Pass the hammer, Bob, there's a good chap
OCTOBER 5, 2011
Pit stops? Know all about them. Been watching them for years - as the photo proves. I'm the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-the-mouth kid with the schoolboy cap (didn't recognise me without a beard, did you?) peering round the REDeX banner and watching a pit stop during the 1953 Tourist Trophy at Dundrod (Column, 17 August)
Slick pit stop co-ordination in those days amounted to the driver (Bob Gerard) helping out by handing a hammer to one of the mechanics as he attempts to extricate a shredded left-rear tyre from beneath the mudguard of the Frazer Nash Le Mans.
Gerard and David Clarke went on to finish seventh (between an Aston Martin DB3 and a Jaguar C-Type). In other words, they were in the hunt and speed was of the essence. Don't ask about a man with a jack because, as far as I can see, there wasn't one. And they haven't even started to think about attacking the winged nut holding on the wheel (presumably, the purpose of the hammer). This was the pit stop procedure of the time. But, as far as I can remember, there were no collisions and no mechanics injured despite cars whistling past the photographer's back at over 100 mph.
I was reminded of this on Sunday while watching the pit lane shambles unfold during the Indycar race at Kentucky. Will Power lost the lead (and crucial championship points) when Ana Beatriz was released into his path and the two made contact.
The pit lane pandemonium really got into its stride when Simona de Silvestro lost control on cold tyres while leaving her pit and spun into the KV Racing area, knocking over a team member. In the yellow that followed, Marco Andretti took himself and Alex Lloyd out as he contrived to go inside Lloyd just as the Englishman was turning left into his pit. Seconds later, JR Hildebrand got it all wrong and struck a member of his pit crew.
This did not detract from a stunning final sector of the race as pairs of cars, in close company, ran-side-by-side for lap after lap, Ed Carpenter winning by 0.0019 seconds from Dario Franchitti. Nonetheless, the catalogue of chaos in the pits did little for the image of a motor sport category that appears at times to lack order and strong management.
Part of the problem seemed to be caused by the wide expanse of pit apron and no apparent lane discipline. You can say what you like about some of the narrow pit lanes in Formula 1 but the sense of control brought by this and the rules covering early release is supported by surprisingly few collisions. It is part of a superbly honed aspect of Grand Prix racing that is incredible to watch.
F1 pit work has come a long way since Gordon Murray and Brabham reintroduced the thought of refuelling to the modern era (no rude comments, please; age permits me to refer to 1982 as 'modern'). Take a look at the pictures of rehearsals at Brands Hatch (the plan came to nought in the British GP because neither driver made it to the first scheduled stop) and you'll see the man with the hose wearing a crash helmet but showing bare arms above a pair of grubby flameproof gauntlets that look like they've been borrowed from one of the drivers. Hoses and bits of equipment are strewn everywhere. And it doesn't bear to think about the pressurised fuel in what appears to be a beer barrel.
Brabham quickly realised the inherent dangers and, by the time a refuelling stop finally came into play three races later in Austria, the mechanics were wearing flameproof overalls and balaclavas - but no helmets (apart from the refuellers).
Today, the changing of four wheels in less than three seconds is an orchestrated art carried out by 18 people and more. There's barely room for them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder around the car.
I often wonder how it would be if the numbers were limited, rather like NASCAR where only six crew members are allowed over the pit wall. I love watching how that works as they do one side of the car at a time, the jack man in particular getting my attention as, after raising the side of the car, he takes temporary care of the discarded right rear and, at the precise moment, rolls into into the path of the wheel man for onward transmission as he sprints to the other side of the car.
These guys are fully-fit athletes, unlike the rather comical officials dressed in voluminous cream overalls and overseeing each stop. I'm waiting for the day when one of them gets his timing wrong as he waddles hurriedly around the front of the car. With their white helmets and tubby profile I have the impression, if tapped by the departing car, they'd role back into the vertical position like one of those round Japanese dolls with a curved base.
It was never like that in 1953. Had a scrutineer been nearby, he would have been asked, if he had a moment, to help pass the hammer. And put the kettle on while he's at it.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.