Racing’s manhole mishaps: why Bahrain had plenty of warning


A loose drain cover has twice brought F1's 2024 pre-season test to a halt. But organisers can't say they weren't warned. From Montreal to Monaco; Shanghai to Sepang, stray drains have plenty of form for wreaking havoc

Drain cover F1 2024 pre-season testing

F1's pre-season test foundered on a small drain cover

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F1’s current generation of cars are the most technologically advanced ever seen, the peak of the grand prix racing’s innovations.

This week in Bahrain new designs, systems and processes are being in anger run for the first time at the 2024 pre-season test over three intense days.

However, despite all this cutting-edge engineering, a simple piece of track furniture has repeatedly brought the entire racing behemoth to a standstill: a small trackside drain cover.

On the outside of Sakhir’s Turn 11 the fitting was loosened by Charles Leclerc a couple of hours into Day 2’s running, before Lewis Hamilton – and then the Ferrari driver again – followed, smashing the drain to pieces.

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This stopped the on-track action for 1hr 17min, with a lunch break cancelled and teams running straight through till 7pm that day.

After the repairs were made, the last thing the authorities expected was for the problem to read its head again – on Day 3, after just 27 minutes, Sergio Perez ripped up the same drain cover.

It isn’t like F1 doesn’t have previous with that piece of street apparatus though. The problem isn’t just known, it has previously been responsible for high-profile disruption at Baku, Monaco and Las Vegas as well as permanent circuits including Portimao and Sepang.

Officials were aware: a team visited the Singapore Grand Prix last year to learn how its team constructed the circuit and avoided pitfalls. But it also said that it would shun solutions used by European circuits to seal or cover manholes in order to prevent them coming loose in the race.

“[City officials] don’t want to go for customised lids and covers, because in the future if you have to replace them, they don’t want to go to Germany or somewhere else in the world to buy them,” said Las Vegas circuit project manager Oliver Liedgens, from the Tilke organisation, which designed the track, in a Motor Sport interview last year. “So we’re looking now for American solutions with screws.”

The details of which design was chosen and the wisdom of not running a test event before will no doubt be explored on the days to come.

What’s not in doubt are the number of warnings from racing’s past – from as far back as the 1960s. Here are some of the most high-profile times when manhole covers made an unwelcome appearance. It may reassure Vasseur to know that race organisers have compensated teams for recent damage.

1960 Angola Grand Prix

The start of a practice session posed no concern for track workers at the non-championship Angolan Grand Prix of 1960. They happily continued their work welding shut manhole covers, showering sparks over passing cars. To their credit, there are no reports of accidents as a result of the work, nor loose manhole covers.


1990 Mondial Players Race, Montreal

Porsche of Jesus Pareja at Le Mans in 1990

Jesús Pareja’s Porsche in better shape at Le Mans, 1990

Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Montreal is likely to be the scene of the worst devastation wrought by an errant manhole cover, which was dislodged by the Lola-Nissan R90CK of Kenny Acheson during the Mondial Players race, part of the 1990 Sports Prototype Championship.

As Doug Nye recounted in his Motor Sport column, the manhole cover thudded against Acheson’s undertray, then skated into the path of Fermín Vélez’s Spice SE90C, which also clipped it but continued.

The momentum sent the cover tumbling into the path of Denis Morin’s Courage-Porsche C24S, which hit it hard, vaulted over it and then slithered to rest with its front end and underside completely shattered.

Jesús Pareja, following behind, didn’t have much time to deduce what was going on before part of the now shattered and bouncing cover blasted straight through the windscreen of his Porsche 962C. Miraculously it missed the Spaniard, but other fragments tore at the underside, slitting the Porsche’s monocoque and puncturing a fuel tank.

The leaking fuel immediately ignited and the car pin-wheeled along the retaining wall. Pareja’s team-mate Harold Huysman was next on the scene and crashed his Porsche as he tried to avoid the growing debris. Pareja escaped unaided from the fireball, immediately getting into an altercation with marshals whose arrival and warnings he clearly deemed inadequate.


2004 DTM, Shanghai

The energy of a full DTM grid start on a Shanghai street circuit proved too much for the mountings of one manhole cover, which flipped up and brought Bernd Maylander‘s Mercedes to an almost immediate halt in dramatic fashion. The DTM machine was flicked into the air in a cloud of smoke, while the offending manhole made a quick escape as it rolled to the kerb.


2005 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai

McLaren‘s hopes of winning the 2005 Constructors’ Championship were effectively ended when a manhole cover flipped up during the season-ending Chinese Grand Prix, this time on the city’s permanent circuit. Fourth-placed Juan Pablo Montoya hit the triangular piece of metal, protruding from a kerb, which punctured his front-right tyre, ripped a hole in the floor and damaged his radiator.

The failure was blamed on plastic clips that were supposed to hold the cover in place and these were subsequently abandoned in favour of welding the covers shut.


2010 Monaco Grand Prix

Williams of Rubens Barrichello spins in 2010 Monaco GP crash

Barrichello bounces between the barriers

The first Monaco Grand Prix took place in 1929, but even with their decades of experience, organisers still slip up. Rubens Barrichello‘s 2010 race was ended prematurely by a loose drain cover on the hill at Beau Rivage, which destroyed his Williams‘ rear suspension as he ran over it, sending him pinging between the barriers on the narrow track.

Initially thought to be a car failure, the issue wasn’t spotted until later because the drain cover appeared to have dropped back to its original position after damaging the Williams.


2016 Monaco Grand Prix

Another manhole mishap struck Monaco in 2016 when the first practice session was abandoned after a flying manhole shattered the front of Jenson Button‘s McLaren. The cover at the first corner, Saint-Devote, was dislodged by the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, which suffered a puncture as a result. That sent it tumbling into the path of Button who had no chance to avoid it. “It was an incident that we definitely don’t want to see again, he said. “We were lucky in a way that it only damaged the car.”


2017 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang

When a half-metre-long section of heavy drain cover meets a Formula 1 car, the effects are not pretty, as Romain Grosjean experienced in the second practice session at Sepang in 2017. The loose object, camouflaged on the kerb, immediately destroyed the tyre on Grosjean’s Haas, pitching him into a high-speed spin that ended with a jolt in the wall.

An overnight repair job ensured the Haas was back for qualifying and the circuit paid compensation to the tram, which estimated the damage at half a million pounds.


2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Baku

Williams of George Russell is loaded on to trailer at 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Russell’s devastated Williams is removed from the circuit

Dan Istitene/Getty Images

George Russell‘s Williams appeared to explode in a shower of carbon fibre during the first practice session at Baku in 2019, when he ran over a loose drain cover. It was sucked upwards and destroyed the chassis after a mounting broke.

“I just hit it and got the biggest smack through my body,” Russell said. “I was just going down the straight on my normal line.” The weekend continued after the track was inspected and Williams was compensated.


2020 Portuguese Grand Prix, Portimao

Eagle eyes prevented a Portuguese manhole from claiming another victim at Portimao, when a cover was flicked up by Sebastian Vettel, whose Ferrari had run wide on a corner exit during the final practice session, which was immediately stopped.

In this case it wasn’t the cover but its concrete casing that had failed. Repairs and checks delayed the start of qualifying but no harm was done in this case.


2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix

Elvis impersonators – check. F1 wedding chapel – check. Manhole covers….

Max Verstappen accused the Las Vegas Grand Prix of being 99% entertainment and 1% sport. With the failure of a manhole cover that destroyed Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and brought the first practice to an end nine minutes, the rhetoric was close to being true as of Wednesday night, local time.

While there was relief that the heavy metal cover, sucked off the surface by the cars’ powerful ground effect, hadn’t caused injury, team boss Fred Vasseur was furious at Sainz’s wrecked Ferrari that will “cost a fortune to fix”.

But that’s nothing compared to the embarrassment for race organisers who had seen a small drain cover puncture the hype of the heavily-promoted weekend.