Balancing Performance, Safety and Entertainment for Everyone’s Sakes

When the Senna movie came out in 2010, Ayrton, ‘the master’ and indeed Formula 1 as a sport and a business was once again exposed to a completely new audience of followers and admirers. As a speaker, one of the most common questions I get is “What was it like to work with Senna?” It was in truth an amazing experience and one from which I benefitted from by working with him in two teams at McLaren in 88’ and at Williams in 94’, but more of that another day except to say that the great man whilst certainly a huge supporter of increased safety for Drivers, team members and spectators alike, was not for limiting performance.

Senna Imola interview

Many of today’s F1 fans were very young and in many cases not even born on that dreadful day of the 1st of May 1994 when Ayrton lost his life.  However, the power of the Senna film, the reflections of those who knew him well and the impact of his death, and also that of Roland Ratzenberger the day before (Saturday 30th April) who died during qualifying, left a fresh legacy of awe and respect for the talents of those taken from us far too soon.  It also called into question safety.

The film was a look into a window from the past and leaving aside the tragic events of the San Marino GP weekend, it showed us another world in terms of Formula 1 racing which has come a long way since that weekend, but which yet again is now under the spotlight in examining the safety of that most dynamic of F1 processes, The Pit Stop.

In times gone by, the pit stop was mainly measured not by the speed of the tyre changes but by the flow of fuel into the cars as in those heady days, re-fuelling was also allowed.  Therefore it was the flow of the fuel that dictated the pit stop time and not the wheel change in the majority of stops.

Re-fuelling has long gone and so we are into the realms of the two second pit stop these days, but a recent accident when a wheel and tyre from Mark Webber’s Red Bull came adrift and caused injury in the pit lane at the German Grand Prix has led to a range of changes and proposals to make the pit stops safer.

Following any accident in any sport or industry leads to call for increased safety, and rightly so.  Some say ‘the risk’ is what makes motor racing attractive but I strongly refute the argument that people go to races to see crashes or incidents and most certainly for those working within the sport, minimising risk is always a top priority.

No-one, at least no-one in their right mind wants to see anyone hurt, injured or at worst killed whilst racing, but to a man and a woman, everyone does want to see spectacle, hear incredible noise and if possible get close to the Drivers and the action therefore in my opinion, if we remove journalists, film crews and the public too far away from the centre of the action, we risk alienating the sport from the very consumers that form its central core and who crave its action and excitement.

I often think back to that May weekend in 1994 and my role at that time as Director of Sponsorship and Marketing Services for the Rothmans Williams Renault team when in fact I was as far as I know, the last person ever to ‘interview’ Ayrton before his untimely death.

The picture at the head of this piece was taken around 12.15 on Sunday May 1st, approximately two hours before Ayrton’s accident at the Tamburello corner at the Imola circuit in the team’s hospitality area where I was presenting both he and Damon Hill to our assembled guests.

Quite simply in my humble opinion, Formula 1 as a spectacle and as a racing category was more exciting when the racing took precedence over the technology.  Now already I hear cries of “Oh here we go, another greying ex F1 bloke talking about the good old days”, but in fact they were very good days thanks to the fact that although the cars were designed and manufactured to the best of everyone’s abilities and budgets, I believe the raw talent of the driver was a more significant as they had to frequently ‘make up’ for the lack of technical excellence in the cars they were driving.

Formula 1 motor racing is about noise, spectacle, the best of best competing wheel to wheel and so many other things that current day business can apply to strengthening its competitive position – it is why I have used The Pit Stop Challenge with a Jordan F1 car many times to assist me in training people to better understand communication, strategy, role change and collaboration to best effect.  It is hard to find something more performance and focus driven than a well executed pit stop.

Jordan PSC

Clearly today, the cars are hugely safer and that is a very good thing – I would change nothing in this respect as having experienced the loss of Ayrton from within the team this is not something I would wish on anyone – it is simply horrendous to lose a friend and colleague in any circumstances, let alone one so public.

Ayrton’s and Roland’s legacy to F1 was a huge increase in car and driver safety and also that of the circuits.  The late Professor Sid Watkins worked with Bernie (Ecclestone) tirelessly to improve medical response and track safety and that drive continues today within F1, the FIA and the teams themselves, all of whom continually looking to improve the safety record of the sport.

Where I feel a huge gain could be made is that of producing cars that are whilst as safe as they can be, they are a little less technical.  There will always be the argument that F1 is the absolute pinnacle of motor racing, that it is the place where only the best of the best is good enough and that technical restrictions should not apply. Well, I disagree.  I know engineers everywhere will roll their eyes in horror but I fail to see how double diffusers, DRS systems etc can really add to the spectacle of…well, good motor racing whereas a 2 second pit stop is, well, electric!!!

Take a look back to the classic Senna in car footage from Monaco in 1988 with a manual gearbox, again at Monaco view the battle between Senna and Mansell with just a few laps remaining in 1992…yes, I know we have seen some amazing battles in recent seasons but the cars themselves today are just so much more technical and they cost so much more money, money which in our straightened times is harder to find.

The current three session qualifying is clearly a way of getting to a finalised grid.  So was 1 hour session with unlimited qualifying tyres with everyone battling to overcome the odds and get a clear lap in ‘heavy traffic’…those who witnessed Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet at full chat on their super soft qualifying tyres, crossing the line with just seconds to spare and putting in a barnstorming lap were very lucky indeed.

So what am I ranting on about I hear you say? Well, it’s pure and simply performance linked to entertainment. We all want to see it, experience it, be part of it and most of all enjoy it. That performance must be part of a considered strategy which encompasses safety at all times, but we must not let finite technology or over-zealous rules override what is first rate entertainment.

More so in the past, the Drivers were outspoken and thankfully on this issue they have strong views as expressed in this piece in Autosport magazine written by Jonathan Noble:

Formula 1 Drivers think it would be wrong to rid the sport of the spectacle of fast pitstops amid the current safety clampdown.  Both the FIA and FOM have introduced changes to pitlane protocol in the wake of a cameraman getting hit by a loose wheel from Mark Webber’s car at the German Grand Prix.

As well as teams now facing grid penalties if cars are released with loose wheels, there has been a change in the pitlane speed limit and restrictions on media access.

Ideas have also been put forward about ways of slowing down the pitstops to stop mechanics needing to rush matters.  But drivers are not convinced that going that far is necessary, especially because part of F1′s attraction is the speed with which wheels are changed.

Webber said: “When they turn a car around quickly it is a great advert for the sport.

“It is another part of our operation as an industry to show how performance orientated we are, although that stuff doesn’t really go into road car stuff or your local Kwikfit.

“It’s a nice message to show how much time we focus on it. It’s impressive and a lot of people talk about it when they walk past the garage and they see an F1 car arriving and disappearing in two or three seconds.”

Jenson Button thinks a simple solution to the debate over whether or not pitstops are too quick is to bring back refuelling.  “It is an exciting part of the sport and motor racing is dangerous, as we all know,” explained the McLaren driver.  “They didn’t used to have speed limits in the pitlane and now they have speed limits so that is a good step forward.

“Obviously the pitstops have got very, very fast and there have been a few incidents of tyres coming off, which is horrendous.  “But the reason they are so fast now is because we don’t have refuelling. We have taken away a danger, refuelling, and got faster pitstops – so I think bring back refuelling. I am sure it was a lot more fun.”

Fernando Alonso thinks that ultimately any changes that can improve safety around pitstops has to be a positive for everyone.

“We all try to find the limit in pitstops,” he said. “If they find a solution to increase the pitstop time to improve safety, and it is the same for all the teams, I think no one will disagree.”

As in all things in life, it is about attaining a balanced position and allowing performance to shine through as with too many controls in place, we simply stifle creativity and best practice. Techology in a racing car is a great thing provided it is not technology for technology’s sake – at the centre of performance are human beings and as Ayrton once said:

“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high”.  He was I believe talking about his ability, not the technology in his racing car…


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