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 for the 1994 season to allow fuelling during the race. By the time refuelling was banned again at the end of 2009, a driver’s visit to the pits had become breathtaking in its speed and efficiency.
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 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.
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 acknowledge these signals and to control the car’s departure from the pit box, ensuring no other cars are passing in the pit lane. To improve this transition, many teams use semi-automated traffic light systems instead of the lollipop.
Given the importance of pit stops, it’s perhaps unsurprising that pit crews spend a considerable amount of time practising wheel changes. In fact, so well-honed are mechanics up and down the pit lane that routine tyre stops are now regularly completed in well under three seconds.