The winter months are a time for planning, hard work and lots of practice for our pit crew.
It’s 10:30 in the morning in Silverstone. Outside of our team’s HQ the air is cold and a chilly northern wind is blowing, but inside the walls of the red brick building the personnel going about their day are sheltered from the elements.
On the ground floor of our base, right next to the race bays where our 2018 car is taking shape, our crew is finishing their warm-up routine: limbs stretch, arms rotate, a choreography of bodies preparing for their daily moment of endeavour.
Then, out of the silence come the screams of four wheel guns, blazing in unison. The high-pitched whirrs, like the sound of jack-hammers pounding on metal, leave no doubt to what is going on: like every morning during the off-season, it’s pit stop practice time.
“It’s such an important process, especially at this time of the year,” explains Race Team Operations manager Mark Gray, in between a stop and the other. “We are testing new equipment, testing new items on the car, integrating new staff into our team and moving people around to find the strongest combination for our pit crew.”
In his role, Mark needs no reminder of the importance of every small detail in the pursuit of perfection. The winter months, far from being a period of inaction, are the time for the crew to refine one of the most delicate skills required on a race weekend, a skill that requires dexterity, focus and tip-top physical shape.
“Our crew trains a minimum of three times a week in the gym, building up the strength needed for the position they are in,” says Mark. “They’re pretty tough one-hour sessions but the crew enjoy them. Every day, we also do 30 minutes of pit stop practice. This could be anything between 10 and 30 stops, depending on what we are focusing on. Early in the year we’d start with regular wheel changes, the job we do most regularly during a race, but as the crew builds confidence we introduce other scenarios – nose changes, or situations in which the car is not straight in the box, or in which there is damage to the car. We need to be ready for all possibilities and practice until this becomes second nature.”
Having the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action of a pit stop become second nature is not easy – at least at first. Ashley Jones has been working as front-right tyre wheel-on for 18 months and has a full season’s worth of experience on the front line. “It’s only two seconds but it’s hard work and it takes a lot of learning to get it right. Once you get into the rhythm, it’s all about the timing and making sure you work with the others on your corner. When you’ve done it so long, you just go into autopilot: you don’t notice what you’re doing or even think about anything that is around you.”
The bubble into which mechanics can slip may help them focus, but shaking it up with some variety can help improve the general outcomes of a stop. “Adapting to a new position is quite a big difference,” says Ash, who has been training in the new position of wheelgun man. “There are aspects you do not take into consideration when you do something else, but once you move to a new position you notice a lot more and you realise how much you rely on the other crew members.”
Moving mechanics around is not just about giving them more awareness. It is also a way to find out who’s best suited for certain positions. Mark Gray is responsible for the line-up of mechanics in the stop and a big part of his job involves analysing his team’s strengths and, crucially, giving his crew members a chance to try something outside their comfort zone.
“It’s important to match the right people to the best position. Some volunteer for specific jobs or think they’d be very good at them, other positions require a certain level of physical fitness or even body size. You wouldn’t want someone very light on the jacks, when a heavier person can put a lot more weight in and do the job more easily,” explains Mark. “We need the strongest possible combination; but if someone shows interest, wants to have a go and shows they’re willing to put in the effort, I am happy to give them a try.”
There are some cases, of course, in which Mark has to overcome a bit of reluctance when he spots hidden talent. “Some people are a bit nervous – they may not want to cope with the pressure, maybe. Often, however, they try a job and they’re good at it and this makes their confidence grow – and they end up in that position,” Mark says with a smile. “In the end, we collect a lot of data and this helps us make the best decision for the team.”
While there is a lot of science revolving around the selection process, pit stops remain incredible adrenaline-filled moments in the race. The tension is not confined to those watching – it is palpable among the crew as well. Mike Brown, Checo Perez’s number 1 mechanic and left-front wheel on man, agrees: “It’s a good adrenaline rush, it’s the most important part of the race for us in the crew and it’s something we look forward to.
“You need to remain calm and composed and that’s why it looks like quite a relaxed atmosphere. But inside you, especially for the first stop in a race, the emotion is huge and you feel your heart jumping out of your chest. It’s a great feeling.”
For the outside viewer, the two seconds of a pit stop go in a flash; but how is it for the crew? “It goes in slow motion,” says Mike. “You can see everything and it’s as if your brain had slowed down. It’s a lot of pressure but such a big relief when the car drives away, you exchange some eye contact with the others and you know you’ve done a good job. Of course, that’s not when you have a stacked pit stop – then it’s just six or seven more seconds of the same feeling!”
Fans, rightly so, look at pit crew members like masked superheroes. What followers of Formula One witness is just the end product of hours and hours of work in the gym, countless practice stops, 24 people devoted to the pursuit of perfection, to shaving away every fraction of a second possible. It’s a monumental effort – but such a big reward when the results this effort produces comes in.
“When I first started, I had butterflies in my stomach and I was thinking ‘do not mess this up’,” chimes in Ash. “But now I love it. A pit stop is something that makes you feel an integral part of the team. And when you get to tell people that you’re a member of a pit crew for a Formula One team, that’s such a proud moment.”