Split-second reactions, precise movement and lightening speed. These are common in Formula 1 drivers but at Panasonic Toyota Racing, they are crucial requirements for the pit stop crew as well.
Once, twice or even three times a race, the pit crew on each car are called into action to fit fresh Bridgestone tyres, refuel and carry out emergency repairs or changes if necessary.
When Ralf Schumacher or Jarno Trulli are giving their all to extract every hundredth of a second from the car on the track, the pit crew have to be alert when it comes to their big moment as any time wasted in the pits can damage the driver’s chances in the race.
Pit stops are more important than simply a refuelling exercise – they are an invaluable opportunity to gain positions. Panasonic Toyota Racing engineers devote a lot of energy to working out the fastest strategy for their drivers so when the car enters the pit lane, it’s make or break time.
A pit stop would normally take less than 10 seconds, with team members on each wheel – one to remove and reattach the wheel nut, and the other to do the same with the wheel. Refuelling is a two-man job while there is also a jack man to lift the car, a lollipop man to guide the driver and someone ready with a starter. In total 25 team members play an active part in even the most routine pit stop with the eight-strong race car crew joined by T-car mechanics and other team members.
Away from the pit stops, the pit crew work on the cars and in the garages but throughout the race, both crews are on stand by, ready to react instantly if they are required. In fact, although the team has a pit crew for each car, in reality they work together and the strong team spirit means if one crew needs help, there is no shortage of willing hands.
No part of Formula 1 is left to chance, least of all the high-pressure performance of a pit stop and the crew spend hours fine-tuning their technique to shave vital fractions of a second off their best times.
Chief Mechanic Gerard Lecoq marshals the pit stop troops. He explains: "Practice is very important for all the people on the pit crew, just to get in the zone again because a pit stop needs to be automatic. When the car is coming you should not be thinking I should do this or I should do that – it should be automatic. We also work on this in the factory. You’ve got to forget about everything, trust yourself and do your job. You really feel it."
The last act in a well-executed pit stop is carried out by mechanic Jens Luy, who, as lollipop man, has the heavy responsibility of telling the driver when he is clear to resume racing. As the tyres are removed and replaced, the pressure on Jens builds for he cannot release his driver too early or his race could be ruined – but any slight delay could lose a position on the track.
It is a fine judgement which requires nerves of steel, but for Jens, the process is now second nature. He said: "When t he wheels are all firmly on and the safety pins drawn back, they signal to me with their gloves that they’re done. I then check off the critical points, making sure within a few tenths of a second that the checks are okay. I then concentrate exclusively on the fuel nozzle, which Markus Bürger operates. As soon as he’s got it disconnected, the driver gets the ‘go’."
Despite all possible safety precautions, danger is ever present at a pit stop, as refueller Markus Bürger knows only too well. With a 70kg hose on his shoulders pumping extremely flammable fuel from rig to tank, he is in a vulnerable position, as he has discovered. He recalls one pit incident: "We were still doing the fuelling but the car drove away. The hose then came off, petrol shot out, got onto the exhaust and, of course, everything burst into flames. It was certainly a bit heated!"
Everyone in the crew is on high alert to make sure the pit stop goes as smoothly – and as quickly – as possible. But with ti ming so tight in Formula 1, things do not always go to plan and that is when all the training pays off.
Number one mechanic Christian Koob’s job is to make sure the wheel is secured to the car before the driver leaves the pits, and sometimes this is not as straightforward as it might seem.
He remembers one make or break moment: "I was about to do the wheel nut back up when I noticed that something was jammed. I whipped the wheel nut off again, and saw that there was a wheel safety loose. So I tried to push this wheel safety back in, but then just at that moment Ralf let the clutch engage and the wheel started to turn. The wheel slid off again and then even as the wheel was practically still going round, we tried to push it back on. We hit it and tried again with the torque wrench, and then it finally worked and out he went. But it could also easily have ended badly."
So how does the Panasonic Toyota Racing pit crew stay sharp? It’s all down to practice, and a strong te am spirit, as Gerard Lecoq reveals: "After ever pit stop practice we have times from all guys and all the jobs. We have them on a chart and put it on the wall so there is a kind of competition. The guys on one tyre see they are slower than another and next time they try even harder to do it faster. The guys talk and ask ‘how come you are doing it faster than me?’ Then they exchange tips and this is how we improve – you can see the progression during the season."
It’s the small details that add up to success in Formula 1, and the Panasonic Toyota Racing pit crew are doing their bit to push the team forward.