Safety in the pit lane

Time is money in Formula One. Fast pit stops, like quick lap times, are crucial factors in victory or defeat. The race against the clock may not, however, be run at the cost of pitlane safety - especially when it comes to refuelling. The French...

Time is money in Formula One. Fast pit stops, like quick lap times, are crucial factors in victory or defeat. The race against the clock may not, however, be run at the cost of pitlane safety - especially when it comes to refuelling.

The French Grand Prix demonstrates again and again the importance of teamwork in Formula One. Teams that win here are usually those who select the right tactics for refuelling the cars and whose pitstop work is flawless. The Circuit de Nevers, one of the world's most modern race tracks, boasts the exciting "Grande Courbe" (which is taken at 250 km/h), but it offers hardly any opportunities for overtaking. Race planners find this grand prix tricky: They must choose between a one, two or even a three-stop strategy.

For the spectators near the pitlane and those following the contest on TV, every brief interruption in the chase is a moment of intense excitement: Can the tyres be changed smoothly or is a wheel nut jammed somewhere? Is the fuel hose inserted in the car perfectly? The drivers, too, condemned to inactivity for a few critical seconds, are obviously apprehensive.

BMW WilliamsF1 Team driver Ralf Schumacher recently experienced a few of the possible pitfalls in the refuelling process at the British Grand Prix, and they cost him crucial places in the race. But the real dangers lie elsewhere, and a variety of safety precautions exist to prevent dangerous situations from arising in the pit lane.The danger of fire during refuelling has been a source of concern to race organisers and teams for many years.

The first safety measures were introduced back in the 60s, when fire extinguishers were made mandatory in the pitlane. The FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) standard for flame-resistant clothing has been in effect since 1975. Formula One drivers have to wear suits made of Nomex, a synthetic material whose fibres withstand heat of up to 800oC for at least 12 seconds. Not only their overalls but also their underclothing, gloves (with suede leather linings for the best possible grip), socks and face masks must also be made of this material. In 1994, fire-resistant clothing was made mandatory for all the mechanics who participate in pit stops. Team members also wear helmets to protect their Face from petrol spray and flames.

The teams use from 20 to 25 mechanics for pit stops, and they practice refuelling stops innumerable times until every movement is automatic. Two operators work the pump, which features a design derived from the aviation industry. One mechanic inserts the nozzle, the other holds the pipe. The nozzle fits tightly into the tank aperture, which opens automatically as soon as the driver activates the cruise control on entering the pit. A valve ensures that the fuel only starts flowing when the pipe has been correctly fitted.

A red light in the visor of the refueller's helmet signals that the pump is not yet ready and that fuel is not flowing. A green light signals all clear for refuelling, and yellow that the fuel is flowing. The pipe features a two-way system. Rapid pressure compensation takes place at the same time as fuel is pumped in, allowed air to escape from the tank as the fuel replaces it.

All the refuelling systems in Formula One are supplied by the French manufacturer Intertechnique, and teams are allowed to repair but not modify them. Additional safety measures include the fuel flow speed, which is a maximum of twelve litres per second. If anything should go wrong, two more attendants stand by with fire extinguishers - and every pit has medical equipment for treating burns. Teams have been practising fire drills regularly since they were first prescribed in 1996.

Almost everything is a matter of practise. If a car's nose has to be replaced unexpectedly or sudden rain demands a change of tyres, pit crews always have only about 30 seconds to prepare themselves. Then their every movement has to be perfect and every action has to proceed according to a precise plan. The events in the pitlane itself are also regulated, but for reasons of safety instead of speed. Everything must fit smoothly into the racing sequence, from the entrance to the pit lane where the cars have to brake down to 80 km/h, to the exit where they have to wait at a red light. A golden safety rule applied elsewhere is also true in F1: the fewer the people present, the lower the risks. During a grand prix, only those who are directly involved in the race may be in the pit lane.

Formula One currently uses unleaded, low-sulphur fuel that already meets the EU emissions standard that will come into general effect in 2005. In the high-tech laboratories of the oil corporations, thought is already being given to Formula One fuels that might soon be available at filling stations.

The right refuelling strategy is essential for roadcar drivers, too. Dr. Hartmuth Wolff, from the Allianz Center for Technology (AZT) in Munich, notes some important points that you should keep in mind: "Reduce your speed at the right time when leaving the motorway and slow down to around 60-80 km/h in the deceleration lane," he says, explaining that drivers who have been motoring at speed for hours generally lose their judgement of velocity. "Don't underestimate the degree to which a fully-loaded vehicle changes its handling characteristics in bends or under braking - all the more so with a roof rack or trailer," he adds. Because most filling stations are busy places, cars should approach and leave the pumps at walking speed.

In contrast to Formula One, refuelling stops in normal traffic should be relaxed, not hectic. Taking a break from long journeys, especially, is recommended to help concentration. Many travellers pull into filling stations for reasons of both necessity and pleasure.

Whether it's a one-stop strategy in Magny-Cours or a weekend trip in a passenger vehicle, safety is always the number one priority.


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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Ralf Schumacher
Teams Williams