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Hot Topic: Formula E Pit Wars

Are Formula E teams risking too much to save fractions of a second in the driver changes?

Photo: Formula E

Risk, whether deemed necessary or otherwise, has been debated in motorsport through the ages and no doubt always will be.

In the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, almost out of nowhere, has come another one.

The abolition of the minimum pit stop time surprised most people when it was first mooted ahead of the Marrakesh E-Prix in January.

It bubbled-up, simmered down, then resurfaced again at Santiago when it was officially done away with. It triggered what is now very firmly a contentious sub-plot to the fourth season of the all-electric series.

The odd thing about it all is that this safety related topic, which seems not to have any discernible nor urgent reason for coming to pass in the first place, has allowed to fester so virulently.

After Santiago last month we had the situation where two teams, Dragon and Techeetah, were sanctioned for using some form of system to aid the efficiency with which their belts were done up.

This is a regular practice in endurance racing where tie-wraps are added to the lap straps to enable mechanics to properly and adequately tighten them before leaving the pits.

Both teams appear to have genuinely believed this would not be an issue with the FIA. They were wrong and got slapped with a record fine.

Other FIA series don’t have car swaps, especially in confined spaces which Formula E always has, even at the permanent race circuits they visit.

This is new territory for all, and as it will become an obsolete matter at the end of the present season, the doing away with the safety net of a minimum stop time brought much head-scratching.

At Mexico City last weekend, the FIA issued a bulletin giving at least some clarity on the matter.

E-racing365 has acquired a copy of the bulletin. It states the following:

“Subject: Enforcement of Article 15.6 of the FIA Formula E Championship Technical Regulations – Following the issues found during the Santiago do Chile event, we would like to make the following clarifications.

“The safety harness must be used in its homologation configuration, as shown in the manufacturer’s, supplier’s catalogue, without any modifications, additions or removal of parts with the exception of the fixation of the radio plug, which is only acceptable if fitted on the shoulder strap badge.”

The key words here are “additions or removals”.

So let us move on to Exhibit A – Nelson Piquet Jr.’s pit stop last weekend.

During the pit stop, a mechanic to the left of the car was seen pulling something away from what looks like the safety harness.

It is then discarded on to the floor of the pit box before the mechanic then adjusts the belts before Piquet is set on his way.

E-racing365 contacted Panasonic Jaguar Racing to ask what was occurring in the stop. The team responded with the following statement.

“Since the removal of minimum pit stop times, Panasonic Jaguar Racing have been trialling ways of speeding up our car changes while maintaining the safety of our drivers and technicians.

“We don’t want to share these improvements with our competitors but they fully comply with the FIA’s rules and clarifications.”

One unproven and speculative theory is that Jaguar could have used breakable tie-wraps to tension the shoulder straps.

This interpretation though would be risky as it would surely still contravene the clarification of using the belts “without any modifications, additions or removal of parts.”

By regulation, “before leaving his pit, the driver must fasten and tighten his safety harness and comply with the safety rules.”

It is mandatory for drivers to wear two shoulder straps, one abdominal strap and two straps between the legs.

Again, by regulation teams have to use a Belt Tension Device (BTD). This is mandatory for the two shoulder straps.

Whereas the driver must have the shoulder straps tightened before exiting the pits via the use of the P2 switch “ready to move” mode, the belt sensors do not gauge data from the lap and crotch straps.

This opens up the possibility for these safety belts to not to be tightened in the stop and either secured by the driver on the pit apron as he rejoins the race or not at all.

Then there is the question as to how all this is policed. The drivers are checked after the checkered flag in parc ferme, but they are not checked before leaving the pits.

This would obviously be slightly impractical to say the least!

E-racing365 has asked three drivers if they were checked in Parc Ferme after last weekend’s Mexico City E-Prix.

All three said they were checked, but then again two of the three said that they made sure on the slow down lap that their belts were fully secured!

Another pit stop, which came in for some scrutiny by other teams after Mexico City, was that of Felix Rosenqvist.

The Swede, who was out of contention after stopping from the lead of the race, pitted on lap 19.

Footage of the stop shows Rosenqvist approach his second car with his mechanic holding the already done-up belts for him to slide into.

Once this is done, and in a split second, the mechanics make a quick motion at the lower and top part of the belts before the car speeds away. It was, at 39 seconds, the fastest stop of the day.

The question here is whether or not the belts adequately tightened. The team insists they were, which has to be taken at face value, but if so, it was an incredibly quick procedure.

The question is, in both of these incidents were the official garage observers, who are provided locally by the relevant ASNs, fully aware of what was happening before them?

In addition to the pit stop questions some teams are clearly exploiting other areas of the rules. Is there any wonder why tensions are running so high at present, both within the teams and the FIA?

One example is that at least two entries were seen by e-racing365 to be using umbrellas to shield their Michelins from the sun on the Mexican grid.

This seemed to be an attempt to control tire pressure build-up, a particular issue at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

It appeared to be a clear contravention of Article 27.4 of the Sporting Regulations which states: “During the entire Event, no screen, cover or other obstruction which in any way obscures any part of a car will be allowed at any time in the paddock, garages, pit lane or grid.”

It may only be a small point but Formula E is now at a stage where every miniscule advantage is considered, even if it sails close to the regulatory wind.

In the case of the pit stops though, the issues of safety cannot be ignored. There have been several near misses even before the abolition of the minimum stop time.

Now, there has been injury too, thankfully a relatively minor one to a Techeetah mechanic after Andre Lotterer clipped him leaving his box.

That incident happened, in Formula E terms at least, within the spacious surroundings of an F1 spec pit, but one which is built for one car and not two.

Next we go to Punta del Este where temporary pits and a narrower pit lane await.

Is it really worth the extra risk and heartache for all involved? What does it contribute to the image of Formula E, especially in a week which is celebrating an impending new era.

Formula E brings innovation and genuine advancement to motorsport.

To see drivers and mechanics scrabbling around for belts and coming up with a hotch-potch of tie-wrap and velcro-inspired wheezes to save a few seconds is difficult to understand, and even harder to explain to a TV audience.

Sam Smith is e-racing365's Formula E Editor. A 20-year veteran in motorsports media, including press officer roles in both the FIA Sportscar Championship and at Lola Group, Smith is a well-known face in the Formula E paddock, where he served as series editor for Motorsport.com from 2014-17. Contact Sam

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