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On the front line: Pit stops with Marc Priestley
Thursday 05th April 2012, 00:18 by Marc Priestley
Do or die: Pit stops can make the difference (© McLaren.com)
Pit stops can mean the difference between winning a race and finishing last. The men and women behind the drivers are often quickly forgotten, but their role is just as important.
Former McLaren race mechanic Marc Priestley takes a look at the highly pressurised moment a driver careers into a box no bigger than his car at 100km/h, in the hope of being there for just three seconds.
Although far from the 'god like' hero worshipped status current Formula One drivers enjoy, it's easy to forget about the important role each team's pit stop crew play in each grand prix. The mechanics, truckies, data engineers, electricians and support staff can all have a direct effect on the outcome of a race with their individual and collective performances during a stop. They're as much competitors as the drivers are and can often gain or lose significant amounts of time between lights out and the chequered flag for a team.
Aside from the obviously crucial jobs each of these faceless people perform in the build up to, during and post each grand prix in preparing and maintaining the garages, cars and the infrastructure required to run them, they all come together for a couple of brief, but seamlessly choreographed moments in the middle of each race, competing directly against their counterparts and friends in the same positions at rival teams.
There have been times, particularly in the not too distant past, where the format of F1 has produced some pretty tedious and processional racing with the only realistic opportunity for overtaking being during the pitstop fazes of each GP. There's an awful lot of pressure on the 'ordinary' people waiting, poised in pit lane for their car to arrive to carry out their respective tasks quickly and yet faultlessly while the world watches. The truth is, pitstops are rarely talked about as being responsible for winning races, but they can very easily be pin pointed as the reason it all went wrong!
During my near decade as a grand prix mechanic at McLaren, I was involved in close to a thousand 'live' pit stops, not to mention the practice ones totaling many thousands more. By the time I left the race team, I'd covered most positions around the car at one time or another and the whole process was instinctive and like second nature. However, I'll never ever forget the very first time I was called into the pit stop crew at the Australian Grand Prix some years ago.
Being fairly new to the team, I was given the job of fitting the new nose cone in a pit stop when the original one needed replacing due to damage. An unlikely event, I thought, and although I'd practiced endlessly in preparation, I was still terrified at that first race. The relatively simple task of popping the new nose and front wing assembly onto the front of the chassis, whilst four other people do up the fixings, seems impossible to mess up, but in reality it doesn't take much to throw the whole process out of sync, adding seconds to the time.
I remember running back from the grid at the race start to get kitted up with balaclavas, helmets and gloves etc, but thinking it was so unlikely that I would actually be needed as my job wasn’t part of a standard stop.
Upon reaching the sanctity of our garage and gathering my breath and composure, the dreaded call came over the radio that David Coulthard had been in a collision and to stand by for a nose change! My world stopped. My heart pounded so hard and fast, I could hear it above the screaming V10's outside. Only half ready, I abandoned my helmet and gloves, dragged the balaclava over my head and followed everyone else out into the pit lane. Trying desperately to breath and stop shaking, I took up my position with the new nose, checking over and over that I had the right one for DC's car. The wait in the pit lane seemed to last forever, I recall thinking "Why hasn't someone come and checked I'm ok and ready", but of course everyone else has their own, equally important jobs to do and it was assumed that after all of the practice and preparation for this very instance, we were all ok and ready.
The process of a nose change involved a group of guys lifting the front of the car onto a low stand, the fixings being released, someone taking the old nose away, me coming in, without hitting anyone or the delicate components fixed to the front of the chassis and smoothly lining up the 4 pins on the new nose, while the fixings are done up. I then get out of the way, whilst the front jack goes between my legs ready to lift the car back down onto the ground once everyone's done. Whilst all this is going on, all four wheels are being changed and possibly fuel going in too (pre-2010).
Fortunately, that first stop did go well for me. It took ages for my heart rate to come down. I remember being aware that there was a cameraman just over my shoulder during the stop and that there would have been millions of people watching. Being a lone stop early in the race for one of the front runners, I knew the cameras would be on and the commentators would all be analysing it. I knew my family and friends would be watching back home, they all knew what my role was. Once it was all over, I was just glad it had gone well and no-one would be talking about it.
After that very first pit stop, each one became a little easier to deal with and in the end nerves rarely even played a part. The key is in the preparation, combined with individual experience, in ensuring each pitstop is as smooth as it can be.
Teams nowadays put extraordinary resources into pitstops. The millions spent on squeezing an extra couple of tenths a lap out of the car each year, can of course be negated very easily if pitstops are taking a second longer than they should do. Video analysis, laser positioning devices, intricate traffic light systems and space aged looking equipment, all help to ensure that every single person involved has the best tools, guidance and training for their jobs. I'm told that Mercedes have spent somewhere in the region of €400,000 on their swivel front jacks alone for 2012!
All of these devices, systems and tools aim to minimise reaction times and operating times, but all increase the pressure on the individual to perform faultlessly and to within a fraction of a second of the perfect stop. At the end of the day, no matter what technology is employed in F1, there is still a very 'human' element, not only in the drivers, but the hundreds of other people up and down the the pit lane taking part in the race.
Here's to the men and women of Formula One who don't get paid the millions and yet are equally as deserving of a place on the podium, spraying champagne and the accolades that go hand in hand with competing and winning in F1 races.
Marc Priestley (@f1elvis) has a wealth of experience having worked at McLaren between 1999 and 2009 as a race mechanic and member of the team's pit crew. Marc has worked with drivers such as Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.