Chills and spills

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Nobody who was watching is likely to forget the afternoon of July 31 1994, when motor racing’s refuelling regulations underwent spectacular trial in front of a multi-million TV jury. That nobody suffered serious long-term injuries when Jos Verstappen’s Benetton was consumed by a fireball in the Hockenheim pit lane was as miraculous as it was merciful, and a tribute to the quality of contemporary safety equipment.

It was not, however, a glowing tribute to the Formula One regulations. To date, it has been the only accident of its kind. Yet it was originally said to be an impossibility.

Walking around a modern Formula One paddock, racing drivers are not immediately obvious to the uninitiated. Pit crews, engineers and even TV journalists will be fully kitted out in fireproof overalls, just in case something as ‘impossible’ as Hockenheim should happen again. In Barcelona, one of Minardi’s overalled engineers was badgered by an over-eager, and oblivious, fan to pose with him in a photograph…

Later in the afternoon, the reason why entire teams are now sporting three-layer Nomex was again apparent. As it sped down the pit lane, Bertrand Gachot’s Pacific PRO2 left behind it a trail of fuel, which eventually splashed onto its exhaust and ignited.

“We weren’t aware of the problem straight away,” explains Pacific managing director Keith Wiggins. “We released the refuelling nozzle, and the guy with the jack let Bertrand go. All he said was that, as the car accelerated, he saw a gush of fuel come back out onto the side of the car. The refuelling valve hadn’t closed instantly when it should have done, and under acceleration the petrol was allowed to spill out of the back. We didn’t see that until he got to the end of the pit lane, by which stage the fuel had worked its way into everywhere it was going to go. We saw a little bit of flame, and we told him to stop. Luckily it didn’t get any worse.”

Momentary though the conflagration may have been, it has prompted uneasy talk about the consequences of an equipment failure during refuelling.

What can the teams do about it?

“Nothing,” says Wiggins. “That’s the annoying thing. It was a piece of equipment over which we have no control, yet it tends to reflect on the team. Last year, comments were made that if there was a problem it would be with one of the smaller teams, and as it turned out it was the team that made the comment that had the problem!

“It’s still not a particularly nice thing to happen.”

When building its car with the refuelling regulations in mind, Pacific sailed closer to the wind than most, utilising a 90-litre fuel tank, as opposed to the 120/130-litre reservoirs preferred by most other teams. During an average 190-mile race, a Cosworth ED V8 is likely to consume around 190 litres of fuel, which dictates that the team has to stop at least twice.

So was Wiggins in favour of the regulations?

“No, not really. We built the car to the existing rules to try and get an advantage, which we’re perhaps not making the best of at the moment, but you do that because the rules are there. You’ve got to do it. In principle, I’ve never been very keen on it, because every time you have a pit stop you always keep your fingers crossed and hope that everything goes OK. When you’re talking about fuel under pressure, it’s a problem. Putting fuel in a hot racing car during a race is obviously very dangerous. It can be as safe as anything can be technically, but it’s a simple fact of life that there is a greater risk if you are doing it rather than not doing it. Obviously it should never happen. The concensus is that there was a spring inside the valve which turned and caused it to jam. We were assured that it’s impossible for it to happen, but obviously something made it stick.”

At the time of the incident, Gachot was carrying about 75 litres of fuel, a three-quarter load. A blessing? Not necessarily.

“The filters are all vented,” explains Wiggins, “so I don’t think a full tank would have made much difference. Maybe under acceleration a bit more would have come out, but it wouldn’t have been another Hockenheim. The difference there was that the fuel sprayed out. This one didn’t spray fuel; it just came out under the pressure of the car’s acceleration.”

A different situation, and, ultimately, a harmless one. There were no personnel engulfed within a spectacular televised fireball. The incident did not make news headlines.

It did, however, start to make people feel a little nervous.

“There’s not much we can do about it,” concludes Wiggins. “I always hoped they’d get rid of refuelling. It’s just another thing to go wrong. I’m not sure how spectacular pit stops are on telly. They only ever show the top three or four doing it. Whether or not people are bored with that I don’t know. We all accept that pit stops create more changes and that perhaps that makes it more interesting, but if they keep the tyre rules as they are people will be pitting anyway. As it stands, we can’t run a race without refuelling. Those are the rules; that’s what we designed. We’ve got to accept it.”

The flash fire behind the Pacific might have been no big deal; the fact that the equipment has still been proved fallible, however, is.

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