The Singapore Grand Prix witnessed Infiniti Red Bull Racing perform the high-tension ‘double-shuffle’ pitstop. Standard practice is to bring the cars in a lap apart but in critical situations – usually weather-related – sometimes they pit line-astern. The situation at the end of the first stint in Singapore wasn’t critical in that sense but with track position vital on the Marina Bay Street Circuit, and with a few seconds separating the drivers, the team decided they could take both cars on the optimum lap.
The stops went off without a hitch, few spectators even noticed what we'd done – which is exactly what you want because people generally only notice a pitstop when it goes wrong. It is, however a testament to the confidence and swiftness with which we – and our competitors – now perform pitstops. A few years ago this wouldn't have been attempted.
On TV or even with the naked eye it's tough to tell a great pitstop from the merely good but for the pitstop professionals – those with years of experience and thousands of practice hours – it's not a question of looking but one of listening. The great pitstop is the one with the sound of two wheel gun operations: the first noise is all four wheels coming off at the same time; the second is all four going back on together. Hearing everything happening perfectly in unison with nothing ragged or out-of-sequence is a good indication that a stop has gone well.
Nobody would have known for sure that Mark Webber's 2.05 stop in Malaysia, or 1.923s stop in Austin last year were record-breakers – but everyone ran back into the garage knowing they'd performed something that was right on the ragged edge of the possible.
The path to the sub-two seconds stop isn't a particularly long one. In fact it only begins in 2010. Prior to that the unofficial record (all pitstop records are unofficial – but heavily peer reviewed in the pitlane) had been a 3.2s stop for Benetton's Riccardo Patrese at the 1993 Belgian Grand Prix. In the intervening years refuelling came back into F1 and pit stops got longer. Even the most limited splash-and-dash was likely to be a five-second affair. It took the pressure off the tyre change and so development in that area was geared more towards comfort rather than speed: doing it faster was wasted effort, so making sure it didn't go wrong was what occupied the paddock brains. When cars did make the occasional unplanned stop for tyres alone, there simply wasn't the facility to beat Patrese's time. That changed when refuelling was again banned at the end of 2009. Since then pitstop times have tumbled.
While there's been a battle for aero supremacy and, latterly, horsepower, on track, in the pitlane a less obvious war has been fought by teams constantly revising their pit equipment. The last few years there have been generations of axle design, nut design, rim design, carbon fibre swivel-jacks tec., all intended to make the process ever go ever so slightly smoother, or ever so slightly faster.
But even with all of the tech, this is still, ultimately, a human endeavour. The confidence that sees a team perform the first sub-two seconds stop in race conditions and allows them to conduct a double shuffle they don't strictly need to make, comes from hours and hours and hours of practice. There are live practice stops at the end of free practice sessions at the track, practice in the pitlane at the start or end of the day, runs wholly given over to pitstop practice during winter testing, and, of course, hours of work in the race bays back in Milton Keynes – but there is such a thing as too much.
"We practice often but we don't want to do too much practice because it's important for everyone to retain their enthusiasm and motivation," says team manager Jonathan Wheatley. "For instance, when we're at the factory we won't be practicing when everyone's just got back from a race because the guys will be tired. At the track, practice is pretty standardised; in the factory we try a lot more. We practice the 'set-pieces' – changing a nosecone, dealing with a puncture etc., we'll try different people, different techniques, even different equipment. We'll sometimes use mock-ups of new parts to see how they will affect the stop.
"If it looks choreographed, that's because it is. After the race we sit down as a group, analyse what went wrong, what went right and figure out how we can do it better next time.
"I think the crew get a tremendous amount of pride from good pitstop performance. It's a very visible way of demonstrating how the team contributes towards performance and the race result. I think our record in pitstops has been very good for the last three or four years and our focus is on consistency."
Consistency is a word that comes up a lot when pitstops are discussed. Setting a world-beating time isn't the aim – because chasing records is a good way of making a mistake. "...because the challenge is the whole season, it's not an individual stop," explains Jonathan. "It's one of the things that you need to do very, very well if you want to win."
"I think a record stop just happens on the right day. If the 20-odd people involved in the pitstop are all having a perfect day, then it happens. [Setting the record in Malaysia] just came together, everyone felt good on the day.
"The pitstop begins a few laps before, making sure everyone has the normal warnings and goes out with the right mindset. The driver has to stop precisely on the marks with no drama. The gunman have to get on the nut first time, the jack men have to execute a clean lift – very difficult in particular for the rear jack. Basically everyone needs to have a perfect day. Even something like taking the wheel off, it sounds easy but it isn't. If you put all of that together and the driver in absolutely on it with his reaction time, then you can get there."
If we're to see faster pitstops, most likely they'll come from a superbly trained and highly motivated crew just getting it absolutely right on the day. Until that, there's plenty to admire in the realm of nosecone swaps, radiator-clearing and, of course, double shuffles.
"A double-stop is a very complicated set piece," says Wheatley. "It's a lot more difficult than even it looks from the outside because there's a lot of information to get to the guys about what you're doing to each of the cars: who's going to be first into the pitstop? What's the gap between the cars? Plus you're managing two sets of tyres, you need to fit the correct sets and you don't want to run anyone over with them coming out too late.
"But ultimately it is very similar to a single stop and you need a highly training, very professional crew to pull it off. The stop in Singapore was what we'd call 'very comfortable.' We regularly practice for the cars being much closer together. But it is complicated – and even nine seconds doesn't guarantee success. There's always a little sigh of relief when we pull it off."