YEONGAM, South Korea (Reuters) - The appearance of a 4x4 fire vehicle on the track during Sunday’s Korean Formula One Grand Prix provided a bizarre moment of drama as it led the slowed-down field but officials played down any safety concerns.
The sport’s governing body said race director Charlie Whiting ordered the vehicle to enter the track once the safety car message was broadcast because he realized the pace car could not be deployed before Red Bull’s race leader Sebastian Vettel arrived on the scene.
Watching viewers might have been bemused to see the workaday 4x4 trundling down the pit straight, hazard warning lights flashing, in place of the sleek silver Mercedes SLS AMG sportscar that is usually poised in the pitlane.
Officials agreed it was unorthodox but an immediate response had been needed.
Australian Mark Webber’s Red Bull had caught fire after being hit by Adrian Sutil’s Force India moments after the re-start following an earlier safety car period and marshals were struggling to put out the blaze.
Whiting had asked local organizers to deploy the fire tender parked at turn three but instead another at turn one that was better equipped entered the track instead.
Vettel, who led from pole and went on to win the race, made light of the incident.
”It looked like a BMW. I think it was a Hyundai or a Kia SUV (sport utility vehicle),“ said the German. ”You want the number plate?
“It was not (safety car driver) Bernd Maylander‘s, so it was not the safety car. I saw that.”
Former racer Martin Brundle, now a race commentator for Britain’s Sky Sports television, told Reuters such an unorthodox intervention was rare in the modern era, with its specialized safety and medical cars.
“Many years ago I came across a breakdown truck going to pick up a crashed car, and various things over the years,” he said of his own track experiences.
“The closing speed (of approaching cars on Sunday) would have been something like 150 mph and you wouldn’t have wanted to be going underneath it, that’s for sure,” added the Briton.
“But with the radio systems we’ve got, the drivers can be told about anything and everything.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner saw another perspective.
“I was probably the only person who was relieved to see it because at least they had some fire extinguishers in it that were going to put the car out. It seemed to be on fire for an incredibly large amount of time,” he said.
“Obviously Mark got out of the car uninjured, which was the main thing. It was just frustrating to see your car there becoming a bigger and bigger inferno in what seemed to take an age to get some fire extinguishers to it.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Alison Wildey