The Team successfully won the 2019 DHL Fastest Pitstop Award, set a new World Record, and then broke it and broke it again – but outright speed is not the name of the game.
We finished the season picking up a trophy at the final race of 2019. Not, it must be said, one of the those around which the sport is built, but certainly one that we want and covet. Contrary to what the name would suggest, the DHL Fastest Pit Stop Award doesn’t go to the team with the fastest pit stop of the year (though we would have won that too) but rather to the team that is consistently at the top of its pit stop game across the season. We won the trophy for the first time last year, and defended our title this time around, with an improved score.
The DHL Fastest Pit Stop Award is a relatively modern innovation. Originating in 2015, in its first two seasons it was awarded to whichever team had the fastest race pit stop most often: point for first, nothing for anyone else. But, as all team managers and sporting directors will drill into their squads, good pit stop performance isn’t about setting a headline time. There are no prizes for world records on one stop and then dropping a second on the next three. Consistency is the aim: mechanically repeating good stop after good stop after good stop is the performance level teams strive to attain. Since 2017, the fastest pit stop award has reflected this, with points scored according to a similar system as used for race positions. The team’s fastest stationary time for each driver during the grand prix are ranked, with the ten best scoring: 25 points for fastest, 18 for second and so on. We improved on our 2018 title, advancing from 466 points to 504.
“I think it’s been one of our strongest pit stop performances,” says sporting director Jonathan Wheatley. “It was great to see the guys defend their DHL Trophy this year and, if you ignore the really fast pit stops, I think it’s been an amazingly consistent performance. Across the season, what I’ve been most impressed with is the guys’ consistency.”
While Jonathan is absolutely unswerving in preaching the mantra of consistency, the rest of the Team take a lot of pleasure in having done the fastest stop in Australia, Bahrain, China, Britain, Germany, Mexico, USA, Brazil and Abu Dhabi – three of which were World Records.
The world record pit stop has a nebulous history. It’s only with the advent of the DHL Fastest Pit Stop Award, with its calibrated, high-speed cameras, that we’ve had an official record. Paddock consensus offers a Benetton stop (featuring a young J Wheatley esq. on one of the guns) as a record-breaker in 1993 with 3.2s. After that, the refuelling era slowed everything down – and even if teams did a tyres-only stop, they didn’t have the kit to do it quickly, favouring robustness over speed. Once refuelling was banned, the records started to fall. From 4s in 2010 to 3.5s in 2011, to 2.32s in 2012. We took the (unofficial) record in 2013 with a 2.05s stop in Malaysia, followed by the first sub-2s stop in the United States, with the crew processing Mark Webber in 1.92s.
After this there was a pause. While pit stops feature a lot of technology, they’re subordinate to the technology on the cars. Devices such as blown axles, or extra wheel-retaining safety features all tend to slow stops down. Perhaps only by fractions – but fractions is what the game is all about. Our unofficial record stood until 2016, when Williams did a 1.92s stop of their own in Baku. Since then, with bigger, heavier tyres arriving in 2017, it’s been difficult to beat that particular record – but we managed it three times this year, with 1.91s at Silverstone on Pierre Gasly’s car, 1.88s two weeks later for Max at Hockenheim, and finally 1.82s for Max again at Interlagos.
A Team Effort
F1 is a team sport, and nowhere is that better represented than by pit stops – but it’s more than 22 individuals working in and around the pit box. Equipment is designed, built and maintained; practice sessions are broken down and analysed; the crew has to be kept physically fit across a long and difficult season.
Ole Schack, front-end mechanic on Max’s car has been a member of the pit crew since 2005, “We’re just the final carrot on the cake,” he says. “There’s a lot more stuff going on behind the scenes that people don’t see, from preparing the equipment to maintaining the pit stop practice car back at the factory while we’re away at a race. It’s not just us in the pit stop, it’s everything that happens before that as well.”
Do good times matter?
The only teams to break the two secondbarrier this year were ourselves (five times) and runners-up Williams (twice) but plenty of other teams were knocking on the door of a two-second stop. It begs the question, does a tenth here and there materially affect the results of grands prix? The honest answer is ‘rarely’ – and this speaks to why consistency is so highly prized and worldies are not consciously chased: while ten exceptional pit stops may not result in a place gained, one bad pit stop will almost certainly result in a place – or a race – lost.
Sometimes, however, it does make a difference. At Silverstone, the record-breaking 1.91s stop on Pierre’s car was followed just a lap later by a 1.96s stop for Max. A lap after that Ferrari did a very respectable 2.56 for Charles Leclerc – but Max had just enough of an advantage to steal the place.
“Nothing happens by accident in this business,” adds Jonathan. “The guys work incredibly hard and we have a team of people to support them through the year. The main goal there is to stay season-proof, to not pick up silly injuries. Mechanically, there’s a lot of development, and perhaps fans don’t realise how much. We’re constantly tweaking wheel guns and jacks. Sometimes even the way the wheel connects with the car. At this level it’s all about tiny, tiny details. A good pit stop is 22 guys having an exceptional two-second period. Any hundredths of a second we can gain with a better design or a crew in better mental and physical shape is very useful.”
Practice, practice, practice…
How much time is in the crew, and how much is in their kit is a difficult thing to pin down. The general consensus is that it’s the design of the equipment that allows a fast time to be achieved – but getting close to it consistently is down to the work put in by the crew.
Chief mechanic Phil Turner is another veteran, having been on the Team’s pit crew since before it was the ‘Aston Martin Red Bull Racing’ pit crew. “It’s the commitment and hard work the guys put in, every time we do a pit stop practice,” says Phil. “You focus on the job in hand and make sure every stop you do is to the best of your ability.”
Pit stop practice is a multi-facetted affair. The crew will do practice at the circuit in the mornings, a few live stops as time and run plans allow during the grand prix practice sessions, more of those during pre-season tests, plus perhaps a session during those winter test days build around practicing a sequence of pit stops, and then lots and lots of practice at the factory – but not too much. The aim is to have the crew honed to a fine edge, not dulled by overwork.
“It’s the same with personnel,” adds Ole. “When we’re practicing at the factory, we’ll try people in different positions, because you never really know who will be an ideal gunner or wheel-off man until you practice. We’ll also give some of the younger guys a go, to prepare them to step in. Over the course of a season people will get injured, and the crew that finishes the year won’t be the same as the one that starts it. We set a World Record time this year with somebody doing his first live pit stop! It’s like a football team – the depth of the squad is what wins things.”
Practice isn’t simply about doing the job quickly, it’s also about embedding the forms so deep in muscle memory that that the crew can do the job to the same high standard whatever the situation. Two weeks after Silverstone, when the crew broke their own record at Hockenheim, they did so under the most intense pressure, with a wet track (and therefore a wet pit box], and, with Max pitting from the lead, victory at stake. It was high pressure environment, though, as Phil points out: “We had, at least, had plenty of practice, I think that was something like our ninth stop of the race!”
The crew won the fastest pit stop award with a race to spare, which meant they could be presented with the trophy in the pit lane at Yas Marina. It’s a nice moment – but only a moment. As soon as the Team were back home after the season, the clock resets to zero. There are 22 races ahead next year, and perhaps bigger challenges beyond that.
“I think it’s very rare that you get perfection,” says Jonathan. “None of our stops have been perfect this year, there has always been a little something in there. It’s a dynamic situation, a live pit stop, adrenaline is high. Yes, we could do a quicker pit stop; no, I won’t be asking the guys to try and do it. If it happens as a by-product of us trying to do really good, regular, consistent pit stops, then great.
“I think our biggest challenge at the moment is the 18-inch wheels in 2021. 2021’s going to bring some really big changes with big, heavy wheels and the new wheel discs. That’s going to be interesting. Before that though, 2020 for us should be a reasonably consistent year.”
The Good Stop
And just what does consistent look like? Over 30 years in F1, Jonathan has seen it from most angles, including his current one looking back from the pit wall.
“A pit stop starts several laps before the car comes in. If everything is in order, then everyone’s mental state is right when they walk out. If it’s a rushed stop I think they’re in a different frame of mind, so the first thing is to get everyone into the correct mindset. I might talk to them a little bit, give them something to think about.
“Next the driver has to stop absolutely on the marks with no drama, so no-one is having to back away or adjust. Then everyone has to do their job properly. The gunmen have to get onto the nut correctly, the jackmen have to get on first time. That’s most difficult for the rear jack because he has to wait until the car has come past to engage it. You can be as fast as you like with the wheel nut but you can’t take the wheels off while the car is still on the ground.
“Taking the wheel off sounds like an easy job but it isn’t. They’re heavy, and the guys have to reach forward and shift the weight at an awkward angle. Then the new wheels have to go on without any fumbles, the jacks have to come away smoothly and the driver needs to have his reactions perfect - which again isn’t as straightforward as it sounds because he may be using the time to adjust switches on his steering wheel.
“But, if you pull all of that together, if everyone’s having the perfect day at the same time - then you can get something really special.”