Taking the fast lane to victory 31 May 2006
How the pit lane can make or break a driver's race
In the hours before a Grand Prix, the pit lane is the place to be seen, full of famous faces and celebrity names, all providing rich pickings for the photographers and camera teams. But the strip of tarmac between the pit wall and the garages is more than just a stage for the visiting stars: races are won - and sometimes lost - in the pit lane.
Pit stops can be among the most important moments in a Formula One race. These brief, but crucial, interruptions in the on-track action bring with them intense excitement for the spectators - and intense, but measured, activity from the all-important pit crews. Dressed in their astronaut-like safety gear, these mechanics have to be ready to cope with any eventuality. The minute the car stops, their own personal race begins.
The crews keep practising the pit stops until every action is absolutely perfect. Normally, we are ready to start within 30 seconds, Paul Singlehurst from the Williams crew told team sponsors Allianz. But in an emergency, we can even do it in 15 seconds.
Even before the season started, the Williams crew had already completed 150 practice pit stops, hence everyone in the elite team knows exactly what he has to do. What at first glance appears to be a frantic jumble is in fact a perfectly choreographed movement of 22 men, where the key is not grace and posture, but simply speed and accuracy. Is the fuel hose inserted in the car perfectly? Can the tyres be changed smoothly or is a wheel nut jammed somewhere? It is the one point in the race when the driver is rendered largely powerless. However, the only thing he really has to fear is losing track position to his rivals, as a whole series of safety measures prevents any dangerous situations from developing in the pit lane.
The regulations are just as strict between the pit wall and the garages as on the track itself. Anyone who violates them is penalised immediately. The penalties are well known: for instance, anyone who exceeds the stipulated speed limit (at most tracks, 80 km/h in practice, 100 km/h during qualifying and the race) is fined US$250 in practice and qualifying for every kilometre per hour over the limit. During the race, the driver is punished with a time consuming drive-through penalty - an additional trip along the pit lane without stopping.
The pit lane is divided into two driving areas: the part along the pit wall is known as the fast lane, and the other in front of the garages as the inner lane. The pit crew are only permitted to work on the cars in a specified area of the inner lane and can only enter the pit lane for this purpose. After completing their work, they must immediately withdraw into the garages. The pit lane also plays an important role in the starting procedure of each race. For instance, anyone who does not make it onto the track at least 15 minutes before the start of the warm-up lap, or to his starting position at least five minutes before the warm-up lap, must start the race from the pit lane. He must wait at the end of the pit lane until the entire field has driven past after the start before beginning his race.
There is also a great deal going on in the pit lane during the race, especially now that tyre changes are permitted again. Some may even argue the events here are often closer and more exciting than those out on the track. It is very difficult to overtake at many circuits, so the teams have to give their drivers the decisive fractions of a second they need to get back on the track ahead of a rival with fast and well-timed pit stops. Every race strategy stands or falls with those stops. Not only do they provide a thrilling spectacle at the edge of the track, they can also make the races more interesting and exciting for the fans.
The teams set up their control centres by the pit wall: high-tech tents with computers, monitors and radio antennae. During the race, the teams pull all the threads from here, and this is where team bosses, chief engineers, race engineers and strategists make all the important decisions. They are surely the most exclusive box seats in Formula One racing.