One formula for error

The 2011 formula one season is up and racing, and the competition is already looking fierce. 2010 saw an exceptionally close finale with several drivers entering the last race technically able to win the championship. So far, this season is looking like it holds the same promise of excitement and tension.

On the third race weekend of the 2011 season the F1 circus arrived in China. Having jumped Vettel at the start, Jenson Button was leading the race when he took to the pits on lap 14. Vettel, having just overtaken Hamilton for second place, followed him in. Button drove into Vettel’s pit bay by mistake. A remarkably low degree of chaos ensued.

That must be driver error, ‘Jenson’s surely gonna be as red as his new overalls about that faux pas’ Martin Brundle said. No doubt about it? Maybe not. If we break it down we might be able to see that this mistake was just waiting to happen.

Pressure and routine

So what’s going on when Button is driving down the pit lane? From Button’s perspective he has by no means stopped racing. Championship rival Vettel has just gained track position by overtaking Hamilton, closing the gap, and applying the pressure. The pit stop is crucial, and it must go to plan if Button is to maintain his lead. However, there is little Button can do to act on this pressure as he is governed by the rules of the pit lane which, amongst other things, limit his speed. Maintaining focus, whilst keeping feelings of tension in check, places additional load on Button’s mental resources.

Having said that Button is not merely a passenger in his car at this point either. There are tasks that he needs to perform in those few seconds driving down the pit, but even routine tasks take attention away from the main task of driving. Indeed, when interviewed after the race, Jenson said that he was looking down at the steering wheel to adjust a switch when he drove into the wrong pitbox.

Although this was a routine task, Button describes how he had previously altered the wrong switch, so he needed to make a second, additional adjustment, demonstrating how routine pit lane tasks may be carried out somewhat unconsciously. Such involuntary automaticity provides some indication of the driver’s cognitive load.

Button is under pressure, with a high cognitive load, and is conducting a routine task. It is no surprise that he makes a mistake and selects the wrong switch. But could this unseen initial error act as a catalyst for Buttons more public error? Did Button’s realisation of his initial switch error serve to cognitively overload him and lead to him driving into the wrong pitbox?

Autopilot

As a driver takes to the pits, the change in pace and scenery offers a brief break to the rhythm of the relentless endurance challenge of the racetrack. They cannot be physically overtaken so they do not have to be defensive in their driving, which might offer some relief. Also, the pit stop is one part of the race that can, to some degree, be controlled, and it’s a routine that is well rehearsed by the whole team. All Button has to do is get his car into the right spot, and stop inch perfect. Easy? Maybe. But if we look at getting the car to the right place it’s not so straightforward.

When a driver enters the pit lane the shift from the relatively high demands of the racetrack to the more rehearsed and routine environment of the pit lane potentially provides an opportunity for drivers to drift into automatic pilot. There is an indication that this happened to Button.

The position of a team in the pit lane differs every season according to their position in the Constructors championship the season before. Last season, 2010, McLaren had ‘pole’ position in the pit lane as they had won the 2009 championship. This year that spot is taken by Red Bull, and McLaren are just next door.

Therefore, considering Button was also dealing with his switch error, it’s no surprise to me that he drove into the first pit box, after all this is what he would have done for the whole of last season, and this Chinese Grand Prix was only the third race of the 2011 championship.

Visual identification

There are other contributory factors to Button’s pit error. The array of pit crews provides an overload of visual information, and although speed is limited in the pit lane, identifying the right place to stop could be problematic whilst still traveling at a pace. Sometimes the lollypop man steps out to serve as an additional indicator, but often the presence of a pit crew, coupled with reliance on rehearsal, is enough. When Button came into the pits in China, Vettel was also about to pit, so two adjacent pit crews were out creating the possibility of confusion.

The colour of the pit crew overalls provides another possible visual indication of where to stop. McLaren have white with a red midsection, Red Bull have dark blue with a red midsection. How did Jenson not recognise the distinction between white and dark blue overalls? To understand this we need to question how easy it is to distinguish colours when driving at some speed, and when they are in front of a visually busy background. Another factor to consider is that in China the sun seemed to be behind the pit crews, which alongside the relative darkness of the garages creates a highly light contrasting environment, which might impact the distinctiveness of team overalls. We also need to consider the position of Button’s eye level whilst driving, and whether the similar red midsections of the two teams overalls might be their most prominent feature. Another potentially compounding factor is that last year the Red Bull overalls didn’t have this red waist, therefore this is no longer a distinguishing feature of the McLaren team uniform.

Expectation

It is also worth considering whether Button was expecting to see Vettel’s pit crew as well as his own. F1 cars are not known for their fantastic rear view mirrors, so Button might only have known to expect Vettel’s pit crew if he received communication from the team. Of course a possible problem could only have been communicated if the potential for such a mistake was anticipated.

Exonerated

So, in my mind at least, Jenson Button is exonerated. The involuntary automaticity associated with well practiced, routine tasks, coupled with high cognitive load and high pressure, meant this was an incident waiting to happen. All the holes in the swiss cheese lined up.

What next?

No doubt as a highly competitive sportsman Button will claim full responsibility for the incident, but it will be interesting to see whether this is deemed as a one off by the team, or whether they will take steps to prevent it, or incidents like it, happening again. After all, F1 is big business involving huge sums of money, and where mistakes are not necessarily good publicity for the team, the drivers or the sponsors.

Safety is also a factor here. The relatively unprotected pedestrians of the pit crew, the high speeds and reduced visibility of an F1 car, and the necessity for absolute precision are a challenging combination. The teams are working at the outer edges of their limits, so there is very little room for error. The situation could have been very different had Vettel’s team not been totally ready.

So will McLaren simply tell their drivers to pay more attention? Will they blame the person in charge of communication with the driver? Will they practice pit entry more? Or will they take other measures to improve the distinguishability of the pit crew with those around them? Or will they do all of the above?

There is a more general lesson here. We need to find ways to anticipate the mistakes that people will inevitably make, then design our environments to either prevent them from happening, or minimise their effects. F1 is a high performing industry, where budgets are large, there is an emphasis on safety, and where training, practice and rehearsal are common place. If mistakes can happen here then they can happen anywhere, and this incident provides a good example of just how complex failure can be.

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