Dummies Title

Anatomy of Pit Stop

Sauber pit stop
At first glance a pit stop is simply a repeat of the age-old battle; man against the clock. But in the case of Formula One™ racing the challenge has been refined and refined and refined. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent getting every action exactly right.

It says so much that this weird world is controlled by a man with a "lollipop". It is not for licking, of course, but is the giant stick with a circular sign at one end that is held right in front of the driver's face. It has a single instruction on each side. One says "Stop" the other says "Go".

It shows how much attention there is to detail because even this simple piece of equipment (which is really just a signboard) is made of super-light carbon fibre. Why carbon fibre? Metal is too heavy and could hurt a driver or mechanics if things go wrong and wood burns too easily in the unlikely event of a fire.

The whole event, glibly called a "tyre stop" couldn't be further removed from the motorist with a flat tyre. Before he has even found the jack 24 men have changed all four wheels, fed in the fuel and sent the car on its way. Well, they have if it has all gone according to plan.

A pit stop starts with the training. Mechanics will practice a pit stop literally thousands of times during a season. They will run through the operation hundreds of times in pre-season testing and then go over it day after day at a Grand Prix to ensure every kink is examined and ironed out.

That helps both in making the system smoother and at the same time calming nerves. Every aspect of the stop is practised, even down to the fact that the mechanics - who all have other roles in the team anyway - have to be sitting in the pits, fully kitted out in overalls, helmet and gloves, then rush out when the order comes out over the radio. There are even times when, as part of the team strategy, they try to bluff the opposition and rush into the pit lane as a ruse to dummy another car into pitting early.

Then there is the equipment. The car jacks used at front and back are a world away from the one you've probably got in your garage. Some teams use a pneumatic system that shoots the car into the air at the touch of a button. Others, like Jordan, use a specially made man-operated jack that lifts each end of the car into the air in just one second and relies on sheer muscle. Each year they have to be remade to cater for the different designs of nose cone and gearbox.

This being Formula One I am sure you are not surprised to hear that sponsors' colours mean the designers not only use fabricated steel but also have licence to make them look incredibly hi-tech. "You can't have big ugly jacks in Formula One," says Jordan team manager Tim Edwards, with a smile.

When it comes to the wheels, every one has a single bolt rather than the four or five on road cars. That makes them easier to remove and replace. The pneumatic wheel guns may look just like every one you have ever seen in a garage but they are very different. They are made to order of super light and extra strong steel with weight-saving titanium sockets so they are both strong and easy to wield. With so much hanging on the pit stop they cannot afford for the guns to go wrong, so there is an extra one lying close by on the floor.

"Compared to the ones in your local garage these are beauties," says Edwards. "They are also directional so they apply more power to take the wheel off than to put it on, because that is usually where the problems occur."

And the process of removing the wheels is a no-nonsense operation. Each corner has three men: one on the wheel gun, one to take the wheel off, and another to put it on. In the confines of a pit lane with so little space and other F1 cars cruising past at 80kph it all has to be choreographed very carefully.

So that's it? Well, not quite. Prudence, good working practices and safety are also poured into the equation. It goes without saying that each mechanic has his own set of fireproof overalls, underwear and helmet. These are not simply for the mechanics to wander around the paddock pretending to be drivers, but rather for solid safety reasons. Many of them remember the 1994 blaze in which a few Benetton mechanics were slightly burnt in a dramatic episode. Their pit was suddenly engulfed in flames when fuel spilled onto hot engine parts. Luckily no-one was seriously hurt.

Like the rest of the grid Jordan has a fireman, armed with an extinguisher on the spot and foam cannon to douse the whole pit in case things are slightly more serious.

Jordan have developed a special method, too, for making sure mechanics do not get run over. It has happened in both the Williams and Ferrari pit in the last three years and the Irish team doesn't want to be next. So, even though there is a man on the lollipop, the one on the rear jack (Iain Marchant) in the Jordan operation has special responsibility. He has to keep the rear of the car in the air until the fuel hose has been removed completely. That way, even if the lollipop man messes up things will not end in disaster.

As an extra safety precaution Jordan have a man holding a clear Perspex cover over the engine in case there is fuel spillage. Why Perspex and not metal? So the rear jack man can see the refuelling process and knows when to drop the jack.

The refuelling rig supplied to each team by the same FIA-approved manufacturer is the most expensive piece of equipment the pit crew use, costing tens of thousands of dollars. And as the main source of danger there are five people working on it. The pipe itself is the thickness of a man's leg and has a double thick skin to prevent accidental punctures. The system has a special lock, too, that will not release the fuel until it is firmly fixed into place. Three men carry the pipe, one operates the shut off valve and the other (Edwards) is at the control desk in case things go wrong. As a final safety measure there is a copper strip that earths the car to remove any potentially dangerous static.

As the season progresses and the crew becomes even more practiced, added refinements creep onto the pit-stop routine. "For example, we have two people operating the fuel hose, with the team member furthest behind having a lot of influence on moving and locking the hose into place," adds Edwards.

"For the flyaway races a tall person had been standing in front of a shorter one which limited how much the guy behind could help his team mate. When we got back to Europe, we tried reversing that and by using different people we found it made refuelling work much better."

"Now Stuart Cox, the tallest member of the team, is the second person on the fuel hose and he looks over Ged Robb's shoulder to help steer the hose on. The big guy who used to be on the front of the hose was moved to the rear jack because the team member who used to have the position was too light and subsequently was thrown off a few times."

"Re-thinking the team positions like this has made our pit stops smoother and quicker, but it's only once you've gone through a few races that you can have a better feel for how the team should be arranged."

"We've got a few people on the crew who hadn't done pit stops before this season and it doesn't matter how many times you practice it, when you actually do it for real for the first time in a race, when it matters, the adrenaline's going! We see a difference as the season goes on and by the end of the season the crew has really gelled together and the pit stop just gets slicker and quicker each time."

The Jordan pit-stop crew:

Lollipop & nose lift - Andy Stevenson
Front jack, lift & nose off - Gerrard O'Reilly
Left front wheel off, wing adj., nose on - Martin McCracken
Left front wheel gun - Jamie Chapple
Left front wheel on, nose ratchet - Dave Adcock
Right front wheel off, wing adj., nose lift - Dave Gambling
Right front wheel gun - Phil Howell
Right front wheel on, nose ratchet - Andy Saunders
Stand, extinguisher - Stuart McNally
Fuel - Ged Robb
Fuel - Stuart Cox
Fuel - Mick Gomme
Fuel shut-off - Paul Pinney
Fuel desk controller - Tim Edwards
Right rear stand, wheel off - Simon Yates
Right rear wheel gun - Matt Deane
Pusher, right rear wheel on - Andy Deeming
Rear jack - Iain Marchant
Main extinguisher - Ian Gleadell
Fire guard - Andy Barber
Left rear wheel on - James Laurence
Left rear wheel gun - Nick Burrows
Left rear wheel off, starter - Gary Taylor
Steady, nose lift, wheel off, clutch dump - Nathan Hall