MARCH 23, 2011
Melbourne has a lot of things going for it, but the pit lane is not one of them. According to team members who care about these things, it is the second-most cramped pit lane in the season. When you watch the race on Sunday, take a look at how close the cars are to each other should neighbouring teams make their pit stops at the same time.
You could argue that by NASCAR standards this place is spacious but the Melbourne overcrowding problem is exacerbated by the pit lane being narrow as well as comparatively short. Whichever way you look at it, this is likely to be a busy and hazardous place should the predicted pit stops number at least three per car.
The job you don't want to have is the guy with the lollipop. Or, in the case of more than one team, the man with his finger on the button managing the lights suspended above his car. This is where the responsibility begins and ends when it comes to releasing the car into what could be a very busy 'fast lane', the official term for the outer of the two lanes in the pit road.
The rules are quite explicit. A car may not be released if another is within 50 metres (defined by markers each team puts on the back of the pit wall). Easy to say; difficult to manage in the heat of battle when the incredible work of the mechanics changing four wheels in three seconds is wasted if the time spent stationary is doubled because of traffic.
And there will be traffic this weekend. Just how much is open to question as the teams have their first experience of racing the latest generation Pirelli tyres; rubber that is, by the request of F1, designed to drop off in performance and throw another variable into the strategic equation.
The fascinating scenario of making the limited number of tyres last is something to deal with on the day. For now, the teams will be honing their pit stop practice right up to the last moment.
Dress rehearsals on site began here on Wednesday, Ferrari attracting the most attention. Whether it was the crisp new uniforms or the car's rich and immaculate bodywork, but the pit lane, or 'inner lane' to use the official title, outside the Ferrari garage positively glowed red. Twenty team members stood in an extended horseshoe as the silent car was pushed forward and the chatter of airguns rattled the afternoon air.
A few key players of the Mercedes team in the garage next door peered over packing cases temporarily separating the teams. Personnel from other teams, failing to appear casual, wandered by.
There were interesting points to note. The air guns appeared to be linked by electronic cable to the lights (red, amber and green) suspended above the front of the Ferrari.
The front jack is a work of mechanical art. Rather than simply lift the nose up and down, the spring-loaded circular base is also pivoted, allowing the jack-man to step aside once the car raised. When the work is done, with the flick of a lever he can drop the jack and then whip it aside in one deft movement. This must cut the fractions of second it would take the man to physically step to his left while bringing the jack with him.
This ballet on tiny wheels at the front of the car is just one of the many small but vital actions that can win or lose races. But it is the last one before the ultimate burden finally rests with the man controlling the car's return to the fray. 'Difficult' doesn't make a start on how tricky that job is going to be as the pit lane becomes as busy as Melbourne's Flinders Street in rush hour.
Last year there were 28 pit stops in total during the Australian Grand Prix. Don't be surprised if the number is doubled and someone, somewhere, curses the pit lane and Melbourne's principal downside.
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.