Thursday, March 12, 2009


Drivers get most of the attention, but Formula One racing remains a team sport even during the race itself. The precisely timed, millimetre perfect choreography of a modern pit stop is vital to help teams to turn their race strategy into success - refuelling and changing a car’s tyres in a matter of seconds.

It was not always so. Pit stops tended to be disorganised, long and often chaotic as late as the 1970s - especially when (in the absence of car-to-pit communication) a driver came in to make an unscheduled stop. The age of the modern pit stop arrived when changes were made to the sporting regulations to allow fuelling during the race itself, simultaneously limiting the tank size of cars.

The car is guided into its pit by the ‘lollypop man’, named for the distinctive shape of the long ‘stop/ first gear’ sign he holds in front of the car. The car stops in a precise position and, if a tyre change is required, is immediately jacked up front and rear. Three mechanics are involved in changing a wheel, one removing and refitting the nut with a high-speed airgun, one removing the old wheel and one fitting the new one. At the same time two mechanics operate the heavy fuelling rig, which must be precisely slotted into the car before fuelling can start.

Other mechanics may make other adjustments during the stop. Some changes can be carried out very quickly - such as altering the angle of the wings front and rear, to increase or decrease downforce levels. Other tasks, such as the replacement of damaged bodywork, will typically take longer - although front nose cones, the most frequently broken components, are designed with quick changes in mind.

On tracks with debris or rubbish you often see mechanics removing this from the car’s air intakes during a stop, ensuring radiator efficiency is not compromised. And there is always a mechanic on stand-by at the back of the car with a power-operated engine starter, ready for instant use if the car stalls.

When they have finished their work the mechanics step back and raise their hands. It is the responsibility of the ‘lollypop man’ to control the car’s departure from the pit, ensuring no other cars are passing in the pit lane, though some teams now use semi-automated traffic light systems instead of the lollipop. Such is the skill of mechanics that routine stops can be over in under seven seconds, longer halts tending to be determined by the time it takes to transfer bigger fuel loads.