The race within the race
Less than 2.3 seconds…
Think about it: 20 men, rushing towards them a scorching hot and loud as hell F1 machine, maximum pressure to perform, lollipop down, jack the car up, steady the car, wheel guns in, wheel guns out, wheel off, wheel on, wheel guns in, wheel guns out, arms up, jacks down, green for go, an ear splitting noise, the screeching of rubber, a rushing blur of colour and the car and driver are gone.
2.3 seconds – or sometimes less for F1’s crack pit stop outfits – that’s all it takes.
Formula 1: there is no other sport where so much attention is focused on adding speed. In every facet of the discipline many men (and a few women) strive to get the job done faster and faster, and right now the art of an F1 pit stop is close to top of the list.
Trouble is, as times drop the risk of mistakes inevitably rises. Mark Webber’s right-rear wheel careening down the pit lane and smashing into a TV cameraman in the Nürburgring pit lane last Sunday has focused the minds of many on the dangers involved.
So how are they doing it – how are the top teams managing to do all of the above in such mind-numbingly quick times?
Attention – as so often these days – focuses on Red Bull.
Of course everyone knows the crack Milton Keynes crew practice, practice and practice some more. The team is drilled day after day – at both the factory and race track – in a never-ending pursuit of perfection.
But it’s not just the guys with the guns, lollipops and jacks that make the difference; it’s the kit they use, the technical nous that is bought to bear by designers back at base.
As it is with the car, the aero, the engine, the tyres, etc, etc, it is with the wheel guns, the car-raising jacks, the release lights et al.
Go watch a Red Bull practice pit stop and you’ll find it hard to have a good look at the kit in use. Wheel guns – when idle – are sheathed in tailor-made bags so as to be hidden from prying eyes, both front and rear jacks have perfectly moulded and logo’d (of course!) carbonfibre covers, and ‘as always’ the obligatory scowling team personnel patrol the area, jumping on anyone looking too closely.
So what are they hiding?
Other teams have their suspicions. Lightweight ‘intelligent’ guns, wheel nut torque monitors, auto socket-direction-change toggling switches, controlled gunning time, automatic traffic light release…
Whatever Red Bull are up to, they’re up to something.
Just look at some recent races and there are clues aplenty.
On lap 17 of this year’s Chinese Grand Prix and only a minute after his second pit visit, Mark Webber’s right-rear wheel rolled off his RB9’s axle, ending his race. Back at the Red Bull box a faulty traffic light unit was swapped for a replacement, and Sebastian Vettel’s second and third stops took considerably longer than his first.
Just a cautionary change, or is the traffic light key to a controlled release?
When Christian Horner was quizzed on the BBC after Sunday’s German race he cleverly avoided answering David Coulthard’s question relating to a manual or automatic pit stop traffic light release. “He [Webber] is purely reacting to the lights.”
Yes – we know that, Christian…
In 2013 pre-season testing, on three separate occasions wheels came off the RB9. Once would be OK, twice surprising, but after the third errant wheel rolled freely along the track questions were asked…
Of course I know Charlie Whiting has issued a directive that computer-controlled car pit stop release systems are not allowed, but as is more often than not the case the brains within – the teams – are somewhat cleverer than those without.
It’s the Formula 1 way: push and push – legally of course – until the rule makers say stop. Rest assured, Red Bull are not alone in exploring every avenue possible when it comes to pit stop proficiency.
But when the performance envelope is pushed to the extreme, the margin for error is increased; and whether that’s down to human or electronic error is not the point when people are getting hurt.
Up and down the pit lane there is an unofficial competition – between the teams who are capable – to complete the first sub-two-second stop. A few of them can do it in practice but the time has so far eluded them all during the heat of battle.
My suspicion is they’d better get it done soon since safety concerns will inevitably come to bear, possibly reducing the number of guys around the car. Certainly we can expect tighter policing of the technology involved in returning the car to the track fresh with new tyres.
Blink and you’ll miss it!