Pitstops. Safe, cheap???
The current iteration of F1’s regulations doesn’t allow refuelling during a grand prix, changed a couple of years ago on safety and cost cutting grounds. There’s a definite argument to be had that the decision has solved one issue, however created quite another.
There is no doubt that pumping race fuel at 12ltrs/second into a car with glowing exhausts and brakes, whilst one man with a lollipop releases it at the very second the nozzle’s disconnected, poses incredible risk. We’ve seen many times over the years cars launching from the box with the hose and refuelling crew still attached, indeed I was one of those a few yeas back.
However I can’t help thinking what we have now is also fraught with danger and it’s certainly debatable wether or not there’s been any cost savings at all.
As with any area of F1, when one system gets banned, resource gets pushed into another and recently teams have targeted pitstops, now based around wheel changing, as an area for intense development.
Not only are we seeing some pretty sophisticated and clearly very expensive equipment being used, but the focus is on dramatically reducing stop times, and therefore race times, with personnel and technology.
If you walk along pitlane today and check out each team’s pitstop setup, it’s mind blowing. The days of a couple of air bottles, air lines and wheel guns are long gone. Now there’s all manner of swivel, pneumatic and quick release jacks; lights, buttons, wires, lasers and head up displays everywhere, plus the latest trend of minimal threaded wheel nuts permanently housed within the wheels. All these gizmos and gadgets have come about after very thorough analysis into each individual element of a pitstop and now have teams pushing the physical limits in which it’s possible to change four tyres.
Reaction times have been studied, so the traffic light systems are able to be quicker than a man and a lolly and everyone’s looking for the ultimate stop time.
The problem I see with this, and I’ve experience of it first hand, is that stops are now so quick, there’s absolutely no room for error or failure.
If a quick stop’s well under 3 seconds, that’s what everyone’s aiming for, and don’t forget these guys practice and practice this until that’s normal. To ensure a sub 3 second stop every time, a certain amount of pre-emption comes into play.
When a front or rear jack man sees his gun men begin to pull their guns out from the wheel, having rattled the nuts tight, he anticipates the lights and moves to release the jack. Same applies to the guys on the wheel guns activating their lights as they’re pulling out the guns, same for the guy releasing the car and to some extent the driver too. It’s tiny fractions of a second, but on a ‘normal’, smooth stop, that’s what gets you under 3 seconds.
The problem now is that if anything doesn’t quite go to plan, wether it be human error, hesitation, equipment failure or anything at all outside of the ‘normal’ stop, there’s no space in the sequence to recover. In the old days, mechanics had an extra few seconds to complete the task while fuel went in and there certainly wasn’t the development, focus and pressure there is now on achieving the ultimate stop.
Try and imagine the scenario for yourself. Count 1-2-3. It’s the middle of a grand prix, your car peels into pitlane, tailed by a rival competing for track position and screeches to a stop in front of you. Imagine the deafening noise of the exhausts inches away, the thunderous vibrations shaking your bones, the heat coming off the wheels, brakes and engine, then imagine the sound of four wheels guns rattling simultaneously, but imagine you’re convinced yours was a fraction slower than the others coming off, feel the pressure of knowing you’re behind and you need to get this back with a super quick ‘wheel on’ action. Imagine you gun on fast, everyone else is done, but hang on, you’ve a doubt over wether it’s fully tight or not, you hesitate, decide to go again, but it’s too late. In every practice all four were synchronised, the jack’s gone down and the car’s off, either with the wheel gun and you still attached or it left with only 3 wheels tight.
All that happened in less than 3 seconds.
I’m not suggesting we should go back to refuelling, merely raising a debate about the safety and cost implications of the current development race that is pitstops. I’ve heard suggestions of a minimum stop time, but not sure thats the way to go either. I think there’s certainly an element added to the show by an all out race amongst the crews in pitlane, but simply wonder if the original grounds for its introduction in 2010 have reared their heads once more.