Driver fuels row on pit-lane refuelling

 

Concerns over the dangers of a new method of pit-lane refuelling have caused a leading Formula One driver, on the eve of the season starting in Melbourne on Sunday, to accuse the sport's authorities of a lack of concern for driver safety.

"Deep down," said the driver, "I'm sure there would not be many people around the world disappointed from a show point of view if there was another pit-lane fire.

"It's modern-day gladiators: people don't want to see fighting with cotton-wool sticks, they want the knives. Shunts, fire, all that sort of thing is what creates the spectacle and that's what they want." The driver is a household name but refused to be identified publicly.

His views were backed by Jackie Stewart, three times world champion, a former team owner and board member of the new Jaguar team. "Refuelling is an unnecessary risk," he said. "The scale of a fire that could take place if the wrong accident occurred is far beyond the imagination of most people.

"With the type of tanks and high-pressure feed we use, the vapour factor alone would be explosive, never mind the flame factor. Sooner or later there is going to be a big fire and unfortunately the nature of the sport is such that we will need a big fire for anything to be done."

The new method of refuelling was pioneered by Ferrari last season and involves pulling the refuelling hose off the car while fuel is still flowing, rather than waiting for the refuelling tank to empty. Despite a series of protests the FIA, Formula One's governing body, has approved the system for the coming season.

"This practice should have been banned on safety grounds," the driver said. "In any case, now everyone is allowed to do it there is no advantage to any team."

The McLaren team in particular have been critical of the FIA's stance. Though not suggesting that the powers-that-be actually want to increase the risks in Formula One, they are mystified as to why the FIA has allowed this new practice when its president Max Mosley talks of "zero tolerance" to serious injury and death in his sport.

"I don't know how anyone can look you in the eye and tell you there is no more risk," said McLaren's managing director Martin Whitmarsh. "Formula One doesn't want to entertain a discussion about the level of risk in refuelling because any hot refuelling has an element of risk. Trying to defend that is difficult, and it's tougher when it is a self-induced extra risk."

Refuelling was reintroduced in 1994 by Formula One's commercial controller Bernie Ecclestone to help spice up a TV spectacle he feared was becoming stale. There was too little overtaking; fuel stops, besides introducing an intriguing element of strategy, shuffle the order. "The argument is that refuelling adds to the show," said Whitmarsh. "I don't agree. But is that anyway enough to introduce an extra risk? Some would say no."

When McLaren first complained last September, Intertechnique, manufacturer of the fuel rigs, initially declared this the "de-coupling under flow" method to be less safe and the FIA banned it. Later Intertechnique appeared to change its mind, saying that, since detaching the refuelling hose from the car automatically closes off the circuits that allow fuel to flow, there is no risk. The FIA has deferred to Intertechnique.

Any accident resulting in serious casualties would raise questions about Formula One's future. A pit-lane fire would threaten not only drivers and pit crews but also guests of the sponsors. Corporate guests watch from the exclusive Paddock Club, which is often situated on the roof of the pit buildings.