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Up against the clock - pit stop precision to take centre stage 16 Mar 2011

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7 practices a pit stop.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain,  Saturday, 19 February 2011 Force India F1 Mechanics prepare for Paul di Resta (GBR) Force India VJM04 to make a pit stop.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7 makes a pit stop.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Team Lotus T128 makes a pit stop.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26 makes a pit stop.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Very little is certain in Formula One racing, but one thing that’s looking highly likely for the forthcoming season is that pit stops will become more important than ever. With Pirelli’s tyres deliberately designed to be a lot less durable than their Bridgestone predecessors, we could see drivers make three or more dashes into the pit lane for new rubber during the course of a Grand Prix.

From the one-stop strategies that became the norm last season, it is something of a sea change for the sport and a real boon for fans. Time and time again, we’ve seen races won or lost in the pit lane and with more opportunities for pit-lane successes or failures in 2011, it will come as no surprise that most teams have had their nose to the grindstone repeatedly rehearsing pit stops during the pre-season tests. Toro Rosso have been particularly avid, completing more than 60 over the winter sessions. Practice makes perfect, after all.

Certainly, the disorganised chaos of stops during the sport’s early days, which saw drivers sneak out of their cars for a brief spell, are a distant memory. And ever since the ban on refuelling came into effect in 2010, stop times have become even quicker, plummeting from the refuelling era’s average of around 10 seconds to well under five. At the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2010, McLaren posted one of the fastest stops of the season, when they serviced Lewis Hamilton’s car in a breathtakingly quick 3.4 seconds.

It’s understandable then that pit stops are one of Formula One racing’s most mesmerising - and edgy - spectacles. One slip could cost a driver dearly, but conversely, if all goes to plan, it’s an invaluable opportunity to gain an advantage over your rivals. Like most things in Formula One racing, the stakes are very high and from beginning to end, speed and efficiency are crucial.

Once guided into the appropriate pit box by a ‘lollypop man’, a car stops in a precise position and is then immediately jacked up at its front and its rear. Three mechanics then gather around each wheel. One removes and refits the wheel nut with a high-speed airgun, one removes the old - and very hot - wheel and another fits the new one.

The tyre change aside, Formula One regulations prohibit almost any other work on the car during a pit stop. Altering the angle of the front wing, to boost or lower downforce levels, is one of the quickest permitted adjustments. Others, like replacing damaged bodywork, often take longer, although changing front nose cones (amongst the most frequently broken components) can be very quick too.

Other mechanics busy themselves removing any debris from the car’s air intakes or giving the driver’s visor a wipe. And there is always a mechanic on stand-by at the back of the car with an engine starter, ready to be deployed if the car stalls. When all four tyres have been changed, the mechanics step back and raise their hands, the car is lowered to the ground and the lollypop man knows it’s time for it to return to the track. He ensures no cars are passing in the pit lane and then ‘releases’ his driver, either by raising the ‘lollypop’ or increasingly through a semi-automated traffic light system.

Pit stops at their best see men become machines as they swarm over a car in a few precisely-timed and flawlessly-choreographed seconds. At their worst, errant tyres can career off down the pit lane (as seen after a botched stop on Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes GP at last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix), wheel nuts can get stuck, and late strategy switches can see the wrong tyres being fitted. And all the while, a deeply frustrated driver ferociously boils inside his helmet as the critical few tenths he built up on the track are lost. The pressure is immense.

Formula1.com recently had the chance to experience something similar when invited to take part in a ‘pit-stop challenge’ by McLaren. Although we tried out our air-gun prowess in the relative calm of a bay in their Woking factory, it was still nerve-wrenching stuff. And with the adrenalin rush over, we then had to nurse some very achy muscles in the days that followed. It prompted a newfound respect for the mechanics at work during Grands Prix, when the stops actually count and when points, victories and even world championships depend on them. The stress must be almost unbearable.

And with more pit stops taking place during the race this season, there will only be more pressure and a lot more room for error. It’s perhaps understandable then that the teams have chosen to sacrifice some of their testing track time over the last couple of months in favour of pit stop drill. But while rehearsal can help, it can only go so far. Nothing can come close to the high-pressure, frenetic nature of an actual Grand Prix pit stop.

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