Like Nothing On Earth

The sky’s the limit as the Team takes pit stop practice to a whole new level.

The Team needed a new challenge after performing three record-breaking pit stops in this season alone – and we found it at an altitude of 33,000 feet on board an Ilyushin Il-76 MDK cosmonaut training plane.

Drawing on the help of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the Team took the 2005 RB1 car to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City and set about proving that the sky really is the only limit.

On a bespoke set, housed within the fuselage of the plane (whose US counterpart is popularly known as the ‘vomit comet’), the Team completed a week of flights, each consisting of a series of parabolas – with the aircraft climbing at a 45° angle, then falling in a ballistic arc at 45° – giving the pit crew a period of weightlessness lasting around 22 seconds before the next climb.

“The first parabola we did was really quite strange,” says mechanic Paul Knight. “Nothing can prepare you, so our Roscosmos instructors told us to simply sit through it and get used to the experience. There isn’t a sensation of going up or down; climbing at 2g, with twice your normal bodyweight feels like being planted into the ground and you struggle to move. Then that sensation reverses when you go over the top and into freefall. They held us down to stop us floating away!”

“We were all a bit like Bambi-on-ice at first – legs everywhere," adds Knight, "but we figured out how to hold ourselves and the best way to deal with the sensations. It’s an amazing experience, like nothing you’d ever imagine.”

Weightlessness can, however, result in some rather undesirable side effects. A spokesperson for Roscosmos, explains: “When on the ground, the vestibular system works in certain conditions defined by gravity. But in weightlessness, this sensory perception system needs time to adapt.” In this instance, there’s simply not enough time, which is how the ‘vomit comet’ got its name.

The flight crew, pit crew and cosmonaut trainers weren’t the only ones packed into the Ilyushin and subjected to the ride to end all rides. The production team were also ‘on set’, as it pitched around the sky – a job for which director Andreas Bruns prepared as best he could by riding rollercoasters.

“I went with my nephews to a theme park, to see how g-forces would work on my body – and frankly speaking, we all turned green after a while and it took me a day to recover. The best approach I found was to make sure I kept myself really busy during the flights – and that seemed to do the trick.”

Bruns directed the project from initial storyboards to final edit. After the initial sketches, he had a Styrofoam mock-up of the set constructed in Russia, on which the Team’s crew and Roscosmos trainers could practice. Rehearsal was crucial, given the time constraints on board the aircraft.

“We had seven flights with around 80 parabolas in total, and we had around 25 shots to accomplish,” he explains. “The first flight was used as test, leaving us around 70 parabolas for our filming – meaning perhaps two or three takes per shot. We planned everything very carefully – but zero-g really takes you by surprise, and with something between two and five minutes between parabolas, we had to come up with solutions to fix problems very quickly.”

The Team opted to take 2005’s RB1 to Russia for the challenge, rather than freighting a contemporary car. Our 2005 car, which was repainted in the current livery for the trip, had several advantages over its successors.

“We took the RB1 because she’s a slight lady,” says Marcus Prosser, head of brand and events, who seized the opportunity to roll back the years and get behind a wheel gun again. “We built quite a complex set, hiding all the rails for lights and the cameras. Space was at a premium and having a narrower car gave us a little bit more manoeuvrability within the fuselage.”

This particular example of the RB1 also had the added advantage of being ‘hardened’ against wear and tear. It’s the chassis often taken to public events where race fans are invited to try gunning wheels off and on for themselves. As such, it has strengthened axles and threads – deemed very useful were the car to be thrown around the sky while transitioning from a 2g climb to a zero-g fall and back again.

“We were ready for any repairs that needed doing – though actually we got through the filming relatively unscathed,” support team chief mechanic Joe Robinson adds. “It did pick up some damage, of course. One guy landed helmet-first on the front wing, which made a mess. It got a laugh in the factory when I took it back after the event and explained I needed a repair because a cosmonaut had head-butted it.

“It pushed us harder than I thought it would,” admits Robinson. “You realise how much you rely on gravity, when you don’t have any! Something as straightforward as tightening a wheel nut becomes very difficult when the car is floating, and the only control you have is through the stiffness of your ankles, tucked into floor straps. It challenges you to think and operate in a different way – and that was brilliant.”

Filming the pit stop was a particularly difficult proposition. Car and equipment had to be carefully secured before and after each weightless period (no-one wants gravity returning when car, tyres and pit crew are a metre off the deck), reducing each filming session to around 15 seconds. It was quite possibly the most technically-demanding activity the live demo team have ever undertaken – but also perhaps the most rewarding.

“I’ve been involved in some special events,” says support team coordinator Mark Willis. “From slaloming the car in Kitzbühel, to the salt lakes of Argentina, we’ve been to some strange places and done some strange things. Ultimately this is the oddest – but also the most special because there’s simply nothing comparable.”

The Zero-G Pit Stop film is live now. You may be tempted to believe this is the product of very high-end CGI – but this is our real RB1, floating in a real plane, filled with real mechanics, most of whom have come back to Earth now.

“I’ve learned that if you work with a dedicated team, just keep going and stay focused that anything is possible,” concludes Bruns. “So, what’s next, we gonna fly to the moon or what…?”