Will Gray

Tech Talk: Can F1 pit stops get even quicker?

The record for the fastest pit stop in Formula One history was broken not once but five times in Malaysia last weekend – but will any team manage to break the two-second mark this season?

Back in the early 1990s, fast F1 pit stops were timed at around 4.5 seconds. The fastest even closed in on 4.1 seconds – but anything close to halving that would simply have been unimaginable.

The arrival of mid-race refuelling, which began 1993, put a stop to any focus on reducing times further because the pit stop was limited by fuel flow so there was no need to be lightning quick on tyre changes.

When refuelling was banned again in 2010, times quickly tumbled as the teams got back into practice but even then a stop of 3.4 seconds was thought of as blisteringly quick.

At the start of 2012 Ferrari had it down to 2.6s in a race situation and 2.2s in practice, when the pressure is off, but their head of trackside operations Diego Ioverno claimed that was as far as it could possibly go.

Not so, it seems, because McLaren broke that time with a 2.31s stop in late 2012 then Red Bull took it right down to 2.05s at the race in Malaysia two weeks ago.

And that IS half of the 4.1s it took back in 1993.

So how have things got faster and faster? Well, it’s all about micro analysing all aspects of the pit stop to deliver tiny improvements in as many areas as possible – much the same as it is in designing the car itself.

Only recently though, with pit stops becoming a much greater part of the play in F1 races, have the procedures and technology involved in them been given a boost in resource and focus.

From days when one or two stops would be the norm, we are now in an era where at least two is required, and more often than not three or four.

Ferrari put their performances in early 2012 down to design changes that saw the wheel nuts encased inside the rims, so they could not spin off, and a thread re-design and more powerful wheel gun that enabled the nuts to fully lock on in three turns rather than six. They also introduced jack guidance systems as well as rounded axle tips and drive pegs to guide wheels on smoothly.

Teams have continued to work hard on systems that automate processes to reduce the split seconds that add up between the car arriving, the tyres being fitted, the jacks dropping, the lollipop releasing and the driver accelerating away.

Wheel guns can now automatically change rotation direction once the nut is undone - so a mechanic does not have to take the physical and mental time to manually switch it – while the jacks have an auto drop and re-set function that is quicker than a manual solution.

And gone are the days when an arm in the air signified a wheel change was complete.

Now wheel guns are designed with lights that come on when the correct torque is reached and a quick-tap button that relays that information direct to lights mounted on the gantry, the trolley or even on a heads-up display on the jack man’s helmet visor.

There are now even plans in development that will drop the jack automatically when the two ‘ready’ signals from the front or rear wheel guns come in, reducing another split-second thought process element in that short but crucial timeline.

With some teams, technology has gone as far as having lasers to project a spot at the exact height the wheel nut should be when the car arrives – to enable the wheel man to be ready and waiting in perfect position.

And Williams even hired 200m and 400m Olympic Champion Michael Johnson last year to deliver a training programme aimed at improving the speed and agility of their pit stop crew.

Perhaps now, the weakest point in the chain is the driver – as they have limited practice at stopping in the right place, which is vital when such precision is required.

But teams even practice to be prepared for the unexpected – so they are flexible enough to get around driver mistakes and only lose tiny amounts of time if they have to adjust.

Mercedes and McLaren did very quick stops in Malaysia too, so the challenge is on - but in truth it’s not record times that make the difference, it doing things quickly, consistently.

Although fractions of a second can make a massive difference to races in this highly strategic era, the risk of increased complexity in pit stops is that big errors can happen that completely ruin races.

That’s something McLaren struggled with last year – they were regularly on the fast end of pit stop performance, but they were also regularly making mistakes.

Back in 2012, Ferrari man Ioverno said: “The most important thing is to keep up with a good average, because in the end the importance of a pit stop is to guarantee a fixed time delta to whoever does the strategy, avoiding surprises and the risk of falling behind traffic after a stop.”

In Malaysia, Red Bull had the best of both – they were fast, and they were consistent.

They believe their improvements on speed are a result of a focus on consistency - but they say that even the 2.05s turnaround for Mark Webber was not perfect.

This season’s tyres will give teams plenty of time for practice though – and as practice makes perfect, there’s surely a pretty high chance of the two-second barrier being broken sometime this year.