Speed and Danger: The Adrenaline-Charged World of a Formula One Mechanic

Craig ChristopherAnalyst ISeptember 17, 2010

Jos Verstappen's terrible fire: 1994 German Grand Prix
Jos Verstappen's terrible fire: 1994 German Grand Prix

While all of the excitement and intrigue was unfolding on the track last weekend at Monza, a technician from Hispania Racing took the brave decision to try to adjust Sakon Yamamoto’s radio during a pit stop.

Despite the technician actually leaning in to the car’s cockpit, neither Yamamoto nor the team’s lollipop man noticed that he was there and the car was released. As Yamamoto accelerated away, the technician was hit by the rear wheel of the car and appeared to be hit in the head or upper body by the rear wing.

He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

The technician was injured and was taken by ambulance to the medical centre, suffering a broken leg, but is expected to make a full recovery. Hispania received at $20,000 fine.

Pit lane is a dangerous place, regardless of which particular branch of the motorsport tree is involved. Formula One has, over the years, seen a range of incidents ranging from unnecessary to bizarre and outright terrifying.

One of the most enduring and horrifying images of what happens when it all goes wrong, involved Benetton newcomer Jos Verstappen, at the 1994 German Grand Prix. During a refueling pit stop, fuel was sprayed onto the engine resulting in a massive fireball.

While Verstappen was protected by the safety systems in the car that were designed specifically for this eventuality, the mechanics—some of whom had also been sprayed with fuel—bore the brunt of the explosion. A number of them, including Benetton mechanic Steve Matchett, were engulfed in flame and were only saved from serious injury by quick-thinking McLaren mechanics.

While Verstappen’s incident was the result of a design fault in the refueling rig, often it is the drivers and mechanics who are to blame for fuel rig carnage.

There are a number of celebrated incidents of F1 cars travelling along pit lane with fuel hose still attached, because they were released early or the driver couldn’t wait to get going. Sometimes this results in a fire, but almost invariably results in the hapless guys holding the rig hitting the deck and suffering various degrees of injury.

In 2000, Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher left the pits with the hose still attached, knocking down mechanic Nigel Stepney and badly injuring his ankle.

In fact, Ferrari made something of an art form out their cars leaving with fuel hoses attached, managing to do it twice in 2008—first with Kim Raikkonen at the European GP and then Felipe Massa in Singapore. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in either incident.

2009 saw McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen repeat the performance after his “lollipop” man released him while refueling was still happening. As he exited pit lane, Ferrari’s Raikkonen was sprayed with fuel which ignited and affected the Finn’s eyesight for a short period.

The refueling ban has gone a long way to removing some of the danger from pit lane, however there is still plenty of opportunity for things to go horribly wrong.

Earlier this year, Williams pit team and truck driver, Nigel Hope was hit by a wheel that had come loose from Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes GP car. Hope was not badly injured, suffering only a broken rib, but the incident could have been so much worse.

Loose wheels have, over the years, wreaked havoc in pit lane. On F1s blackest weekend, at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the Minardi of Michele Alboreto lost its right rear wheel which hit and hospitalized two Ferrari and two Lotus mechanics. It was this incident that precipitated the introduction of a pit lane speed limit.

Even without fuel and flying wheels pit lane is still a place a high risk work environment. A half-ton racing car travelling at 80km/h and armed with more sticky-out bits than the baddies space ship in a Star Trek movie, can cause serious damage.

At the 1981 Belgian GP at Spa, Osella mechanic, Giovanni Amadeo, stepped into pit lane without looking and was hit by Carlos Reutemann. The fall fractured Amadeo’s skull and he died in hospital three days later.

The modern day mechanic is more heavily protected with fireproof overalls and helmets, but still accidents happen. Drivers come in too fast and miss their marks, the cars are dropped with mechanics still all over them, the cars are covered in furnace-hot parts or inattentive pit crews cause cars to come together.

You would think that there is enough happening in pit lane as is, without allowing drivers to race there. Sebastien Vettel, Felipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton, and Fernando Alonso have all been guilty of it in the last two years. The FIA, it seems, has given up worrying about about a bit of harmless pit-lane jockeying for position.

All things considered, being an F1 mechanic must be the pits. It’s noisy, smelly and incredibly dangerous—short of being a driver, however, it must also be one of the best jobs in the world.

If you're interested on how it all works when everything goes perfectly, Ferrari have done an anatomy of their Monza pitstop that got Alonso out in front of Jenson Button last weekend see this article.