Formula One is a sport with a lot of hidden aspects; it is far more than just the driver in the car and the boss on the other end of the radio. At RealSport we are pulling back the curtain to look at the inner workings of the most famous motorsport in the world.
We sat down with former Red Bull Racing Electrical Engineer and pit crew member Robbie Durant to find out just what goes into creating the perfect pit stop, from the crew involved to the practice and the artistry.
In 2010 the FIA outlawed refuelling during pit stops. This was primarily for safety reasons, there had been a number of terrible fires during stops in throughout the history of Formula One, including Jos Verstappen, the father of current Red Bull driver Max Verstappen.
When there was refuelling, the timing on the tyre changes and even replacing a nose cone didn’t really matter. The fuel would take so long that precision on the rest of the changes didn’t matter all that much.
Now though? The limit of a pit stop is how long the mechanics take to change four wheels. As a result, that time has become intensely pressurised and carefully examined to eliminate every unnecessary movement.
“Of the 60 race personnel there are 24 or 25 who are involved in the pit stop. Not everyone wants to do it, there is too much pressure for some,” Durant said. “To cover illness or injury we have to learn multiple roles of the pit stop; as a result we practice twice a day for 20-30 minutes every day we’re in the factory.” That is a lot of practice work just to be the guy who takes a wheel off or uses the jack, but that’s how vital every fraction of a second is when the car is stationary.
Of course, it’s not just tyres that need changing. Sometimes the car needs a new front wing, sometimes the steering wheel needs to change. All these scenarios are practiced to perfection back in the factory.
“At Red Bull we had an electric car that we would practice on in our replica pit box. We could practice everything on it”
The aim for each team is to have the core personnel ready to go before preseason testing, most teams will devote one preseason test to race prep, doing a full weekends run in a day and running live pit stops to see where they are with continuity and consistency. Every stop is filmed in slow motion so that teams can review what happened and make any necessary changes.
Even with all that practice, in the heat of the moment things can go wrong, especially as the pit crew have other responsibilities during the week, as Durant shared with RealSport previously. In 2015 at Spa, Williams put three soft tyres on Valtteri Bottas’ car and one medium tyre. “There are different tyre blanket colours for each driver, but you don’t know what compound is under there until you take the blanket off.” The tyres are kept on racks as a set together but with the pressure on the Williams crew obviously grabbed the wrong ones.
In Monaco this year Red Bull weren’t ready for Daniel Ricciardo when he came in from the lead and it cost him the win. “The error with Dan [Ricciardo]’s stop in Monaco was a bit unique. The garages there are so small that tyres are kept in different areas to normal and aren’t as accessible as usual. That together with new personnel meant they were scrambling.”
It always looks like a scramble though, even when the stop is planned the crew never seem to be that ready. “The minimum notice we get is 15 seconds, to go from seated in the garage to in position and ready to work.” The race strategy within teams is such a closely guarded secret that the crews don’t even know what the plan is on a Sunday. They just have to be ready to go at any point.
“The most stressful part by far is going from the grid back to the garage.” Durant said, “There is a bottleneck in the pit walls where everyone is trying to get the equipment for 22 cars back and it can be madness, but you have to be sat in the garage with everything away properly and your helmet on ready to go within about 90 seconds.”
In Formula One nothing done on track stays secret for very long. Williams recently set the fastest time for a pit stop in Baku when they held Felipe Massa in the box for just 1.92 seconds. They have recorded the fastest time in 10 of the 12 Grand Prix this season. The footage of their process will be taken and analysed to death by the other teams in an effort to shave a tenth off here and a tenth off there.
“All the processes are designed to remove the reaction times of the crew”. The guys taking the wheels off are reaching for them before the car has even stopped. The front jack man is already to the side and pulling away before the new set of wheels are on. The jack doesn’t even release on human reactions, it goes on a ready signal from the four wheel guns.
F1 teams have already gotten pit stop times about as low you can get them, but they will continue to hunt for an extra tenth of a second here and there. They will keep evolving the crews used to try and generate a small advantage, even if it’s just for half a season before the rest of the teams work it out and copy them. Every error committed, from Red Bull’s Monaco disaster to Mercedes holding Nico Rosberg for eight seconds rather than five in Hockenheim, leads to new procedures and new ideas for how to execute the most crucial part of a race.