A1 Team Australia the 'Pit Stop Kings'
London, Great Britain.One of the key elements of any race strategy is the pit stop and with three of these high pressure mandatory stops across two races in A1GP, a slick pit crew can make all the difference. Getting it right is a pain-staking process, which 2008/09 'Pit Stop Kings,' A1 Team Australia, explain is down to continued hard work that gives them the ability to perform under pressure, whatever the challenge.
While a team of engineers and mechanics will do all they can during practice and qualifying to set-up the car to the driver's liking, when the lights go out, it is then up to the person behind the wheel to do the best possible job with the machinery. However, this changes when it comes to the pit stop when the driver is just a passenger as he puts his race back in the hands of his trusted crew. Current A1GP champion Ireland's pit work helped Adam Carroll to the team's maiden victory in Mexico City in Season Three, while A1 Team Switzerland's quick work helped Neel Jani re-take the lead from home favourite Filipe Albuquerque in the Algarve last season.
An unofficial pit stop competition this season gave A1 Team Australia the title of 2008/09 'Pit Stop Kings' for the second season in succession. Australia had the quickest pit stop time on six occasions, with New Zealand, Switzerland, Ireland and Portugal the only other crews to record such pit 'wins'.
A1 Team Australia team manager, Adam Gotch, says part of his squad's renowned success is that the team will carry out 81 practice pit stops over the course of a race weekend. The exact nature of the figure he gives here is as precise as his team's practice regimen, and every unexpected eventuality is meticulously rehearsed.
"We practice at not just getting it right, but how we react if something goes wrong," Gotch explains to A1GP. "We simulate a heap of situations, even if the driver stops a bit short of the box, gets it in sideways, or even backwards, which we have seen in A1GP.
"Sometimes things don't go to plan so I often throw a curve ball in the pit stop practice. We practice air-gun failures, so if one mechanic was to have a problem with a wheel he can wave to someone to pass the gun to him.
"All these things keep the guys on the ball so that we lose the least amount of time if something bad happens for real. We record every single practice on a camcorder and analyse it to look for any improvements. We will even get to the track early on Friday and Saturday, so other teams aren't there to watch us."
A1GP is unique in its pit stops rules. There can only be a maximum of eight mechanics working on the stop and all but one member (the lollipop man) must stand behind the white line that separates the garages from the pit lane until the car has come to a complete rest. Only one person can work on each wheel throughout the stop, although a fifth man is now allowed to touch the car and teams can use this however they want. It is a crowded place too -- circuits and pit lanes tend to be designed for series where there may be the same amount of cars but there are two per team with the same pit crew services both cars -- so there would never be all the cars pitting at the same time. A1GP has 20 national teams, each with its own crew and pit box, so they could all come in at the same time.
It is critical that each team member knows exactly what they are doing as an unsafe release from the stop, too many people touching the car or even a wheel or air-line encroaching on the fast lane can result in race-ruining consequences such as a drive-through penalty or, if the race is almost complete, a time penalty. Everyone has a specific role in a pit stop, as Gotch explains. (The following assumes the pit lane is on the right hand side of the track, and you are looking at the car from behind)
Inside (right) rear tyre changer: "This person takes the short step from the garage with the tyre and air-gun and changes the tyre all by himself. This is one motion for him -- our man has one hand for the wheel and one hand for the gun."
Inside (right) front tyre changer: "Similar to the inside-rear changer. It's a short walk and he gets no help."
Outside (left) rear tyre changer: "He runs around the rear of the car and removes the left-rear tyre. By the time he has placed it on the floor, the fifth man has placed a new tyre on the axle, ready for him to tighten with the air gun."
Outside (left) front tyre changer: "He runs around the rear of the car to the front-left tyre. He operates the gun and removes the wheel, and then waits a few moments for the new wheel to be placed on his axle by the fifth man. He then screws the nut in place. The nature of this late arrival means that he is usually the last to finish."
The 'fifth' man / tyre runner: "His job is to run out carrying the two tyres to the outside wheels, placing the rear one directly on its axle first, before doing the same for the front one. By the time he gets round to each corner the used tyres have already been removed. The rear wheel is about 20kg and the front is about 18kg. When you are running with that weight, it's not the easiest job in the world."
Front jack operator: "Runs from the pit line to the front of the car and lifts the car up so the tyres can be changed."
Rear jack operator: "Runs around the rear of the car. It is essential he gets the positioning of the jack correctly, or he could damage the carbon fibre parts on the undertray and it could really ruin the race."
Lollipop operator: "He controls the entry and exit of the car to the pit stop and stands out in the pit lane to make it easier for the driver to determine where his pit box is when coming in. While the stop is going on he holds the lollipop out in front of the driver, which signifies he cannot move yet. When he has seen a hand signal from the operators on all four wheels and checked there is no other car coming down the pit lane in their vicinity he can lift the lollipop and release the car. He often has to make a call as to how close another car can be when releasing his own car. An unsafe release can result in a drive through penalty for his driver. Even though he is in radio contact at the time, it is not used, unless in an absolute emergency."
While technically teams can use their eight men how they like, provided they stick to the one person per tyre rule, many pit stops look very similar, because essentially there is one recognised route to achieve the best stop. However, teams do employ different strategies.
Gotch explains: "Some teams have their outside (left) front tyre changer run around the front of the car to get to his tyre quicker, but if they do this they have to drag their air-gun around the front of the car and that air-line would have to be cleared before the car could leave the pits. We have that person running around the back. It takes a few moments longer for him to get to his tyre, but then we don't have to even think about where his air-line ends up. The driver can just drive straight out when the wheel is changed.
Gotch has always been involved with the team pit stops, originally as front jack man, but since Taupo this season, he has been the 'fifth' man. Initially this was because of illness to one team-member, but because he believes in continuity limiting mistakes, he remained in place until the end of the season.
"I decided to stay in this position as it is notoriously hard to practice a lot of times because of the strength required. I couldn't ask someone else to run out to the car carrying wheels over 80 times a weekend if I couldn't do it myself!"
He admits it's quite a nerve-wracking place to be however: "It's a rush, especially if you are new to it," he says. "It is a bit daunting. If it goes wrong it's a horrible feeling, but if it goes right it's fantastic. One of the best parts of A1GP is that the actual crew can make a difference. We can't necessarily win the race for the driver all the time but we can definitely lose it, so there is pressure involved.
"I guess it's very similar to a goalkeeper in a football or soccer team, in that you can only gain a little but you can certainly throw everyone else's hard work away with one false move. It's a bit of pressure for the boys, but when they have been around for a long time they have a lot of experience. The only pressure you end up putting is on yourself."
"The guys have to be able to do their jobs well in the first place. They aren't affected by cars coming down the pit lane or the car in front or the car behind, they just get on with it because we have practiced all these situations.
"Because the cars are so close together during the race you work with the other teams, one garage up and one garage down from you, to try and work it so you don't stop at the same time, but it doesn't always happen like that. You just need to be a little bit aware of what is going on in the pit lane while staying focused on your role.
"If one crew is three seconds quicker than the other then that is quite a chunk of time for the driver to find on the circuit. There is nothing better for a driver to gain all that time in the pit lane."
The pit stop can be a rewarding situation and is the very demonstration that A1GP is a team game, and results are not solely down to the ability of the driver.