A pitstop is a motorsport operation where a racing car-such as those used in Formula 1 – is refuelled, fixed, adjusted or gets a new driver. In an F1 context, a pitstop generally entails changing the car’s wheels and topping up its fuel tank.
Pitstops are carried out, not surprisingly, in the pits, a segment of track that runs parallel to the main circuit’s starting grid, and is broken down into a series of bays. Each bay is assigned to a Formula 1 team, with a bay consisting of an internal garage and an external, pit-side operations area – the latter marked by coloured lines.
When a car needs attention, the team’s communications crew calls the vehicle in to the pits, which involves the driver completing their current lap and then entering the pit lane. For safety, a set speed limit is imposed within the pit lane of 100 kilometres (62 miles) per hour. The driver then proceeds down the lane and is flagged into their bay by a sign-waving crew member. This allows the driver to quickly enter their box both smoothly and safely, which is critical as time is of the essence.
As soon as the driver is stationary within their bay’s designated guidelines, operations can begin. Once any repairs and adjustments have been completed, the car is released to travel to the end of the pitlane and then the circuit proper, where it merges back into the racing pack.
In Formula 1 the difference between a podium position and mid-table obscurity can be a matter of seconds – or even milliseconds. As such, each pitstop a vehicle needs to take must be as fast as possible, as even a slight hitch can see the driver’s position on the track severely lowered. To combat this every F1 team’s pit crew undertakes weekly training routines during a season, each simulating a typical pitstop, to ensure they are working in the most efficient way possible. These routines include standard tyre changes and refuelling operations, right through to rarer or more complex operations involving repairs or mechanical adjustments. The current world record for a four-wheel tyre change is held by McLaren F1, who during the 2012 German Grand Prix completed a switch in just 2.31 seconds – a whole second and a half ahead of the average four seconds taken over the race as a whole.
Anatomy of a pitstop
2a. Wheels off – All four wheels are removed with pneumatic wrenches within just a couple of seconds at the same time as the fuel hose is inserted.
2b. Fuel hose – As soon as the car is on the jacks a dedicated team accesses the fuel port and inserts a high-speed hose to quickly refill its tank.
3. Wheels on – Once the four old wheels are taken off – each by a dedicated handler – four new ones are installed and re-affixed with pneumatic wrenches. Each crew member raises a hand when they are finished.
4. Go, go, go! – When the jacks have been removed, a sign is dropped in front of the driver telling them to accelerate.