Why do million-dollar F1 drivers keep making mistakes at red lights?

Red light, 470150

Lewis Hamilton would be best advised to skip today’s newspapers. Unless he wants to read several unfortunate comparisons between his father’s prang in a Porsche last week and his crash with Kimi Raikkonen in the pits (see video here).

Hamilton is not the only F1 driver to have messed up at a red light in recent years. Nico Rosberg committed exactly the same mistake yesterday but, not being Hamilton, he gets less attention and a lot less vitriol from some quarters.

But why is it happening at all? We all know that if the light is red you have to stop so surely the world’s top racing drivers know the same?

Running red lights

Hamilton and Rosberg are the latest drivers to fall foul of a closed pit exit. They join Rubens Barrichello, who re-joined the track passing through a red light at Melbourne this year and was disqualified.

So were Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella in last year’s Canadian Grand Prix. And Juan Pablo Montoya two years before that.

The phenomenon of drivers passing through red lights has become more frequent in recent years because of the increasing use of the safety car.

For safety reasons, the pit lane exit is closed while the safety car and any F1 cars near it are passing by. However last year the rules were changed to control when drivers could come into the pits during a safety car period, meaning the entry to the pits may be open while the exit is closed, which rarely happened in F1 before.

Driver/team error

But despite all this a red light means stop so why are the drivers not seeing it and not stopping?

Hamilton said:

I saw the two guys in front battling in the pitlane and all of a sudden they stopped. I saw the red light but by the time I stopped it was too late.

This suggests a couple of things. First, the pit lane stop light is hard to see if you’re not one of the first drivers in the pit lane queue. And it also suggests that it hadn’t occured to Hamilton, and presumably Rosberg, Barrichello and the rest, that the pits would be closed.

In other forms of motor racing we hear the teams giving their drivers a constant stream of useful information. In Indy Car the drivers have spotters around the track to let them know if they have a car close by them that they might not be able to see.

Exactly what F1 teams do in terms of giving their drivers information can be hard to tell because we rarely get to hear their radio transmissions. Did McLaren or Williams warn their drivers of the likelihood of the pit lane exit being closed yesterday? If so the warning wasn’t heeded.

The blame ultimately has to rest with the drivers but as with everything in F1 it’s a team game as well as an individual sport. If it’s hard to see the pit lane exit light at Montreal, and past experience has suggested it is, then McLaren and Williams should have taken that into account.

Problem solved?

However this may no longer be a problem from the next round. At the next race in France the teams are to trial a new system where, in a safety car situation, the drivers will receive a message informing them to activate a special ‘safety car mode’ on their cars, slowing them down.

This should allow the pit lane to remain open during safety car situations and hopefully will eliminate the chance of accidents happening as the drivers react to a safety car deployment.

The image above is illustrative and not a photograph of the red light at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

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65 comments on Why do million-dollar F1 drivers keep making mistakes at red lights?

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  1. Robert McKay said on 9th June 2008, 13:24

    “Nico Rosberg committed exactly the same mistake yesterday but, not being Hamilton, he gets less attention and a lot less vitriol from some quarters.”

    How true this is. Very few people have mentioned Rosberg making the exact same mistake. But he’s not public enemy Number 1.

  2. Scott Joslin said on 9th June 2008, 13:36

    There were a number of extreme factors which contributed to the problems in Canada of which I am not sure this new change addresses.

    1) The Pitlane was classed as “Open” just as all the cars ploughed into the pits, yet there was a red light at the end not letting the drivers out – So was it really open? Was this a cock up by the stewards who released the trigger too soon? Should they have waited until the end of the first racing lap after the Safety car has pit?

    2)Tthe light was on was due to the fact that cars from the pitlane cannot exit the pits under a safety car while the safety car and train of cars is passing by the pits. (as seen by Montoya a few years back)

    So thes new change to the safety car rules won’t necessarily rule out this potential situation (even though it was quite a freak scenario) as the red light at the end of an “Open pitlane” will still occur.
    And with drivers allow to be side by side in the pits, such as Kimi and Kubica, we will get this drag race scenario again. I believe Lewis saw the light, but was aiming to get alongside Kimi to make a 3 way race off out of the pits, again a potential accident waiting to happen.
    The Fia should enforce a rule where only it is only line astern in the pitlane so drivers don’t try to double up.

  3. The reason there isn’t as much of a fuss made about Nico Rosberg is because he isn’t constantly compared to Ayrton Senna. So it’s not as much of a ‘surprise’ if he makes a mistake. What gets me is that Hamilton can keep on making these silly errors and yet is still “Senna-esque” in the eyes of certain commentators.

  4. Freddy said on 9th June 2008, 14:00

    Every time the safety car comes out, all the gains made by the front drivers, especially the lead car, are negated. This seems to be grossly unfair. Why can’t Formula One work out a system in which when the safety car is deployed all cars on the track should slow down immediately to the exact same speed as the safety car -and not allow everybody to catch up and form a procession? That way nobody gets an unfair advantage over anybody else. In this age of advanced telecommunications, coordinating this between the safety car and the drivers shouldn’t pose any problems.

  5. P5ycH0 said on 9th June 2008, 14:02

    Install break lights?
    There are already light at the back for rain & the pitlane limiter. Why not use it as brake lights as well?

  6. michael counsell said on 9th June 2008, 14:21

    Hamilton and Rosberg should have been aware that a red light was likely given that the other cars must negotiate two chicanes and a straight at safety car pace while they just have a straight pitlane. You have to feel sorry for Raikkonen because there was nothing he could do other than stop at the lights.

  7. I agree with Doctorvee in that Rosberg doesn’t get a huge amount of good press coverage when he does something well, therefore it’s only fair he doesn’t get much negative press when he does something bad.

    Hamilton gets massive coverage when he does well, so it’s only to be expected he has the same amount of negative coverage when things go wrong.

    The other point is that Nico managed to screw his own race, but noone else’s unlike Hamilton who effectively took Kimi out of the race.

    I can’t understand Hamilton’s view that him crashing into the wall at 300kph and only taking himself out of a race is somehow a worse thing to happen than this 50kph shunt in the pits which takes himself and another driver out of the race.

    I just don’t understand how his mind works sometimes!

  8. ogami musashi said on 9th June 2008, 14:28

    I do find the harsh against hamilton too much.

    If you watch the video you can see there’s not so much time between kimi’s stop and hamilton runing into him.

    It is so easy to criticize while you’re on your chair.

    Driving high speed machines (especially cornering) is physically tough and demands a lot of concentration, pit stops allow for some pauses and you concentration may fly away a bit during them.
    A F1 car just stop in no distance at such speeds.

    It is like someone has a car crash, remembering the crash it is easy to say “i should have made that, why didn’t brake earlier?” etc…but on the moment!

    Ok That’s a big mistake from hamilton no doubt about it (and rosberg)..but hey they’re humans…and they are racing! it is like you’re driving on public roads.

    I really find people not very tolerant with those drivers and always saying “they’re supposed to be the bests”..the bests doesn’t mean “perfect”.

  9. ogami musashi said on 9th June 2008, 14:29

    “it ISN’T like you’re driving on public roads”..my bad.

  10. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 9th June 2008, 14:56

    I’ve moved the comments that are just about the Hamilton crash here: Video: Controversy as Lewis Hamilton hits Kimi Raikkonen in the pit lane.

    I think Michael Counsell is quite right when he says the drivers should generally have an idea whether or not there’s going to be a red light at the end of the pits. For example, I don’t know how Barrichello could have thought the pit lane exit would be open when he went in at Melbourne, as the pit entry was also closed.

  11. If kimi and kubica knew and stopped their little duel in time why didn’t hammilton (or rosberg)? Think he was just miffed two cars pipped him in the pits. If you watch you’ll notice that kubica and kimi start breaking at the same point before the light whilst lewis just goes straight through and breaks a good while later. Heat of the moment tunnel vision perhaps?

  12. Michael K said on 9th June 2008, 15:05

    Approaching a red light at 50mph is exactly like driving on public roads, no cornering, nothing physical in that situation. There simply is no excuse.
    My view is that they just seem to forget that there is actually a light at the end of the pits due to them only thinking about getting out on the track. The pit isn’t a place the drivers enjoy to be in, being there means losing time, so the reaction is to try and get out of there as quickly as possible.
    Ok, if you look at the list of culprits it has two Brazilians and a Colombian who could be classified as a little bit “loose” when it come to their driving at times. Rubens maybe not so much.
    then you have two very young driver who were very motivated in that situation, Lewis because he lost a lot before and Nico because it looked like he could gain from this.
    All of this isn’t really an excuse for missing a red light AND two standing cars and saying that poor Lewis only had a few seconds is ok if he’d be my mum, but these are highly paid F1 drivers who are said to have quick reactions and the ability to multitask in very harsh conditions. Obviously Lewis and Nico didn’t have the ability at that particular moment in time. Lewis has shown thte same flaws last season, so I maintain that he is very quick, but can’t deal with everything he needs to be able to deal with. Maybe he’ll learn, maybe he won’t…

  13. Robert McKay said on 9th June 2008, 15:30

    “The other point is that Nico managed to screw his own race, but noone else’s unlike Hamilton who effectively took Kimi out of the race.”

    If Hamilton had stopped where he was supposed to, and not a few feet further forward, Rosberg would have done exactly the same thing to Hamilton that Hamilton did to Raikkonen.

    Again, it seems to me like a lot of people are misplacing their hatred for ITV/James Allen’s continual hype of Hamilton onto Hamilton himself.

  14. George said on 9th June 2008, 15:35

    Doctorvee – whilst I see your logic in stating that Rosberg isn’t continually compared to Senna, I equally don’t see why someone who IS compared to Senna shouldn’t be expected to make the odd pressure error every now and then. Great as he was, Ayrton did make mistakes and errors of judgement. As do all racing drivers, even the very best.

  15. George said on 9th June 2008, 15:41

    What fascinates me about this debate (both on this thread and on other related ones on this website) is exactly what fascinated me about the Max Mosley debate (interestingly and surprisingly). It is that people are so very, very quick to stand as judge and jury on people – to try them, sentence them, condone or condemn. What this says about the commentators is perhaps more interesting than what it says about the objects of that commentary.

    No-one – least of all racing drivers – perfect. Even the very best make mistakes. Lest we romanticise the recent past, Michael Schumacher made a goodly number – sometimes in critical, championship deciding situations. Senna made mistakes, Prost made mistakes. Fangio made mistakes. End of subject. We all do. It’s sad that so much hot air is being wasted on this subject, when we could be toasting Kubica’s well deserved first grand prix victory. Another fantastic racing driver – but, guess what, he makes the odd mistake.

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