Insider’s guide: Why are F1 pitstops so fast?
It now takes around three seconds to change all four tyres on an F1 car and get it back out into the race. Blink and you will miss it. The speed is incredible – but it does not happen by chance.
pitstops are such a vital part of F1 strategy that the teams practice them a lot. Every element must come together, and the key to success is not just speed but consistency. So, exactly what does it take to perform it to perfection?
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How many people are on an F1 pitstop team?
More than 20 people actively participate in an F1 pitstop. This team has a fixed line-up, with each individual assigned a very specific role. They are all mechanics working on other jobs on either car, but together they serve both cars in the pits.
The line-up never changes unless someone is ill or unable to be there, at which point there is a reserve to step in for every position and most team members are also trained in other roles just in case.
Before the season starts, teams perform thousands of practice pitstops on rigs in their factory, honing the team and optimising the different positions. This is actually a competitive process, with mechanics vying for different roles.
What kit do the pitstop team use?
The jacks used to lift the car up at the front and back used to be just trolleys, but they are now highly sophisticated. They lift when a handle is pushed down and have an auto-drop mechanism to shave off fractions of time. The front jack also pivots to allow the operator to step out of the way.
Teams may also have a side jack, which is used if the front wing has been damaged, which renders the front jack useless. The front jack is so complex each one costs around £250k – and at least two are needed for backup.
The wheel guns used to remove and tighten the central nut holding each wheel in place are just as complex. They run at 26-bar pressure, rotate at more than 10,000rpm and auto switch from loosen to tighten during operation. Each garage has 24, including spares, and most modify them to improve performance.
Mechanics used to hold their hands up once they were done with their job, but now the guns have a button they press for confirmation. If something goes wrong, the gunner raises their arms in the air in a cross sign.
Red Bull Racing wheel gun detail
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
What does each person do in an F1 pitstop?
The actual pitstop is a highly choreographed performance. This is how it is done and who does what, step-by-step.
1. The front jack man (x1) is the first to get into the action, sliding the jack under the car, pushing down on the handle to lift it up then pivoting to the side. A second person is ready to step in if this one gets knocked over or the jack sticks.
2. The four gunners (x4), armed with wheel guns, follow the car in with the head of the gun so they align perfectly when it stops. Some even have laser guides for pinpoint accuracy. They immediately get to work loosening the wheel.
3. The rear jack man (x1) slides the jack under and lifts the rear of the car.
4. The stabiliser crew (x2) hold each side of the car, around the airbox, to prevent it from wobbling on the jacks. They may also step further forward and lift the car if it has wing damage and the front jack cannot raise it.
5. The wing adjuster crew (x2) on each side of the car use torque adjusters to change the angle of the front wing flaps, if required, to modify the downforce at the front end of the car.
6. The wheel off crew (x4) grab the wheels (wearing gloves – as the rubber is scorching hot), slide them off and get out the way.
7. The wheel on crew (x4) have their hands gripped to the new tyres before the car even arrives. They lift and slide them into position on the axles. The wheel nuts are integral to the wheel, reducing the risk of losing them.
8. The four gunners step in again to tighten the wheel nuts. They click the confirmation buttons on their guns once all is in place.
9. The front and rear jack men release the jacks and the car drops to the floor with a back-cracking thwack. That also sends a confirmation trigger.
10. The pitstop controller (x1), formerly known as the lollipop man, receives all the signals, checks the pit is clear, and releases the car. This used to involve the use of a stop/go sign on the end of a stick (hence lollipop) but the car is now set free by turning the stop/go gantry light from red to green.
What other things can be done in a pitstop?
Sometimes a car requires more than just new tyres. Teams often clear the sidepods of debris – at some tracks (such as street circuits) more than others – to ensure air gets a clean route into the radiator for cooling.
Another action that occurs relatively often is a front wing change, which typically happens at the start if a driver gets clipped in the wheel-to-wheel action. This can take around 10-15 seconds to complete.
Sometimes electrical issues require a steering wheel swap. The wheel has a quick-release mechanism and in this case two team members will be there to take the wheel from the driver and click on the new one.
Longer jobs, such as suspension checks after an incident, can be painful as time ticks away. If more work is needed, a car will be jacked up and wheeled back into the garage. If it can be fixed quickly, it may go out again to use the race as a test.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, makes a pitstop
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
How do teams practice their pitstops?
Just like a golfer honing their swing, repetition is key to getting it right every time – and in pitstops that means every millisecond is maximised.
All teams have a practice rig back at their factory, many of which use an electric dummy car. This is where the team goes through the drill time and again. They also practice challenge scenarios – like misalignment, nose changes and so on.
That’s all fine, but at the track every pit lane is different – it might be sloping, have distracting markings or drains, or be closer or further away from the pit gantry. These may seem tiny things, but they can have a big effect.
To get used to these unique differences, teams set aside time every day of a race weekend – including race day morning – for practice. The car is pushed into position and the crew perform as they would in the race. Each team plans differently but sessions typically run to around 30 minutes.
During the official practice sessions (FP1, FP2 and FP3) teams also run live practices, with the car arriving at speed. This helps the driver hone their stopping procedure and gives the team a more realistic test.
How fit do the pit mechanics have to be?
The mechanics do a lot of physical training to stay fit for the task. They need to be strong – as the wheel gun torque twists the arms and shoulders and the wheels weigh more than 10kg – and they also need to be agile.
Most teams run fitness programmes based on gym exercises to improve core stability and strength, which helps to maximise performance and also reduces the risk of injury.
Specific movements are optimised using video analysis and for those positions that require greater strength – such as the tyre lifter – there are more upper body exercises to do help to bulk up.
What does an F1 driver have to do in a pitstop?
The driver must not only be able to spot his pit – helped by a sign from the pit wall – but he must stop his car in exactly the right spot.
The team is positioned precisely and any misalignment – either too far forward or back or closer to one particular side – will result in the crew having to adjust their position. This can cost between 0.6-1 second or, worse still, could knock the jack man to the floor – as Lewis Hamilton did in practice for the 2021 Russian Grand Prix.
Once at a stand still, the car is put into neutral and the driver keeps his foot on the brake to stop the wheels turning. He will also hold the steering wheel tight to keep the front wheels from moving.
He then initiates the launch sequence and places full focus on the light gantry. The revs rise to the optimum level and when the light goes green the driver puts the car back into gear again and hits the throttle – remembering to keep the speed limiter on until crossing the pit lane exit line.
Does the pit position and box layout make a difference to pitstop times?
The pit box sits just outside the team’s garage, and a gantry is used to run air hoses for the wheel guns over to the far side of the car. This also houses the light system and high-res super slow-motion cameras for analysis.
On the ground, teams make temporary marking points to ensure everyone is stood in the right spot, brush away any dust and get the drivers to do burn-outs during practice to lay fresh rubber through the box and create extra grip.
Garages are assigned on the previous year’s championship order. The first gives the best entry angle but can be difficult to get out of in heavy pit traffic. The last is tighter but gives more time to prepare and has a good exit angle.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, exits the pit lane
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Why do drivers go so slowly in and out of the pit lane?
Pit lane speed restrictions were introduced for practice sessions in 1993 and for all sessions after the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. This is now limited to 80 km/h between the pit entry and exit lines.
Cars have limiter buttons, but they must be manually operated by the driver and anyone exceeding the limit will be fined €100 for each km/h they go above it, up to €1000. They will also get grid or race penalties.
The pits are divided into two lanes. The outer one – no more than 3.5m wide – is the fast lane. Teams may not work on their cars here. They must be moved to the inner lane to do so.
How does F1 define a ‘safe release’ from a pitstop?
Teams are often fined or penalised for an unsafe release, as it is down to the pit controller to decide whether the oncoming traffic is too close to avoid. In the desperation of competition, sometimes mistakes are made.
To help give some clarity, teams will mark up the pit lane with guidance markers. These are positioned a set distance from the box, so the pitstop controller has a visual cue to help their decision.
David Coulthard, McLaren MP4-19B Mercedes, at pit entry with a punctured tyre
Photo by: Motorsport Images
How and why did F1 pitstop rules change in 2021?
At the end of the 2019 season, F1 pitstops had reached record speeds – Red Bull set the fastest ever time with a stop of just 1.82 seconds for Max Verstappen in the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Teams were consistently taking around two seconds, and the governing body became concerned this was reaching the limit of what was humanly possible. As a result, a new Technical Directive (TD) was introduced.
This stipulates certain procedures within the stop that must take no less than 0.15 seconds each and restricts the signal sent between the tyre gunner and the light gantry to be no slower than 0.2s.
The TD also reminds the teams that all the actions of the pit equipment and crew must be human controlled, not automated.
Once combined, this has increased the pitstop speeds closer to three seconds – and the FIA keeps a watchful eye to ensure teams stick to the rules with high-speed cameras fitted above every single pit gantry.