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Your eyes only // The need for spotters in a modern F1 pit lane

Published by Christine Blachford

Camera operators - bringing F1 closer to fans worldwide
Credit: Mark Thompson

There were plenty of suggestions about how to improve safety in Formula One, in the wake of the errant tyre that struck pit lane cameraman Paul Allen during the recent German Grand Prix. We discussed many of those ideas during our latest podcast, while our resident safety expert Steven examined the matter more closely in his recent feature post.

We however are all speculating from the comfort of our homes, and thus it was wonderful to hear from someone who has actually filmed within a hectic pit lane and knows many of the challenges it can bring. Brian Benjamin worked as a camera operator covering Formula One in the late 1990s and has been kind enough to lend us the following insight about the day job.

Notes from the frontline

Firstly, it is a pretty hostile environment to work in and you really do have to be so aware of everything and everybody else around you. The idea of head protection is, in principle, a great idea, but in reality it is totally impractical as you both mentioned in the podcast. This being due to modern camera design. The ear defender headphones we currently use are only just about useable with modern cameras.

Ted Kravitz interviews Hülkenberg in the F1 paddock, filmed by Sky cameras

The idea of a spotter is in my opinion a great idea. When I started in 1996 we used to use analogue Radio Link cameras which required a man to be with the cameraman. His job was to carry a small microwave transmitter on the end of a long pole.

You were attached by an umbilical cord, so as well as being responsible for making sure the radio link was sending its pictures, he was in effect your second pair of eyes or spotter and for me on more than one occasion pulled me out of the way of a major incident.

However as technology has progressed these cameras are now digital and carry their own small microwave transmitter thus negating the need for the second person. Currently, as we saw with Paul's accident, he was on his own and if we were still using the older analogue system with a second man, his accident would almost certainly have been prevented. He was incredibly lucky when you consider that seconds before the wheel impacted him, the wheel actually launches as it runs over another camera that was abandoned by another fleeing FOM Cameraman who was sadly just that bit too far away to alert Paul.

I know that Bernie is always trying to reduce the amount of unnecessary personnel in the pit lane and I agree with that, but now I feel that in the wake of Paul's accident spotters are definitely needed before somebody is more seriously or fatally injured. Head protection would have prevented a serious head injury but a loose wheel travelling at 60-70mph will pole-axe anybody.

Closer than close

I can tell you of a near miss I had during a race not long after FOM switched from analogue to digital cameras. I was by now working on my own without a spotter / pole man. I can't be sure of the exact year but I think it was either 2000 or 2001.

We were in Montreal and it started to rain during the race. Michael Schumacher pitted for wets and I was covering the Ferrari pits at the time. They had a problem fitting one of his rear tyres and I went around the back of the car to get some shots of the wheel refusing to go on.

He said that he was certain he was going to hit me

Due to the amount of time Michael had been delayed he screeched out of the box. I at this time had my back to any approaching traffic but as I was actually in the "Ferrari Box" was shielded from the fast lane.

Almost immediately and without giving any warning to the team (a fact I later discovered from Stefano Domenicalli who was Team Manager at the time) Rubens Barrichello appeared in the pit lane unannounced. I did not see him approaching as my back was still to the traffic and I remember looking up and seeing a Ferrari mechanic sprinting towards me waving his arms. At the split second Rubens arrived in the "box" the two of us leapt into the garage as he grabbed me and pulled me away from a catastrophic accident. I was extremely lucky that day and spoke to Rubens after the race who apologised to me and he said that he was certain he was going to hit me which would probably have resulted in me being thrown over the car.

It is a scary place in the pit lane but given the opportunity, I would go back tomorrow. Working in a live pit lane during a race is an adrenaline rush like no other!

  • What an awesome level of insight, thanks for this Brian. I can't even begin to comprehend how exhilarating it must be being in that environment but it really does sound like quite the job. It seems a lot more sensible now though to try and limit how many people populate the pitlane as, when you see the difference following the rule change, that there really were too many people there. What happened with the tyre could obviously still happen but it was a sensible decision that was needed. Great to hear what someone with that inside experience has to say though.

    Also I'm glad Rubens didn't hit you, phew :)

  • As Brian said,I completely agree his point of view.I filmed since nearly 20 years in all the motoracing pit-lanes for all the World championship series and worked closely to Brian.To film and to be on a good position for a super quick modern F1 pit-stop is not easy.You must protect yourself,the camera,not to be in any ways,including the cars and mechanics.My heart is beating at 180 pulses/seconds everytime I film a pit-stop.Each new pit-stop,I am filming actually my 17 years of F1 pit-stops,is like the first time and it is the same excitment and same danger as the first time.It's like playing at the casino but you must win all the time!.Your security must be in front of any shots!.Paul Allen is a very experienced cameraman,and had no "luck" to be hit by this flying wheel.It could be anybody!.One day,I was on the pit-wall,and received a red glowing wheel nut on my leg,flying from 4 garages away,through the pit-lane!.Luckily,it doesnt landed on my face!.I guess we should wear light small helmets adapted to film with our camera to protect us a little bit more than nothing.Or having an assustant with us,but more people in pit-lane is not very what Mr E. wants,neither the teams.I spoke to Paul Allen,he's doing well and very impatient to go back,to share his passion and his excitment with the F1 fans.

  • Great stuff.

    I've been in an F1 pit lane during qualifying once and that was hectic enough considering I was stuck in one place (outside Toyota).

    I've also been in IndyCar & V8 Supercar lane and they're messier but fewer people per car.

  • Fantastic perspectives, Brian and JM, thanks a lot for sharing. A lookout sounds like a great idea, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.

  • I spoke to Paul Allen,he's doing well and very impatient to go back,to share his passion and his excitment with the F1 fans.

    that is great news. very much appreciate brian's insight here and your comment JM.

    i'll be watching coverage of the next race weekend with a completely different perspective.

  • Brilliant, brilliant article. Would agree with it on the assumption that spotters would only be used when their cars are in the pits. Great article and insight!

  • Brilliant, brilliant article. Would agree with it on the assumption that spotters would only be used when their cars are in the pits. Great article and insight!

    That's not the point, Journeyer, the spotters in this case are supposed to be a second pair of eyes for various media people who are supposed to have "blinders" on for a professional reason...

  • Thanks for the comments everybody. As my dear friend JM points out, every pit stop you film is like the very first one. Heart stopping moment in every way as you just always have to expect the unexpected. I always remember the old Monaco pit lane as being "the" scariest place to be of all the F1 pit lanes, as apart from the lack of space there was actually a slight curve in it as well so you could not clearly see from one end to the other. To survive and work in the pit lane requires absolute maximum concentration at all times and to understand and respect the chemistry of how it works. You must earn the respect and trut of the mechanics and make them sure that you will not get in their way and know that when push comes to shove you will just get out of their way. Using your eyes at all times, looking and watching body language tells you so much down there and combined with looking at the timing screens and monitors will hopefully ensure that you are always in the right place at the right time to get that all important shot. I felt very priveliged to have worked down there and also to be standing on the front of the grid just before a race start is also as JM will tell you a very special feeling. My efforts down there enabled me to have what I can only describe as a very unique relationship with two teams in particular. Mc Laren and Ferrari and I was often allowed over the red line and deep into their garages because we both had a mutual respect for each other and I always knew when it was time to leave. As I said in my article, "working a live pit lane during a race is an adrenaline rush like no other".

  • Thank you to the various contributors for sharing your first-hand experiences that makes this article so illuminating.

    The oft used tagline in F1 is media is the phrase "brings you closer to the action." But as is illustrated here, there is a fine line between getting close to the action and getting run over by it.

  • Ha ha Benjie, I am reminded of the time when I was on the track and Morbidelli came out of the pit lane and onto the track, managed about 100 yards then something made him swerve at almost 90 degrees and straight for me. I had a while to come to terms with what had happened and in the end bailed off my short rostrum to escape anything coming over the armco. It was safe enough as it happened but it should never have happened it the first place ! You are never 100% safe on motorsports.

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