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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



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