Why F1 Cars Don’t Refuel

File:Alonso Renault Pitstop Chinese GP 2008.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Bert van Dijk, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Refuelling, that is the addition of extra fuel into a car during the course of a race, has been banned from Formula since the start of the 2010 season. We saw a noticeable increase in the length of F1 cars from 2009 to 2010, to allow space for a considerably larger fuel tank required to last the full race distance.

Refuelling in the Past

Riccardo Patrese 1982
Copyright: Photo © Alcide Boaretto (https://www.alcideboaretto.it/)

Refuelling has been both present and absent from Formula 1 numerous times since its advent in 1950. It was prevalent in the gas-guzzling machines of the 50s then phased out when larger tanks and more fuel efficient engines came to the fore in the 1960s and 70s.

Then at the 1982 Austrian Grand Prix, Motor Racing Developments Ltd. (aka Brabham) experimented with a new strategy whereby they would carry out both a tyre change and a fuel top-up mid-race. It seemed to work as Riccardo Patrese came out in the lead even after making his scheduled stop, as his lighter fuel load allowed him to form an enormous gap to his competitors. However, an engine failure soon after the pitstop dashed the team’s chance of victory.

Nevertheless, many teams saw huge potential in this method and soon enough the majority of outfits were starting the race with their tanks only partially filled.

Why was Refuelling Banned?

There were 3 key reasons for the outright ban on refuelling for the 2010 campaign. The main issue was one of safety, as the likelihood of making a mistake during the procedure is very high as the mechanics raced against the clock to fill up the fuel tanks as quickly as possible.

In the past we have seen some spectacularly dangerous incidents in the pitlane related to refuelling. For example, at the 1994 German Grand Prix, the hose being used to add fuel to Jos Verstappen‘s Benetton detached while hydrocarbons were still pouring out of it, spraying all over the mechanics and car. The petrol spontaneously ignited and for a few brief moments Max Verstappen’s father was engulfed in a fiery blaze before it was put out. The Dutchman suffered minor burns.

In another incident at the 2008 Singapore GP, Felipe Massa lost the lead of the race after accelerating out into the pitlane with the fuel hose still attached, which was subsequently ripped out of the rig it was fixed to.

Furthermore, the cost of transporting and storing high octane fluids all around the globe is a lot more than you would think. It was estimated that it cost each team around 1 million euros per season, so in the eyes of the FIA it was a no-brainer to remove this extra monetary pitfall.

Finally, refuelling put a negative spin on the image of Formula 1. Hundreds of litres being blasted out of an oily chute into a noisy, smelly vehicle screams environmental-unfriendliness and pollution.

The top brass in F1 have been trying to push the idea that the sport is looking towards a more ecologically friendly future, aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030. This is especially the case since Liberty Media took hold of the reins in 2017.

The turbo-hybrid V6 powertrains are much less polluting and highly fuel-efficient compared to the V8, V10s and V12s of years gone by, which makes for easier viewing (and listening) for environmentally conscious people around the world.

In the upcoming 2022 season, the cars will race using E10 fuel, which contains 10% ethanol as supposed to the 5.75% present up until now. This will make the teams produce a whole lot less greenhouse emissions while having no drawbacks to performance.

Will Refuelling be Missed?

Now that we no longer have refuelling, some would say it makes the races more boring as it removes an additional variable to the strategy that drivers and teams implement. Nonetheless, we still get different tyre strategies coming into play, as well as the marvel of sub 2.5-second pitstops.

Managing tyre wear actually became more critical from 2010 onwards as the heavier cars ate away at their rubber at a greater rate, requiring more frequent tyre changes. There is also fuel management on the behalf of the drivers, as they can change their engine modes on the fly to conserve or use more fuel, the former at the cost of straight line speed.

An example of the influence of engine modes came at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, where Mark Webber was leading the event but was low on fuel. Meanwhile his teammate Sebastian Vettel was rapidly closing in and he could afford to use a more powerful mode with more fuel remaining. Eventually the German driver closed in on Webber but the pair collided, ending the possibility of a Red Bull 1-2.

So there we have it. Why don’t F1 cars refuel? It’s all in the name of saving the money, lives and integrity of those related to the sport. Refuelling is unlikely to come back in the near future.

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