Formula 1 Insight

More Fire in Valencia

During the course of the pit stops in the Valencia GP, there were at least two more incidents of spilled fuel igniting to cause brief fires. Little comment has been caused by these, perhaps because the issue of Ferrari's nominal penalty for Massa's unsafe release from his pit has generated much more controversy.

Benetton pit stop fire
Jos Verstappen's pit stop fire, German GP 1994

Even so, it seems strange that such fires were deemed newsworthy in Hungary but not in Valencia. I can only assume that the explanations of the teams have been accepted and we can return to our usual complacent attitude towards refueling during the race. To me, however, the attitude that the ignition of fuel spills is a normal event and nothing to worry about seems somewhat short-sighted.

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. We can talk of shut-off valves preventing such an occurrence but should remember that this is the same delivery system that has suffered a long list of jammed and malfunctioning valves over the years. Put a flash fire with an obstinate valve and you have an explosive situation.

The very fact that fuel spills during re-fueling shows that the delivery system is less than perfect. Why it should be impossible to design a valve that will not open before proper connection with the car's filler and then shuts too slowly on disconnection, I do not know. Apparently, it is, and the teams must accept a certain amount of spillage during each pit stop.

The most important argument against re-fueling during a race remains the possibility of a serious fire, similar to or worse than Benetton's experience with Jos Verstappen's car during the 1994 German GP. We might suppose that the long period without a major fire incident since then means that any problems have been solved; I submit that the number of flash fires seen recently is evidence that they have not. It is luck more than anything else that has prevented a serious fire from occurring. When we add the possibility of high voltage from KERS systems, so recently and dramatically in the news, increasing the chances of accidental ignition of fuel, it seems that F1 is playing with fire beyond acceptable limits.

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 unconcerned attitude regarding fire in the pits must increase the chances that the next "big one" will happen during a pit stop.

Re-fueling during the race was introduced to add to the spectacle of F1. Many, including myself, feel that it has merely served to enforce the strategy of waiting until the pit stop before attempting to overtake, thereby assisting in the creation of featureless races so well exemplified by the Valencia GP. Motor racing fans care less for the intricacies of fueling strategies than they do for the actual performance of the cars and drivers on the track.

Surely it is time that the re-fueling experiment was ended and the cars designed to go the race distance on a full tank. From a safety point of view alone, this seems the best way to go.


Steven Roy
The logic on the decision of which fuel rig design to use originally was massively flawed like so much that the FIA does. The design comes from an air to air refueling system for helicopters. When the early fires occurred Max made a lot of capital out of the fact that it was designed to aerospace standards and if it was good enough for air to air re-fueling it should be perfectly safe for F1.

He kept that argument up until it was pointed out that spilled fuel at 12,000 feet can drop several thousand feet and volatilise into the atmosphere whereas in a race car spilled fuel drops 6 inches on to a hot exhaust. Apparently the FIA never considered this minor difference and since that day Max has never mentioned the origin and suitability for use of the fuel rig.

I seem to spend a lot of my time criticising the FIA half baked approach to safety. Surely at some point Max is going to get his finger out and earn the reputation he has given himself for his contribution to safety.
Date Added: 26/08/2008

I admire your optimism, Steven ;)
Date Added: 26/08/2008

I must have been asleep as I didn't notice any dramas in the pits apart from Raikonnen going before the fuel hose was removed from his Ferrari (as well as Massa).Not surprising given how rubbish that procession was.

But anyway back on topic , I've always been of the opinion that without any kind of refuelling with the aerodynamics as it is you'd just get a 90 minute procession.Nobody would be able to pass and the field would get too spread out.As for the fuel rigs themselves I'm surprised they haven't designed this kind of thing out by now , even more so that despite the inherent problems the rigs haven't appeared to have changed much since 1994.
Date Added: 26/08/2008

Ban refueling?

Please ... NASCAR can figure out how to make it work, Indy cars can, and Le Mans can.

Just suck it up and figure it out.
Date Added: 27/08/2008

i couldn't agree with you more, clive. i suppose as is usually the case when nothing fatal happens everyone gets complacent. i always thought refueling was introduced because at the time cart was blowing the wheels off f1 as a spectator sport and refueling was always part of that game. but in the hands of f1 (and this was really the status quo during the schumacher era) it's just a pit lane passing manouver. it was used like that in cart also but generally there was enough racing going on that it wasn't the only passing move of the day. and is it a coincidence that intertechnique is a french company and the fia is headquartered in paris?

i should think that since f1 is the pinacle of motor racing technology it would be entirely in keeping with the spirit of innovation and the current energy challenging times to develop cars that can go the distance with all the speed and performance on a single tank.

it's past time to ban refueling.
Date Added: 27/08/2008

"I must have been asleep as I didn't notice any dramas in the pits"

me neither. do you have any more info on this clive? what happened to which drivers during what stops?

"Surely it is time that the re-fueling experiment was ended and the cars designed to go the race distance on a full tank"

on what basis? when fires did occur they were safely extinguished without fuss. the gp2 feature race in valencia didn't allow refueling and look what happened there.

"From a safety point of view alone, this seems the best way to go."

on that basis *all* racing should be banned shouldn't it? driving fast happens to be quite a dangerous past time.
Date Added: 27/08/2008

Francois: Perhaps it is the very fact that no drama was made of the refueling flash fires that illustrates best the complacency regarding these events. The TV commentators made little mention of them, although the fire that occurred before release of the hose gave them a brief moment of excitement. I am not surprised that you didn't notice the events as a result.

I agree with your contention that the racing would still be processional without pit stops but that argument has no bearing on the safety issue. My point is really that refueling pit stops increase the dangers and risks of F1 without adding anything to the spectacle. By getting rid of refueling we would immediately reduce the risks and cut the number of silly controversies regarding pit lane rules in half.

The processional nature of the races is a serious problem but we all know how to fix that: reduce the influence of aerodynamics on the cars.
Date Added: 27/08/2008

TB: Yes, ban refueling. Just because NASCAR, Indy and Le Mans can make it work doesn't mean that F1 can. You have to remember that F1 is governed by a bunch of political back scratchers and stuffed shirts and they are clearly incapable of running so complex a sport. To make it easier for them (since we cannot get rid of them), we should limit the areas in which they can interfere - and that includes refueling.
Date Added: 27/08/2008

Verasaki: Hear, hear.
Date Added: 27/08/2008

Sidepodcast: As I said in the post, I can't remember which of the teams had flash fires, although I'm fairly certain that it was a Honda pit stop in which the fire began before release of the filler hose from the car. What is happening here is most likely that British viewers were enjoying an ad break at the time American viewers were shown the two incidents. There may well have been more that neither of us saw, since not all pit stops are broadcast.

I am pointing out that race refueling adds considerable potential for disastrous accidents that F1 really doesn't need. The dangers in racing at the edge of our technology and expertise are already great enough to demand the changes to the circuits and cars that we have seen over the last twenty years. If refueling is purely to add to the show (and I don't accept that it does), that is a pretty poor excuse for it.

The argument that safety concerns should force us to abandon motor racing altogether is a non-starter amongst F1 fans, obviously, although it would be rapturously received by the green lobby, I have no doubt. To say that motor racing is dangerous so we really don't need to do anything about safety is equally extremist and negates all the measures that have been brought in since Jackie Stewart first pointed out that the sport does not have to be so dangerous that drivers are killed every week.
Date Added: 27/08/2008

NASCAR spills more fuel in one race than F1 does in a year. Their system is absolutely the crudest, BUT the fuel is 3 or 4 feet from the exhaust. Cart has always had problems with refueling rigs and has the added excitement of a fuel you can't see burning. Everyone must have seen video of a burning crewman trying to get someone to douse him with water. The biggest difference is F1 uses a pressurized delivery system while nearly all others use gravity feeds. When fuel does spill, less of it is spilt at a slower rate of delivery. So maybe F1 should move the filler away from the exhaust and use a gravity feed?
Date Added: 28/08/2008

You are actually supporting my argument for the end of race refueling in F1, Lonny. If NASCAR has less of a problem in that the exhaust is further from the filler than in F1 cars and the fuel feeds are gravity-induced only, yet still there are accidents in which mechanics get burned, surely refueling in F1 is much more dangerous and needs careful consideration, therefore.

NASCAR may be able to accept the occasional fire in the pit lane but F1 cannot, such is the pressure on the sport to tighten its safety measures. The plain fact is that refueling adds an extra potential for accidents that F1 does not need.
Date Added: 28/08/2008

I'm not sure refueling should be banned, I do feel it could be made much safer. NASCAR has almost no fires because the exhaust is so far away. IRL does have the occasional fire but a fireman is standing by with an extinguisher aimed right at the filler. A number of serious fires many years ago made CART, IRL, Indycar etc take a very close look at refueling. That was when they abandened pressurized refueling. At Michigan they had a bad one where a pitlane tank very nearly exploded. Now all their systems have a number of automatic valves that close when the rig is disconnected and they even go so far as to have a crewman spray water on the car when the hose is removed to dilute any fuel that might have spilled past the point of ignition. I don't think F1 will ban refueling, though that would be interesting, but it wouldn't take much to make it a lot safer.
Date Added: 29/08/2008

i personally do think refueling does ad to the "show-factor". now we have fast cars on low fuel loads trying to pass cars with heavier fuel loads,...
i do think there would be even less passing without refueling.
and Clive, don't take this wrong, i really like your blog, but please stop nagging about those fuel stops.
"Many, including myself, feel that ..." i'm sorry, but reading the comments i think the majority of the people don't think they should be banned. perhaps an idea for a poll?

Date Added: 29/08/2008

I agree with Lonny that F1 is unlikely to ban refueling in the near future. But that doesn't mean I should just ignore the obvious solution whenever safety during pit stops comes up.

I do hear Werner's complaint, however, and shall try to keep quiet on the subject, at least until it becomes big news again. The poll is a good idea but, unfortunately, I do not have the necessary software to conduct one on this blog. Perhaps a project for Mad to work on...
Date Added: 30/08/2008

Just one very belated thing - the reason that fires don't easily spread to the rig or fuel tank is because large volumes of liquid fuel are far, far harder to ignite than fumes.
Date Added: 15/12/2008

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