The story behind F1's most iconic refuelling picture

It conjured up one of Formula 1’s most famous images and is a constant reminder of the dangers posed by refuelling. This is the story behind Jos Verstappen’s infamous pits stop fire, at the German Grand Prix on this day in 1994.

The story behind F1's most iconic refuelling picture

What should have been a normal pitstop for Benetton rookie Verstappen turned into near disaster when petrol sprayed out of the refuelling hose and was ignited on a still hot car.

Captured live on television at the time, the drama of the moment has been further sealed by what is now a world-famous photograph of Benetton pit crew member Paul Seaby captured in the middle of flames as he made his escape.

It was a suitably dramatic moment in a 1994 season dogged by on-and-off track turmoil, which had reached a new level heading to that weekend's German Grand Prix.

Benetton had arrived at Michael Schumacher’s home race appealing against a two-race ban for the championship leader, who had at the team's behest ignored black flags for overtaking Damon Hill on the warmup lap in the previous event at Silverstone.

Schumacher hoped to become the first German to win his home grand prix, but knew that it would be a tough order thanks to the long Hockenheim straights perfectly suiting rival Ferrari’s V12 power unit.

A chaotic opening lap to the grand prix, which included a first corner pile-up that would earn Mika Hakkinen a race ban, meant Schumacher emerged as the main challenger to race leader Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari.

On lap 13, Schumacher peeled in to the pits for his first refuelling stop, which was completed without trouble. Two laps later it was team-mate Verstappen’s turn.

Verstappen saw the spilled fuel before he smelt it

Verstappen saw the spilled fuel before he smelt it

Photo by: LAT Images

"I remember coming in for what I thought was a regular pitstop," says Verstappen. "Sitting in the car, I would always open my visor because when I was stood still I would sweat a lot. So as I came to a halt, I opened my helmet to get some fresh air.

"Then I saw the fluid coming. This was before I could smell anything, and that is why I was waving my arm. Then everything went up [in flames] and it was suddenly dark and black, and I couldn’t breathe. It was a situation you don’t normally think about: it is like you are suddenly put in a dark room, and then you think, ‘I need to get out...’

"It was a struggle to get the steering wheel off, and that took me a couple of seconds. Then I had to release the belts. So there were a lot of things I had to do before I stood up and realised what had happened."

Seaby takes up the story: "My job was as right front wheel on, so I had my back to the fuel man. That is why I ended up getting sprayed up the back.

"It had been a normal race up until then, and we were going through Jos’ pitstop. We were just getting the wheels on when I saw what I thought was water in the air. 

"I thought, ‘That’s unusual, there is water spraying’. Then I realised it was fuel and at that point I decided to get out of there, which is the point it ignited. There was a big ‘woof’ as it went up and I just took flight. I headed into the garage which was the most direct route away from the car."

Motorsport Images photographer Tee was working for Benetton at the time, and decided to shoot the race from the infield area.

"I was going to do the start from there and see what happened," he recalls. "I wanted to be on the infield for the finish because I figured that if Michael won then there would be flags everywhere.

The fire quickly caught, scattering mechanics as Verstappen struggled to free himself

The fire quickly caught, scattering mechanics as Verstappen struggled to free himself

Photo by: LAT Images

"The middle of the race turned out to be a bit boring, so I thought I would pop back and do some pitstops as it is a five-minute walk from trackside.

"I went into the Benetton garage and they were getting ready for the pitstop, so I shot it from where I was standing, just out the front.

"I was snapping away and I noticed something, some fuel spilling, but didn’t pay too much attention. Then I went from seeing Jos in the car with the mechanics around him, to literally like a big orange ball. But I kept shooting.

"As soon as it happened I could see the mechanics running back towards the garage, and some of them were on fire. I retreated a bit to get out of the way and then thought no more of what I had taken, as those days we were shooting on film."

The fire was put out within a matter of seconds, but there remained frantic scenes inside the Benetton garage as the team tried to get to grips with what had happened.

The Benetton crew even had to start getting ready for Schumacher’s second stop, before his lap 20 engine failure meant the focus could shift to treating the burns of those caught up in the fire.

"I remember the team pouring water on my face and then later putting cream on it," says Verstappen. "I went to hospital for a check-up, but everything was pretty much okay. My breathing was fine too, as I don’t think I breathed much when it happened.

"To have a fire in a racing car, like when Nico Hulkenberg went upside down in Abu Dhabi [in 2019], you smell the fuel or the oil and you get scared. But when it happens in the pitlane, it’s almost the safest place that it could happen. So I never had any problems dealing mentally with what took place."

Still ablaze Benetton mechanics try to put out the fire

Still ablaze Benetton mechanics try to put out the fire

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"It was all a bit frenzied really," adds Seaby. "There was a lot of shock going around the garage. Once the fire was out, there were people trying to take stock and assessing what happened.

"We found some water and I started splashing it on my face. There were guys clearing up because Joan [Villadelprat, operations director] had started shouting into the garage that there might be another pitstop, and he was going around: ‘Do you think you can do it?’

“We said, ‘Yes, of course’ and started putting our overalls back on to go out and do the pitstop for Michael. They were trying to remove Jos’s car, there was fire extinguisher everywhere, and then we were told as we were getting ready that Michael had an engine problem and was going to retire, so don’t worry about it. And that was it really.

"We went down to the medical centre and we had a bit of a laugh trying to cool off our burns. There were three of us with burns, me, Simon Morley and Wayne Bennett. Myself and Simon had burns to our faces: Simon was worse, but didn’t look too bad at that time, so we were just sharing a hose standing in a bath.

"Wayne had burned his ankle and the back of his foot, and was getting last dibs in the shower. In the end he had to stick his foot down the toilet and was flushing it to get enough cold water on his ankle.

"Apart from that, there was no permanent damage. For the next few races, my head was not really particularly in the right place, but you had to get on with it."

While the television images of the Verstappen fire grabbed the attention of news broadcasts that day, it was not until the next morning that Tee realised just what he had captured on his camera as his film was developed in London.

"We dropped the films in as usual on the Sunday night in London, and came in very early to do an edit for Motoring News," he explains. 

Schumacher's engine failure meant the Benetton mechanics could get proper treatment for their burns

Schumacher's engine failure meant the Benetton mechanics could get proper treatment for their burns

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"I went through the frames. There were two frames that were completely out of focus, but you could see the fuel spillage. The next frame was an out-of-focus Paul Seaby, and the next frame was out-of-focus Paul Seaby. 

"But the third frame was the one that has become quite famous - which is basically him completely enveloped in flames, pin sharp coming away from it. It looks like it should be a still from a movie!

"There was another angle of the fire that someone had taken from the pitwall, and that got used quite a lot in the newspapers, but it didn’t have as much impact as this one of Seaby.

"Paul and I have joked about it over the years. I’ve given him some big prints, and at some point the image ended up on a load of beer mats somewhere! It has been used all over the place. It is a constant reminder to him."

While subsequent FIA investigations into the cause of the Benetton fire focused around a missing filter, the team always believed that that element did not contribute to what happened that day.

Those arguments have faded in to the history books, but the memories of what happened 27 years ago this weekend remain strong – and the photo of Seaby has become iconic for F1.

For the men at the heart of the fire, it is something that they will never forget.

Unsurprisingly, not all the shots from Tee's reel were completely in focus

Unsurprisingly, not all the shots from Tee's reel were completely in focus

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"It is what most people remember me for!" jokes Verstappen. "You see the images a lot during the year.

"I have no lasting issues from it apart from sometimes, when I drink alcohol, mainly wine – and it’s not all the time, just sometimes – suddenly I feel it burning. And then it also gets red where I got burned on my face. I feel it coming up on my face. I don’t know why. I think it is a sort of reaction that you get. That is all I have left from it."

"The only thing I did notice the other week is that my left cheek is slightly redder in a patch, but other than that no side effects," says Seaby. "When I first saw the photograph, I had a word with Steve Tee and said: ‘You could have been putting me out rather than taking photographs!’ But I am glad he took them.

"When you are in a situation like that, you are just ripping things off that have been on fire – so you don’t actually know what happened. So it was really interesting to look and study and see what happened.

"I do like the photo and I am glad he took that, because without the video and without that photo it could have easily been forgotten. Not a lot of people talk about the Jordan fire at Spa [in 1995] for example.

"I’ve had a few posters of the image over the years and my mother-in-law, who is not with us any more, when I first started dating my wife, the only photo she had of me was that picture.

"So there on her wall at home was my brother-in-law and sister-in-law at their weddings, and next to it was a picture of me on fire. That made me chuckle."

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