How a pitstop can be over in four seconds

Just how can four tyres be changed so quickly on a Formula One car in a race? We talk to Gerard Lecoq, the chief mechanic at Toro Rosso, to find out.

Jaime Alguersuari (ESP) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR5 makes a pit stop.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday 4 April 2010.
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After his win at this year's Singapore Grand Prix on September 26, Fernando Alonso gave full credit to the action off the track that had played a crucial part in seeing his Ferrari take the chequered flag: "The pit stop went off perfectly, both in terms of strategy and in the way it was done in pit lane."

For Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, however, forced to settle for second place, it was the opposite story: "We came in on the same lap as Ferrari and unfortunately I made a little mistake at the pit stop; otherwise I think it would have been very close. That's the story of the whole race."

Today, perhaps more than ever, races are won and lost in Formula One in the seconds when the cars aren't moving at all - during the all- important pit stop, an intricate, fluid ballet between man and machine in which timing is everything and fractions of a second can decide the result.

This season's ban on refuelling during races has made the race against time more intense than ever, with pit stops generally lasting no more than about about three-and-a-half to four seconds. During that time, the car has to be jacked off the ground, front and rear, and all four wheels changed before the driver is given the green light to return to the racing track.

At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the race before Singapore, Ferrari likened the process to a ballet after Alonso's car was given a fresh set of rubber in just 3.4 seconds, catapulting him past leader Jenson Button and paving the way for his third win of the season.

But for Gerard Lecoq, Toro Rosso's chief mechanic and the man in charge of the team's pit-stops, the dance analogy no longer applies to a pit stop.

Speaking in the build-up to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Frenchman explains: "It could be a ballet in the past but not any more because a good pit stop is under four seconds and I don't know of any ballet that last only four seconds!"

Removing the refuelling factor has eased some problems and dangers, but putting the focus on a rapid tyre change has created others.

"Now, it's just so intense," says Lecoq. "In the past, the bottleneck was the refuelling but now it's the changing of the four wheels. Before, the time factor was down to just three guys holding the refuelling hose and now it's down to 12 guys, three on each wheel, so it multiplies the chances of making a mistake."

In all, 19 members of a team are involved in the pit stop: three on each wheel, one on the front jack, one on the rear, one who steadies the car, another on hand with a change of steering wheel if required and another in case the hydraulic system needs pumping up. Another is ready to change a damaged nose cone or to alter the angle of the front or rear wings to adjust the car's downforce. And, of course, there's the "lollypop man", whose job is to guide the car in and let the driver know when he can drive off again.

All the performers have "day jobs" within the race team and are selected for their pit-lane tasks because of their different character traits. "Someone cool and calm" fits the job description for the operator of the wheel gun, while "those who are nervy" are, apparently, the ideal candidates to remove the tyres.

According to statistics from the season to date, the Mercedes GP pit crew is marginally the quickest on the grid, although Ferrari's recent efforts have arguably stolen the limelight.

After Monza, the team released a breakdown of Alonso's race-winning stop. By 0.35 seconds, his car had already been lifted by the two jack men. At 0.7s, all four tyres were off, and it took just another 0.7s to get the new wheels in position. The first wheel was locked on by 2.3s and the fourth had followed 0.6s later, allowing the Spaniard to leave his pit position a remarkable 3.4s after he had arrived.

For his part, Lecoq was not particularly impressed by Ferrari's efforts on that day, even though it had won the race. "I wasn't blown away because we checked the Alonso pit stop in Monza and the front tyre change was identical to our car," he explains."We lost some time because we had a new guy on the rear jack."

Lecoq is not one to suffer fools gladly. In his previous post at Toyota, he boasted the quickest pit crew in the paddock and he is using methods learnt at the now defunct Japanese team to catapult Toro Rosso up the grid in his first season with the team.

The most notable feature he has tried to change at the Italian outfit is to use video analysis to shave fractions of a second from any given stop. But is there such a thing as a perfect pit stop?

"No, as getting better is always possible and it's only down to practice that you do that, mostly from quiet times in the factory before the season or between races."

In his opinion, Toro Rosso's best stop was during the Spanish Grand Prix in May, when the team gained a place; Monza, by contrast, was a setback, which cost a spot. Unforgivable, one would think, but the pit-stop director is philosophical.

"To lose a place is bad but that's racing - sometimes you win and sometimes you lose," he says. "And there are so many things that come into play. The timing of the pit stop includes the driver coming into the pit lane and leaving it again so the total time taken is not just down to the pit-stop crew."

But despite the joint responsibility, if Toro Rosso fail to get their drivers quickly and safely back into the race then the buck stops with Lecoq, a fact of which he is all too aware.

With time more precious than ever before, the chances of similar incidents taking place in Abu Dhabi, and throughout next season, are high.

The ballet of the pit lane may last only seconds, but this is where races are won or lost - making the pit stop less like a dance and more like an exquisitely choreographed fight to the finish.