Refueling in the pit lane and Formula One has a complicated relationship since 1982 when Brabham team discovered that a faster race time could be achieved when starting a car with only half a tank of fuel.
The sport’s governing authorities banned refueling in 1984 – but relented in 1994, to introduce more variability and excitement into the sport: for instance, a driver unable to pass another on the track can overtake him by clever pit lane tactics (e.g., time, new tire hardness, fuel tank weight).
The reintroduction would lead to a disaster almost immediately at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, when petrol sprays on to the car of Dutch driver Jos Verstappen during refueling and the Benetton Ford pit erupted into a ball of flames. It was a spectacular fireball – despite less than three liters of fuel being spilt out – but was quickly put out. Verstappen ejected himself out of the car rapidly. He and five mechanics were taken to hospital and treated for burns, but no one was seriously injured. A subsequent investigation traced the fire to a fuel value that was slow to close and elimination of a filter to stop fires, to increase the flow of fuel into the car and save crucial 1-second per pit stop.
The drama of the moment was perfectly captured in the photo above of a pit crew member, Paul Seaby, making his escape from the fire. Photographer Steven Tee, working for Motorsport Images, remembers:
“I went into the Benetton garage and they were getting ready for the pitstop, so I shot it from where I was standing, just out the front.
I was snapping away and I noticed something, some fuel spilling, but didn’t pay too much attention. Then I went from seeing Jos in the car with the mechanics around him, to literally like a big orange ball. But I kept shooting.
As soon as it happened I could see the mechanics running back towards the garage, and some of them were on fire. I retreated a bit to get out of the way and then thought no more of what I had taken, as those days we were shooting on film.
We dropped the films in as usual on the Sunday night in London, and came in very early to do an edit for Motoring News. I went through the frames. There were two frames that were completely out of focus, but you could see the fuel spillage. The next frame was an out-of-focus Paul Seaby, and the next frame was out-of-focus Paul Seaby.
But the third frame was the one that has become quite famous – which is basically him completely enveloped in flames, pin sharp coming away from it. It looks like it should be a still from a movie!
There was another angle of the fire that someone had taken from the pitwall, and that got used quite a lot in the newspapers, but it didn’t have as much impact as this one of Seaby.
Paul and I have joked about it over the years. I’ve given him some big prints, and at some point the image ended up on a load of beer mats somewhere! It has been used all over the place. It is a constant reminder to him.
Amazingly, Seaby survived the accident with only minor burns. A few fires and near disasters followed throughout the 90s and the 2000s before the sports reconsidered banning refueling. In aftermath of the 2009 financial crisis, Formula 1 decided to cut down costs of storing, transporting, and caring for F1 car fuel and ban refueling altogether in 2010, allowing for slightly enlarged fuel tanks.
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