If you’ve been watching F1 for the past few years, you’ve certainly heard commentators mention that going into Turn 1 at the start of a race is always a bit dicey due to how heavy the cars are with full fuel loads. You’ve also heard them mention that tires last longer later in the race due to the cars being lighter, having burned off most of their fuel.

So, why do F1 cars not refuel?

There are a couple of reasons why F1 cars do not refuel: cost and safety.

Why Don’t F1 Cars Refuel? Cost.

Long before the current age of cost caps, the FIA and Formula 1 were looking for ways to lower their costs. One reason why F1 cars don't refuel is that a big part of the running costs for Formula 1 is providing freight services for teams to ship their equipment across the globe.

The Shipping Situation

Every team would ship two fuel rigs (one as a backup) to every race, and when you multiply that by 10 or more teams, that’s a substantial amount of equipment to schlep around. Getting rid of it saves a lot of freight weight.

It’s been estimated that teams spent in the region of €1,000,000 per season on their refueling systems. Large teams wouldn’t notice that cost, but small ones most definitely would. And that’s a major reason why F1 cars do not refuel.

Why Else Don’t F1 Cars Refuel? Safety.

Cost is one reason, but the ultimate reason why F1 cars do not refuel is because of safety.

The Safety Situation

Beginning with the 2010 season, cars would need to be fueled for the entire race. During a pit stop, teams are trying to get the car in, serviced, and out again as fast as humanly possible. In the refueling era, the primary constraint during a stop was the time it took to refuel.

Fuel Hose Dangers

Where incidents mostly occurred was when the driver was improperly released from the pit box while the fuel hose was still attached. You can see a good example of this with Ferrari driver Felipe Massa (one of my favorites) at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. In this footage, you’ll see the fan with the camera positioned farther down the pit lane from Ferrari’s pit box. Into view comes Massa with the long silver fuel hose still attached to the car, having driven away with it still attached. He pulls over while still in the pit lane so that his mechanics can run after him and detach the hose, sending him on his way. If you watch Felipe’s view, you’ll see he didn’t jump the green light. He was told to drive and thus did. This was one of the lucky incidents where there was no fire. Others weren’t so lucky — and that’s why F1 cars don't refuel.

A Fiery Fiasco

At the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix, McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen drove off from his pit stop in a similar manner as Massa the year prior. However, fuel was still in the house, which doused Kimi Raikonnen’s Ferrari behind him. The hot exhaust from Kimi’s car ignited the fuel. Fortunately, it was quickly burnt up, and Kimi was able to continue and finish sixth. Kovalainen received a 25-second penalty for an unsafe release from the pit. This clearly explains why F1 cars don't refuel anymore.

2009 Brazilian Grand Prix - Sunday

Splashing Fuel Catastrophe

To me, the prime example of why F1 cars do not refuel, however, comes from Verstappen. No, not Max, but rather his father, Jos “The Boss” Verstappen. While racing for Benetton (and partnered with another current Formula 1 name - Schumacher) in 1994 at the German Grand Prix, Jos came in for tires and fuel, which led to this spectacular incident.

It’s an absolutely frightening moment that explains why F1 cars don't refuel today, but full marks to the mechanics who reacted very quickly to put the fire out, and to Jos, who got out of the car very quickly as well. Thanks to the multiple layers of fire-retardant material that everyone must wear, nobody was injured. I’m frankly astonished that Formula 1 would carry on for another 16 years of refueling having witnessed that incident. Given the above, it’s not surprising that F1 cars do not refuel today.

1994 German Grand Prix fire


F1 cars do not refuel, but could refueling return?

I’ll be the first to admit that I love the era of refueling. For this nerd, it added yet another level of strategy and nuance to an already nuanced sport. Teams could decide to run their cars very light on fuel during qualifying to go much faster, but this meant they’d have to refuel earlier in the race given that everyone had to start the race on the same level of fuel. Alternatively, teams could run heavier during qualifying with longer first race stints in mind. Teams would also need to guess what their primary opponents were doing and potentially adjust their strategies to fit.

Why Refueling May Be a Non-Issue

Safety aside, if F1 cars do refuel again in the future, I don’t know that it will actually make a big difference. Cars are much more fuel efficient than they were, and as a result, they use less fuel to begin with. Teams now have a maximum of 100kg of fuel for a race distance, whereas during the refueling era, it could be almost double that. Running “light” or “heavy” now is nowhere near the swing that it used to be, so I don’t know that it would actually lend much to strategy.

Given the little dent it would make on strategy nowadays when weighed against the safety and cost concerns, unfortunately, I don’t see it coming back. F1 cars do not currently refuel, and they probably never will again.

July 28, 2022 — Jared Nichols
Tags: Formula One

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