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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 H├╝lkenberg 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!


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