Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Safety and danger in the pits

A highly charged competitive environment compressed into a narrow pit lane where cars share space with crew members and where raw fuel is in close proximity to red hot engines and exhausts makes for a potentially lethal combination.
But while no-one can deny that a Formula One pit lane is a fundamentally unsafe environment, strict safety rules play their part in keeping things under control. These include the following:
  • Pit lane speed limit: The speed limit during pit stops is 60 km/h during practice and qualifying, 80 km/h during the race (60 km/h at Monaco). This limit was introduced in 1994 after a mechanic was injured in the Imola pit lane.
  • Rules against going in reverse: Reversing in the pit lane is prohibited. If a car needs to be moved backwards, the crew must push it.
  • Restriction on numbers of personnel in the pit lane: The crew of the competing cars are only allowed out of their garages and into the pit lane on the lap preceding their car’s pit stop. Other than officials, these are the only people allowed in the pit lane during the race. After the stop, they must return to their garages.
  • Fire-resistant clothing: All pit crew members wear fire-resistant Nomex suits similar to those used by the drivers. These suits can withstand heat of up to 800 degree C for 12 seconds. In addition, the pit crew must wear full-face crash helmets for further protection from fire.
  • Limited fuel pressurisation: Fuel delivery is limited to 12 litres per second, outlawing the high-pressure refuelling used in previous years. This rate of delivery produces a limited pressure that reduces the chances of spillage and fuel nozzle or rig failure compared to the old high pressure systems.
  • Standardised safety valves for rigs, hoses, and fillers: In addition to the dead man’s handle on the fuel rig (this handle ensures that fuel flow stops the moment pressure is released on the handle) the inlet valves and fillers are standardised and designed in such a way as to prevent leakage of inflammable vapours. A two-way system equalises pressure as the fuel is delivered.
  • Things can still go wrong though, as demonstrated by Ferrari in the 2003 Austrian Grand Prix when flames erupted from the filler of Michael Schumacher’s car during a routine stop. This was later traced to a faulty seal.

Pit Stop Crews

  • Two men at each wheel who work in concert to change the tyres
  • A front jack man who raises the front end of the car
  • A rear jack man who raises the rear of the car and restarts the motor if it stalls
  • A lollipop man, who drops the lollipop in front of the car to signal where it should stop
  • Three refuellers (including one on stand-by) who add the necessary fuel
  • Two fire extinguisher men who stand by in case of a fire
  • Maybe a visor cleaner (some drivers prefer not to have one) who wipes the visor of the driver’s helmet In addition, a team manager usually oversees the whole operation.
That leaves a couple of spare pit crew to do any changes to the car such as wing settings. With the exception of the team manager, the pit crew usually double up as mechanics. No formal qualifications exist that specify who can or can’t be a member of the pit crew, but crew members are invariably fully trained as mechanics. The lollipop man is often the chief mechanic. During a pit stop these folks move in high gear. Each has a job to do and must do it quickly and well.
Between pit stops the pit crew gets to sit down in the pit garage and watch the race on the monitors. They swear when their driver messes up or make rude signs at the screen when he’s not assertive enough in dealing with another driver. They make friendly banter with each other. This is one of the few chances they get over the whole weekend to relax.

Pit Stop Basics

Pit stops have become one of the most tense and exciting features of a Grand Prix, and races are frequently won and lost in this high pressure environment. Amazingly for a sport that is all about speed, for between 7 and 12 seconds (the time of an average pit stop), a stationary car becomes the focus of all attention, the most interesting thing that is happening in the race. The pit stop has also emphasised the team play aspect of Formula One making individual team members such as jack men and refuellers highly visible as part of a winning effort. Most of all, the pit stop has underlined the intellectual challenge of Formula One racing. The reason is that race strategies based on the timing and number of pit stops have assumed greater significance, and pit stops can have a huge effect on the outcome of the race. Pit stops are an intrinsic part of modern Formula One. They aren’t compulsory, but dividing the race into stints punctuated by pit stops and thereby having a relatively small amount of fuel on board at any given time is by far the fastest way to get a car through a Grand Prix race distance. This advantage is amplified by the fitting of new tyres during a refuelling stop. There is never any question of whether to have a pit stop or not. The only question is how many.
The pits is the name of the area between the race track and the garages where the team are based for the duration of the race. This area is called the pits because originally, in the dim and dusty past, there was a pit dug out of the track surface where the team personnel would sit and signal their drivers. Originally only this actual pit delineated the working area from the race track. In more modern times, the areas have been separated by a pit wall, and it is now in this area that the selected team members – usually the team principal and two or three race strategists – base themselves during the race. Across the other side of the pit lane the rest of the team – engineers, data loggers, and pit crew – sit in the team garages.