The Evolution of Formula 1 Pit Stops: Speed and Consistency

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2014

A Red Bull pit stop at the 2014 German Grand Prix.
A Red Bull pit stop at the 2014 German Grand Prix.Adam Pretty/Getty Images

A popular military saying goes, "Slow is smooth; smooth is fast." That is certainly true for Formula One pit stops, where up to 20 people wait motionless as a race car flies toward them at highway speed before they burst into action, changing four tyres and making adjustments to the car in under three seconds.

Mark Webber loses a wheel after a pit stop at the 2013 German Grand Prix.
Mark Webber loses a wheel after a pit stop at the 2013 German Grand Prix.Srdjan Suki/Associated Press

If any one of those people—including the driver—are off by a few centimetres, a whole race and weeks of work can be destroyed faster than you can say, "Mark Webber's wheel is loose!"

As legendary American sheriff Wyatt Earp once said, "You need to take your time in a hurry," per to Ludovica Iaccino of the International Business Times

Last season, Red Bull set a record with a sub-two-second pit stop at the United States Grand Prix in Austin. For this year, however, race team manager Jonathan Wheatley told Bleacher Report he was more interested in consistently quick stops, rather than occasional blindingly fast ones, even though he previously told the Red Bull website that the team had gone even quicker in practice.

So far, that seems to be the case. No new records have been set, but—and this is just my anecdotal analysis—it seems there have been fewer mistakes during stops up and down the pit lane this year (Lewis Hamilton may disagree).

These two-second, highly choreographed dances represent more than just the teams' natural desires to best one another. They also represent the culmination of a century of innovation in keeping race cars running for a full grand prix distance.

In the early years of the 20th century, when races were run from city to city, mechanics rode in the car with the drivers and repairs were made on the side of the road, as necessary. 

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When closed-circuit racing became the norm, pit stops changed.

Donington Park, in Leicestershire, held its first grand prix in 1935. In those years before the Second World War, Adolf Hitler pumped money into the German racing teams, Mercedes and Auto Union, as a symbol of supposed German superiority. With that came a revolution in pit-stop technology.

Robert Daley, a correspondent for The New York Times, described the precision and efficiency of a Merc pit stop at the 1937 race at Donington in his book, Cars at Speed:

On lap 21 the German pits made ready to receive their cars. The British fans had heard about this and they waited for it with hearts in their throats. ... It seemed impossible that a simple pit stop could thrill them, yet—they had heard stories that could not be credited.

Now down the slip screeched [Manfred] von Brauchitsch, his car snaking as he stood on his brakes. Around it swarmed the pit crew. Fuel was pressure-fed into his tank at the rate of five gallons a second, rear wheels were hammered off and replaced by new ones, von Brauchitsch was handed a bottle of water, clean goggles, and was away again. Elapsed time: 33 seconds.

German cars took the top five places in that race—the next closest car was two laps behind. But even that marvel of efficiency was still light-years from the blink-and-you-miss-them pit stops of today.

There is no pit-stop footage in the following video of the race, but the on-track action is so exciting, it is still worth watching.

As the technology continued to evolve, pit stops slowly became faster. The following video has a good comparison of stops from 1950 to the present. The 1982 pit stop shown in the video marked the first time in modern F1 that cars stopped to refuel mid-race, rather than just for new tyres.

In 1984, though, in-race refuelling was banned, leading to progressively faster pit stops. By 1993, Benetton set a new record for the fastest-ever pit stop. At the Belgian Grand Prix, as described by then-Benetton mechanic, now-F1 pundit Steve Matchett in his book, The Mechanic's Tale, "Riccardo [Patrese] pitted for fresh tyres and we managed to service the car in just 3.2 seconds."

Twenty years later, that would be considered a slow stop.

In between, refuelling was reintroduced, from 1994 to 2009. For those years, the speed of the stops was limited by how quickly fuel could be pumped into the car. As the video above demonstrates, the tyres were changed in far less time than it took to refuel the cars.

When refuelling was once again banned in 2010, the pit-stop race heated up. By 2012, per Yahoo Europsort's Will Gray, teams were regularly breaking the three-second mark.

Innovations such as the pivoting jack—which allows the front jack man to step out of the way before he lowers the car—continued to shave fractions-of-a-second off stop times, leading up to Red Bull's record near the end of 2013.

According to F1 Fanatic's statistics (which track the total pit-lane time, not just the time the cars are stationary), Red Bull continue to lead the way, having made the fastest stop at four races so far this year. Williams have set the pace three times, while Mercedes, despite their overall dominance, only went quickest at Silverstone.

Looking ahead, Red Bull's record from 2013 will probably fall at some point—maybe not this season, but eventually. Still, there is a limit to how fast humans can move, no matter how quickly their tools can remove and replace the wheel nuts. 

Pit stop regulations will surely change again in the future (Wheatley alluded to it in his interview), resetting the standard. In the meantime, smooth stops without any mistakes will continue to be the goal. After all, smooth is fast.

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