Focus on Ferrari’s pitstops

In my previous post I concluded that Ferrari will have to look at their engines to bring a halt to their reliability woes. But following the European Grand Prix it is also clear that they will have to look at their pitstop procedures. There were two pitlane controversies surrounding Ferrari today.

First of all, Felipe Massa was released straight into the path of the Force India of Adrian Sutil. (Is it just me, or to Ferrari always seem desperate to dump on their client, Force India?) It always annoys me that this sort of thing is never penalised properly. The pitlane is the most dangerous section of the track, and lollipop men often have scant regard for the safety of their fellow mechanics in other teams.

The GP2 races this weekend saw a couple of drivers get penalised for being released into the path of oncoming cars. The pitlane in Valencia is especially narrow, perhaps among the narrowest all year, so it is more important than in most places that this rule is stuck to. So I was glad to see action taken to stop this sort of behaviour in GP2.

However, the race stewards completely bottled out of making a proper decision on Massa’s incident. They announced that they would investigate the incident, but elected to make their decision after the race. In short, the stewards bottled it because it involved a Ferrari.

In the end, Ferrari escaped with a reprimand and a €10,000 fine. I was glad that the race result wasn’t changed behind closed doors, which would have been the worst case scenario. But that only makes it all the more important that these decisions are made during the race, not after. Massa should have been given a drive-through penalty and that should have been the end of it. I certainly think that if it was Sutil who nearly ran over a cameraman and crashed into the safety car while being released in front of a Ferrari, the stewards would not have been so shy of making a decision during the race.

Ferrari’s defence was also absolutely bizarre. Their excuse was that “no sporting advantage was obtained” by releasing Massa too early. As Keith points out, the FIA have taken a dim view of this sort of explanation when it has come from other teams whose name is not Ferrari.

Moreover, not only is it doubtful that Ferrari did not gain an advantage by releasing Massa early, whether or not he gained an advantage is not even the point. The point is whether or not Ferrari created the potential for there to be a dangerous situation in the pitlane. In my view there is no doubt that they did create that potential.

Article 23.1 i) of the sporting regualtions states:

It is the responsibility of the competitor to release his car after a pit stop only when it is safe to do so.

There is nothing there about whether or not a sporting advantage is obtained — only if the situation was safe or not. The FIA should not accept Ferrari’s explanation as a mitigating factor.

The FIA know that they have an image problem. They know about the ‘Ferrari International Assistance’ problem. We have heard Max Mosley mentioning it. What gets me is that whenever the FIA has an opportunity to shed this image, they fail to take it! This can only mean that they actually are set out to please Ferrari all the time.

Massa’s pitlane exit was particularly dangerous. The onboard footage from his car shows that Massa passed a cameraman who was kneeling in the ‘inner lane’ of the pitlane. Further down the road, Massa was sandwiched between Sutil and the Safety Car and Medical Car — presumably with driver Bernd Mayländer and the medics sitting in them. If Massa had crashed into Sutil here, I shudder to think what the other consequences could have been.

Felipe Massa’s “explanation” during the press conference was as low as it gets.

I think it wasn’t very clever from his [Adrian Sutil’s] side as even if he went out in front of me he needed to let me by. It was a shame to fight with him in the pit lane as we were very close and I needed to back off and I lost a lot of time but fortunately the gap was enough…

I stopped behind him in the pit stop and we leave together. When he was passing me by I was leaving the garage, so we were side-by-side. But I was the leader and he was lapping.

I don’t remember ever reading the rule whereby cars that are about to be lapped are supposed to wait in their pit box until the precious Ferrari has left the pitlane. The fact is that Adrian Sutil was exiting the pitlane minding his own business just as he does after every single pitstop he has ever done. Then all of a sudden this red car is released straight towards his sidepod! I struggle to see how this can be anyone’s fault other than the ‘lollipop’ man’s.

Which brings us on to the talking point of Ferrari’s pitstops. A relatively recent innovation, from the past couple of years or so, is Ferrari’s decision to dispense entirely with a lollipop and instead use a traffic light system. Each mechanic working on the car is given a button which he presses when he is finished. Once all the buttons have been pressed the traffic light turns green and away the car goes.

ITV made a lot of Ferrari’s ‘semi-automatic’ system. But my understanding is that the chief mechanic plays the role that used to be played by the lollipop man — i.e. he doesn’t press his button until he is certain it is safe for the car to be released. In Massa’s case, the lollipop man simply didn’t do his job properly. This would have been the case whether he had a lollipop or a traffic light system.

Ferrari had another problematic pitstop that quickly focussed on the traffic light system. Kimi Räikkönen attempted to leave his pit box while the fuel hose was still attached. Pictures from Räikkönen’s T-cam show that he left the box when the lights turned amber — not green.

I don’t know exactly how Ferrari’s traffic light system works, but my guess would be that when each of the mechanics has pressed their button the light turns amber, and only when the chief mechanic presses his button does the light turn green. Presumably 99% of the time when the light turns amber it almost immediately turns green. In this instance it didn’t because the fuel hose became stuck.

I guess the majority of the blame has to rest of Räikkönen’s shoulders for going when the light wasn’t green. But perhaps Ferrari can look at their system to make sure there is no chance of such confusion in the future.

What I haven’t seen noticed anywhere else is the fact that this was essentially another fuel rig failure on the back of the four or five fuel rig failures we saw in Hungary. It’s not unusual to see a fuel hose become stuck on a car and for the mechanics to struggle to remove it, but it’s worth noting that this incident came so soon after the high-profile incidents in Budapest.

3 comments

  1. Following on from your last paragraph, it is worth noting that there were a couple of flash fires during extraction of the fuel hose, similar to those that caused comment in Hungary. The usual story on these is that it is just a bit of excess fuel igniting and nothing to worry about, therefore.

    That seems a strange attitude to take when we consider that the most important argument against refueling stops is the danger of fire. If the ignition of small fuel spills is a normal event, it cannot be long before one of these spreads to a more explosive situation.

    In Valencia there was a pit stop (I cannot remember with which particular team) where spilled fuel ignited before release of the fuel hose. It seems to me that it was luck more than anything else that the fire did not spread into either or both of the car’s fuel tank and the delivery system. When that happens, the results will be somewhat more spectacular than a few flames as the car leaves the pit.

    The nonsense of the stewards’ decision on the unsafe release of Massa’s car from his pit shows just how complacent about safety the officials have become. It remains to be seen how long it will be before there is a serious accident as a result of this but the attitude regarding fire in the pits must increase the chances that the next “big one” will happen during a pit stop.