MIND GAMES

The true team order that could change title race

McLaren mechanic, Abu Dhabi GP 2009

McLaren mechanic, Abu Dhabi GP 2009 

 © The Cahier Archive

As a classic title finale nears, the simmering furore over team orders will surely boil over again as McLaren and Red Bull opt if and when to follow Ferrari's lead. But the Monza duel between Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button showed one honourable aspect of F1 teamwork could yet prove more important than ever: the pit stop.

Like goalkeepers, referees and continuity editors, mechanics are usually only noticed when they get it wrong. Monza was different. As Alonso pitted one lap after Button in full view of the tifosi, there was plenty of cockup potential by the 16-strong Ferrari pit crew. Instead they nailed it. Drivers routinely spew gushing praise at their teams after glory days but you could tell the Spaniard really meant it this time.

"Most of this race win is thanks to the mechanics because it was a perfect job," said Alonso. "Fighting for the race, knowing that our main opponent came into the pits a lap earlier and you have to deliver in these three seconds. In a race situation there is stress, especially here in Italy with all the pressure they have as well. But there was physically no time for me to do all the buttons. I didn't even have first gear in when the green light went on."

After years of the relative calm of refuelling, which allowed tyre changers a safety net to make doubly sure of getting everything right, the 2010 rules offer mechanics the potential to make a real difference. Stationary times have halved from the old eight-second mark and Ferrari's 2010 average is 3.7 seconds. But Alonso has twice gained a place over a McLaren after a quick one (3.3s in Canada allowing him past Hamilton, 3.4s in Monza).

Felipe Massa, Singapore GP 2008

Felipe Massa, Singapore GP 2008 

 © The Cahier Archive

To gain those crucial tenths you have to run the risk of throwing it away totally, of course. Alonso has twice ended up with three wheels on his wagon in Hungary in the past and he is not alone. Many of the Ferrari mechanics revelling in Monza glory will gulp at the imminent return to Singapore after Massa's 2008 hosedown.

But the route to pit stop perfection is not by pushing extra hard. It's about hitting the magic sweet spot where it's not a fight, it's a dance - rather like swinging a golf club or even driving a racing car.

During my research for Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone, my main quarry were the drivers themselves. 1995 Italian Grand Prix winner Johnny Herbert gives a typical example of the glorious sensation of finding the limit and beyond.

"When you're in the Zone it is the most wonderful feeling in the world," says Herbert. "You are so at one with the car, the tyres and the track that it all just comes together in a natural way. The world becomes slower in a smooth, subtle way. The corners slow down and you just go exactly where you want. Everything happens very slowly and becomes smooth. It feels like a natural flow and everything seems easy."

This ability to go into 'slow-mo' may sound preposterous to those who consider time to be a rigid concept measured by the ticking of an atomic clock. But this sensation is an oft-repeated mantra by drivers recalling their finest hours. Thousands of spectators may be willing to testify that racing cars go bloody quickly, yet the guy in the helmet feels he's on a different kind of Sunday afternoon drive.

Time-bending would surely be the superpower of choice for any racing driver. To be the one guy who can take a corner 1mph faster than the rest, you have to see it and feel it slowest - ideally by speeding up the processor lodged firmly in the middle of the crash helmet.

This 'Zone' is accessible to more of us than we imagine. Even surreal effects such as time slowing down can happen to anyone for whom time matters. Within F1, one such group are mechanics at pit stops. These guys have seconds to do complex jobs or vital tenths are lost or worse, blowing an entire race.

Felipe Massa, British GP 2010

Felipe Massa, British GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

But while all we see is a few seconds of frenzied activity, far from being frenetic, at the best moments all is calm inside those helmets too. Perhaps it is adrenalin speeding up the thought process but the tenths don't seem like tenths at all. They stretch.

One 'lollipop man' - the mechanic responsible for ushering the car in and ensuring it is sent away only when everyone is ready and the pit lane clear - told me everything goes into slow motion from the instant he hears the 20-second radio warning that the car is coming in.

A fuel rig operator - a hulk of a man who used to haul the heavy mechanism into place until this year's ban - said the fuel going in, no more than eight seconds, could seem an eternity. A chief mechanic beamed as he confirmed the feeling during those frantic seconds is the best in the world and appears to last much longer.

For Overdrive I spoke to Abu Dhabi circuit chief Richard Cregan, who previously spent years on the pit wall as Toyota's F1 team manager. Also a veteran of rallying, Cregan recalls having to get a five-minute job done in four because of an imminent time control: "In that pressure you'd be able to do it even though you have never managed it before. The environment, pressure and adrenalin push you beyond your own limits you have set. I've experienced that you can achieve far more than you thought you could."

So far so ideal but the consequences of a mistake can be huge too, as numerous pit lane incidents have proved this year. Monza's drama came as Sakon Yamamoto was given the go-ahead to pull away from the Hispania box before his radio man had cleared the car. The result was that he was dragged away and thrown into the air. Only extreme good fortune has prevented further injury and carnage in this year's regular pit lane scrambles, particularly during safety car periods.

Red Bull mechanics, Turkish GP 2009

Red Bull mechanics, Turkish GP 2009 

 © The Cahier Archive

"Some people are better in a panic situation than others," explains Cregan. "But when you're under such pressure in an unknown situation you can melt. Your body stops taking information in, you don't react properly and the next step is you freeze. After pit stops go wrong people say, 'I knew what I had to do but in the panic I just couldn't do it.'

"I've experienced that. In emergency situations I've done something I know will not work but I just can't stop doing it. My body is not communicating with my brain to either stop me or do something else. Sometimes the link between your brain and your body is not there as you would expect.

"It's to do with age, experience and training. One way to compensate is to train as many scenarios as you can imagine. It's about being familiar with a crisis, having practised it in as near to real conditions as possible. Your brain and body have to be familiar with emergencies so you can deal with them and be in control."

This is why Formula 1 teams practise pit stops so religiously both in the factory and at race weekends, with annual totals regularly reaching four figures. They throw in every kind of glitch imaginable in conditions that are as similar as possible to the demands of a race - albeit without the adrenalin factor which simply cannot be recreated out of the heat of action.

McLaren mechanics, British GP 2010

McLaren mechanics, British GP 2010 

 © The Cahier Archive

The repetition is not dissimilar to the driver who must spend years of pounding round racetracks getting used to every sensation a car can throw at you. In Cregan's case it involved meticulous knowledge of the backroads of the F1 rulebook. Even then, he has been shocked by how powerful the brain can be.

"In a race you don't have time to look at the rules, it has to be in your head," he adds. "You have to be familiar enough with them that it becomes an automatic action. So you read and read but it's still surprising that when something strange happens the knowledge is there. It's like your brain is ahead of your actions. It goes into automatic mode and you find yourself doing and saying things you're not even thinking about, that your brain is doing for you.

"It comes from the subconscious. Your brain takes an unfamiliar situation and slows it down to a point where you are in total control. On the pit wall it's when everything happens automatically that things really go well. The challenge is to allow yourself to do it and not interfere mentally."

This is the team manager's equivalent of being in the Zone. But, slow motion or not, it takes a brave man to trust one's innate autopilot as it runs contrary to the instincts drilled into us since school. Still, such moments have been enough to persuade Cregan of our true potential.

Ferrari pitstop, Japanese GP 2008

Ferrari pitstop, Japanese GP 2008 

 © The Cahier Archive

"I'm convinced our brains are massively underused because we allow our bodies to dictate the processing speed of our brain," he adds. "If we processed as quickly as we could think, or even a fraction of it, we could react much, much better. But some have a better link than others. Some young kids are forever falling over and bashing into things due to a syndrome where the body doesn't react to the impulse of the brain quickly enough. The brain tells them to move into another room but before the message reaches their legs they've fallen over. This highlights the effect of that link, which we take for granted.

"Great drivers and athletes process information and their bodies implement it quicker than the norm. The limiting factor for a driver is allowing his body to do what his brain is telling him. Entering a corner your sense of survival is saying you need to do something now. Drivers like Senna either learned or had the ability to rise above that - but very few have ever mastered it. That's why mental training is so important for drivers too. The likes of Michael or Senna reached the point where they drove the car mentally. Physically it was just putting into action what their mind was telling them."

This year's champion will doubtless reach the same nirvana between now and the flag in Abu Dhabi. But while the driver may be the figurehead and the rightful recipient of the headlines, he still needs backup. This title battle is so tight, with adrenalin in such plentiful supply, it could still come down to someone else entirely slipping into or out of the Zone.

Clyde Brolin is the author of 'Overdrive - Formula 1 in the Zone'

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