Just My Opinion: Don’t Let People Stand In An Active Pit Lane
1:10 PM EDT on April 30, 2023
F1 cars are ruthless and fast. They move at speeds like 300 km/h, and are piloted by men who often keep the wheels just the breadth of a credit card away from concrete barriers because they do not fear death. You do not want to fight one! Even in a pit lane, where the speed limit is a chill 60 km/h (37 mph). Because of this, people aren't allowed to mill about in the active pit lanes. Seems reasonable to me!
But in Sunday's race in Baku, Azerbaijan, photographers were standing at the entrance to the pit lane (which, I might add, is AROUND A CORNER), faffing about as Alpine's Esteban Ocon zoomed right toward them.
Here it is from Ocon's point of view:
Here's a still shot from another angle:
This is clearly dangerous, and it is both lucky and a blessing that no one was seriously injured.
For context, Ocon began the race on the hardest tires available. That meant his tires could have lasted the entire race, except F1 rules state that drivers have to use two different tire types in each race. The Alpine team's strategy was a hope and a prayer: Leave Ocon out there for more than 40 laps and cross their fingers that someone else wrecks, leading to a safety car, which would allow them to pit and change tires really fast, potentially without sacrificing position.
That didn't happen. So as the race drew close to a finish, Ocon still had to change his car's tires. The announcers knew this. The Alpine garage knew this. Presumably, the governing body of the race knew this. And yet photographers were allowed onto the track before the checkered flag was waved. Even before Ocon arrived at the pit lane, the announcers were talking about it, with one calling it "total and utter shambles."
When Ocon arrived in the pit lane, people had to scramble out of his way so that he could make it to his garage and complete the stop. It both impeded Ocon's drive and endangered them.
Who is to blame here? Is it Alpine for pitting on the last lap? Is it the photographers for wandering onto the track? Is it the city of Baku? Is it Red Bull, which broke an unambiguous rule by sending their pit crew to hang over the fence and celebrate their win at approximately the same time?
There are people who are supposed to be in charge here, and those people are the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, aka the FIA, the governing body of the sport. The FIA decides whether maneuvers are against the rules, and sets safety parameters. It is a problem in any sport when the governing body becomes more of a topic of conversation than the sport itself, and yet race after race, the FIA continues to fail in dramatic and embarrassing ways, giving racing fans no other choice.
This week's failure is one in a long line of failures by the FIA. Perhaps most famously was the high-profile disaster at the end of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which decided the championship in Max Verstappen's favor. In 2022, there was the Italian Grand prix safety car decision, and the confusion around Verstappen's win in Japan. And this is the second race this season that has centered on decisions made by the FIA. In Australia earlier this month, they made a huge mess by using three red-flag stoppages.
After the race, the FIA announced that it had summoned the people responsible for the incident to see their stewards. But is that going to do anything? They could fire the people working the front of the pit lane, but that clearly is an abdication of responsibility because the real problem here is how the rules continue to put people in danger. This is not even the first time that something like this has happened to Ocon. In 2022, in Australia, Ocon pitted on the last lap and also had to maneuver around photographers.
We walked through the relevant procedures and protocol with the FIA representatives in detail and required them to take immediate steps to reconsider these procedures and protocols with the relevant stakeholders (including FOM, the teams and the FIA) to ensure that this situation does not occur again.
The FIA representatives expressed their regret at what happened and assured us that they would do so in time for the next event.
Racing fans know from experience that regret and promises aren't enough here. Rules need to change. Two near misses in the pit lanes in two years because of the same issue should be enough for the FIA to do more. They had a full year to devise a different system after Australia in 2022 and failed.
Who, then, is in charge of making sure that the FIA does its job? If it did not change the system after last year's close call, what systems exist to make sure that a change is made now? Is it the job of the teams to create that pressure?
Whatever the answer is, it needs to be found before next week's race in Miami.