and the other to sense that the locking pin on each hub is in the locked position should do the trick. I am assuming here that all teams are using spring loaded pins on the hub that retract when the wheel gun is placed on the wheel nut and then lock once the wheel nut is screwed in to place and the gun removed.

    There was something along these lines in the twitter discussion. We talked about sensors that would not allow the car to move unless the wheel nut was sensed.

    Steven, nice summary. I would only add that the pit lanes themselves could stand some reevaluating/reassessing (geometry, dimensions) to improve some of the safety deficiencies. (By the way, I'm still apologizing, still embarrassed, for totally misreading/misunderstanding/misinterpreting your tweet from the other article on this subject. I'll be embarrassed for awhile.)

    There is a lot that could be done with pitlanes. Cars running in one lane instead of 2 would be a good start.

    I must have the record for posting comments and tweets in response to others that I have completely mis-intepreted. No reason to be embarrassed and certainly no need to apologise. Some great conversations have started from mis-conceptions. Besides I would rather someone mis-intepreted what I said and responded than understood and didn't.

    Are you listening lurkers?

  • I must have the record for posting comments and tweets in response to others that I have completely mis-intepreted. No reason to be embarrassed and certainly no need to apologise. Some great conversations have started from mis-conceptions. Besides I would rather someone mis-intepreted what I said and responded than understood and didn't.

    Thanks.

  • How about a minimum pitstop time, say 5 seconds? It removes some of the urgency in the stop.

  • Doesn't surprise me. Damn silly system. Can't believe they thought it was a good idea.

    It was a good idea poorly implemented.

    Looking at only this Red Bull stop, the only solution that would have worked was the ECU one. The nut wasn't in place, so a locking mechanism wouldn't have helped (though would under "normal" loose wheel situations).

    I'm thinking they need to set up a little shop. Drivers come in, get the tyres changed, head into the shop, buy a bottle of drink and a chocolate bar (everyone will take a Milky Way as it's the lightest or a dodgy Aero with helium in the bubbles), line up to pay then return to the car to drive off. That should give some entertainment (jostling in line) and increase pit stop time :)

  • How about a minimum pitstop time, say 5 seconds? It removes some of the urgency in the stop.

    Firstly, Webber's stop was more than 5s before he set off. Secondly, it wouldn't remove any urgency as teams would still try to finish as soon as they could unless you push out the stop time to 10+ seconds.

  • I'm thinking they need to set up a little shop. Drivers come in, get the tyres changed, head into the shop, buy a bottle of drink and a chocolate bar (everyone will take a Milky Way as it's the lightest or a dodgy Aero with helium in the bubbles), line up to pay then return to the car to drive off. That should give some entertainment (jostling in line) and increase pit stop time :)

    Red Bull would still win, Adrian Newey has the best Aero.

  • Red Bull would still win, Adrian Newey has the best Aero.

    :)

  • I'm thinking they need to set up a little shop. Drivers come in, get the tyres changed, head into the shop, buy a bottle of drink and a chocolate bar (everyone will take a Milky Way as it's the lightest or a dodgy Aero with helium in the bubbles), line up to pay then return to the car to drive off. That should give some entertainment (jostling in line) and increase pit stop time :)

    Given that it is F1 it would need to be sponsored so a McDonald's drive through would be ideal.

    Red Bull would still win, Adrian Newey has the best Aero.

  • Red Bull would still win, Adrian Newey has the best Aero.

    instantrimshot.co…ic/?sound=rimshot

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