Treating the Symptom and not the Disease

We all witnessed live the near disaster that followed Mark Webber’s release from the pit lane with only 3 wheels secured.  The fourth went careening down the pit lane, took a strange bounce and hit FOM cameraman Paul Allen.  The force of this wheel knocked him off his feet and left him with several injuries. Fortunately, none were life threatening.  But that is only the result of luck and not design.

The pit lane is a dangerous place, and it always will be.  When it fails to be a dangerous place, Formula One will no longer be the sport we all love.  It will have been replaced by something else.  Those working there understand the risks, and take measures that are ultimately a compromise between safety and getting their work done.  But there are things that can be done to eliminate or dramatically reduce certain risks.

In the very quick aftermath of this most recent incident, the FIA has chosen to banish all but team personnel and marshals from the pit lane during qualifying and races.  Oddly, it appears the approved media are to be confined to the pit wall.  Standing next to a crowded wall if something like a wheel is coming towards you doesn’t seem to me to be an improvement.  But perhaps I don’t understand.  Oh and everyone working during a pit stop must wear a helmet.  I thought this was already the case.  The pit lane speed limit for the races that were 100km/h have been reduced to 80km/h.

Helmets make sense.  If you fall down and hit your head you can be seriously injured.  If you can’t do your job while wearing a helmet (and I think cameramen fall into this), then a different approach is necessary (a spotter wearing a helmet for instance).  I don’t understand the reduction of the pit lane speed in response to this issue.  Is being hit by a wheel that is going 80km/h going to be better? This change seems reactionary and theatrical.

These changes will be eliminate cameramen and others from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe. And it will very likely reduce the quality of the TV coverage during the race and qualifying.  That’s too bad for most of us who experience F1 through the TV.  Those TV viewers ultimately pay for pretty much everything, so let’s keep that in mind when making changes to the coverage.  I’m hopeful that FOM will investigate some of the great camera mounts and cameras available for places like the pit lane.  But I won’t hold my breath.  It took way too long to get HDTV.

I would have liked the FIA and Formula One to take this incident as an opportunity to treat the root cause and not the symptom.  I don’t like seeing loose wheels.  We’ve seen several over the past few years.  The sport has seen death and serious injury caused by loose wheels.  And this problem exists on our roadways too.  Trucks lose wheels with disastrous results.

The problem with a loose wheel is its unpredictability.  It’s a heavy, fast-moving and spring-loaded projectile that can bounce over a catch fence just as easily as roll to a stop in a runoff area.  The FIA has eliminated the risk of a cameraman being hit by a tire in the pit lane, but what about everyone else above, beside and around the pit lane and the rest of the circuit?

In a sport as advanced as Formula One, it seems absurd that there isn’t a set of sensors that confirm the car has four wheels.  Teams have telemetry on everything, and there are dozens of people back in the factories reviewing everything to ensure problems are identified and dealt with quickly.  Where’s the guy or girl who’s job it is to make sure the wheels are on tight?

I won’t presume to have the best solution to this challenge because I’m not an F1 engineer.  But having some kind of torque sensor(s) that connect to the ECU could prevent the clutch from being engaged and thus keeping a dangerous car stationary.

In any event, the problem F1 needs to fix is loose wheels.  The tethers have worked well, but they only work if the wheel is locked.  The next loose wheel may result in an even worse outcome.  I don’t want to see that.


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