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

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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