May 23, 2024

Between the Racing Lines | Formula One is complicated, confusing and constantly evolving. This story is part of our guide to help any fan — regardless of how long they’ve watched the sport or how they discovered it — navigate the pinnacle of motorsports.


Box, box.

Every Formula One fan is familiar with that radio message, the call for a driver to head in for a pit stop. Whether it’s changing tires, serving a time penalty or repairing damage, the pit stop is one of the most strategically important moments during any grand prix. The longer you spend off the track, the farther behind you fall. McLaren holds the world record for the fastest pit stop — 1.80 seconds, set during the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix — but no team has matched the consistency of Red Bull’s blazing pace.

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For each of the last six seasons, the Milton Keynes-based team has won the DHL Fastest Pit Stop Award based on their stop times throughout the year. They should repeat in 2024, holding nine of the 10 fastest stops over the last five races. The top three came from the Chinese Grand Prix weekend, where Red Bull stunned the F1 world with two flawless double stacks, changing the tires on Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez’s cars in rapid succession. The first took 4.18 seconds; the second, 3.95 seconds.

Whether a routine stop or a double stack, pit stops are choreographed dances. They begin the moment activity buzzes in the garage as more than 20 team members hurry out to their positions in the pitlane, waiting for the drivers to pull into the box. As Jonathan Wheatley, Red Bull’s Sporting Director, said, “Your perfect pitstop involves everyone having that perfect two seconds.”

It’s a game of millimeters and milliseconds. Here’s how it goes down.

The positions

Pit stops are a whirlwind of noise and speed, typically taking 2.5 seconds or less. The drivers need to hit their marks within the outlined area, and the crew members then jack up the front and back of the car, swap out the four wheels, and lower the car — all in unison when nailed perfectly.

“You get a buzz,” said Phil Turner, the team’s chief mechanic. “You get that adrenaline rush that you know you’ve had a good pit stop. You just tell by the sound, the noise, and how quick the car drops.”

It starts with the people, all of whom hold other team positions in addition to being on the pit crew. Teams are limited by how many people can be trackside, and some roles require people to be at computers when pit stops unfold. Wheatley described a pit stop as “an endeavor by 22 human beings.”

The wheels

Number of people: 12

This grouping is a trio per wheel — wheel off, wheel on and a wheel gunman. For wheel off and wheel on, strength is a requirement, said Jack Harrison, a mechanic on the team and a ‘wheel on’ member. Each wheel weighs over 44 pounds (20 kg). “You’ve got to have some sort of size to be able to manipulate the wheel to where you want it to be.”

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The call is typically given around 15 seconds out, and the ‘wheel on’ crew carries the tires from the garage to the pit box. All three at the four tire locations crouch, and the wheel gunman readies to loosen and tighten the wheel nuts as the car slams to a halt. “I don’t ever think the car’s gonna hit me,” said wheel gunman Callum Adams. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but it’s a matter of trusting the driver will stop where they’ve practiced. Adams’ favorite part of his role is his proximity to the car because when it’s dropped, he can see the clutch engage and the wheels spin.

What may surprise fans about the wheel off, wheel on process is that the wheel nut stays attached to the tire itself. The wheel gunman loosens the wheel nut before the car has stopped, Adams said, and they’re working “on the wheel nut for the new wheel before it’s even on the car. That’s where you make up the time.” The ‘wheel off’ crew member is taking the tire off as the car is coming off the ground, thanks to the jacks.

Jackmen

Number of people: 4

This grouping includes two main players: a front and rear jackman.

Because the cars are so low to the ground, both jacks need to lift at the same time. If the car stops short, front jackman Chris Gent said he struggles “to get the jack under the car because the car is so low, and the jack will only go under really when the car is on all four wheels.” If the rear jack lifts before the front, Gent says he has to signal for the car to be lowered to fit his jack under the car.

“It’s also awkward (if) they stop on the first few laps of a race when the car has a full amount of fuel, and then the car is so much heavier than whether it’s midway or towards the end,” Gent added. “It feels completely different to jack it up when it’s a lap or two into the race.”

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Each jack is different, but Gent described his as one that can rotate and has two levers, one that releases the jack and the other that allows the jack to tilt.

“When the car arrives, we jack it up, and you can jack it to a certain point, and then you can relax because it has two little feet that come out so the car is always at the same height, which is obviously quite important for the gunmen,” Gent said. He later added that, in theory, the jackmen don’t have to pull the lever to release the jack, which drops the car to the ground, but he does so in case there is a failure in the lights system.

There are spare jackmen for both positions, just in case of an issue. If a front wing is damaged, teams will use a side jack instead and replace the wing.

Gent has been hit by a car before but “never any real damage other than being knocked back quite a long way.” When it comes to getting over the initial reaction to jump out of the way of a moving vehicle, Gent said, “A lot of it is down to trust, isn’t it?”

Car steadier 

Number of people: 2

When the car is lifted, two people grab hold of the cockpit area, keeping it stable as other crew members do their work. If needed, they may clean the mirrors or radiators.

Front wing adjuster

Number of people: 2

These crew members help make aerodynamic changes to the wing, which impact understeer or oversteer based on the driver’s feedback.

Lollipop (aka the green light) 

This resembles how NASCAR teams hold out a sign as drivers enter the pit box. Within the world of F1, this individual would give the signal for when the car can release, but over time, it’s become more electronic. A system now indicates when the driver can leave the pit box.

The guns and jacks are essentially linked to a traffic light system of sorts, but the decision of when the car is released lies with the crew member with the override button, who monitors pit lane traffic. The green lights indicate the wheels are secure, and once there is space for a safe release, the driver gets the go-ahead to exit the pit box. If the stewards deem a pit box exit to be unsafe release, drivers may face a five-second time penalty.

The practice

Teams practice pit stops during a race weekend, and fans can watch from pit lane or their seats during certain windows. But these sessions also take place back at the factory, both in and out of the season. Harrison said Red Bull will practice anywhere from five to 20 pit stops during these sessions. Wheatley commented how, with Red Bull, “your first pitstop is likely to be for a race win.”

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However, as Harrison noted, there is work that is done before a “real physical practice,” like what fans see during a race weekend. Whether it’s with the entire crew or just the specific group, like the corner crews, they’ll visualize the pit stops with props. Harrison said, “We’ll be using those to be able to help you. Even just with the movements, not necessarily the weight of the wheel.” It’s about being limber and warming up for the real deal.

Practicing with the entire pit stop team is easier, he said, because a big component of an efficient stop is listening to each other. As part of the corner crew, he finds it helpful to hear the jackmen and the four-wheel guns, but he can also see the different parts of the pit stop in his peripheral vision. Each grouping has slightly different techniques, so practicing with the same people becomes a strength.

“The size of people doesn’t make a difference,” Harrison said. “The amount of time you’ve been doing it with the same people makes a difference because I will put my foot in a certain position, which may be different to the left rear side. I’ll wedge my foot underneath the (wheel) gunman’s knee, and then I can feel where he moves. And then with sight as well, I can see where he moves so I can move to him.

“So if the car goes long or short, he’ll move his body to react to that, whereas I’ll do the same with my body to where his body moves.”

Given the length of the F1 season and because life happens, teams do select backups for each position. During practice, people swap in and out.

As for physical requirements, Harrison said core strength, stability, overall strength, and cardio are all key, and the crew works towards staying nimble. For the wheel on position, for example, core and leg exercises are helpful because you’re essentially in a squat position, waiting to fit the wheel to the car, Harrison said. Adams said that flexibility and core strength are important for the wheel gunman because if the car stops short or long, they need to adjust quickly while being low to the ground, not losing their balance.

An effective pit stop extends beyond the physical. It’s about the senses and muscle memory. The Milton Keynes-based team decided to try executing a pit stop in complete darkness during the off-season, and Adams said, “It made everyone sort of realize how much their role was done on feel and muscle memory.”

The final product

A pit stop technically begins the day before a race, Wheatley said.

That’s when the team discusses race strategy. Come race day, he’ll brief the team if there could be something unusual coming, and they’ll perform a series of stops during their routine practice session, mixing it up some to prepare. During the race, Wheatley keeps the team up to speed on how the race is unfolding strategically. Pit stops are about nailing the right timing, such as trying to do the opposite strategy of a rival to gain positions. Wheatley said, “Generally, we make a decision to pit, I think, later than some teams would be comfortable with. We like to have a team that can react very quickly and in a very short lead time ahead of a pit stop.”

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When it looks like the call to pit is coming, Wheatley begins preparing the team, not getting too excited. “If I’m calm, everyone should be calm.”

Then comes the countdown. The crew members file out of the garage in a specific order to avoid getting in each other’s way, Gent said. Typically, the farthest people will leave first, he added, “so you’re not climbing over people to get to your position.”

Any number of things could go wrong during a pit stop, like a wheel gun failure (which is why they have spares). Mistakes do happen, like jacks not engaging properly on the first try. But as much as a smooth pit stop depends on the crew members, it’s also about the driver’s approach, specifically “the speed and consistency of deceleration into the pit box,” Wheatley said. If drivers don’t hit their marks, the other twenty-some crew members will need to adjust. That awareness also applies to the crew, particularly with the group changing the wheel. Sometimes the tires touch during the swap, and as Wheatley said, “When they touch, that’s when you get your 2.6-second stop and not a 2-second stop or a 1.8-second stop. So it’s down to marginal gains from that point.”

Another factor that can impact timings is the depth of the pit crew. In 2023, Wheatley said, Red Bull “faced immense challenges” with keeping a consistent first team because of the number of races, where they fell on the calendar, illness (a stomach bug floated around the Mexico City paddock, for example), and other life matters, like children being born. This is where the reserves come into play.

“Whilst it doesn’t mean you can do a 1.8-second pit stop every weekend, that’s not actually our target,” Wheatley said. “And so we need to have enough people trained and able to do 2.2-second pit stops every single time the car comes in the pits. And we’ve been lucky enough that we haven’t had such an illness that’s compromised that.”

At the heart of every pit stop are the people and the seamless teamwork. Each person’s routine is different, down to whether they watch the car come down pit lane or when they snap down their visor. Then comes the rhythm — stop, lift, wheels (and the loud whirring that comes with the guns), drop and release. Pit stops are a staple of an F1 grand prix weekend, yet each person describes the strategic event differently.

Turner opted for “a massive adrenaline rush.” Adams described them as “exhilarating” while Harrison chose “rewarding.”

Truthfully, it’s an art.

(Graphics by Drew Jordan/The Athletic. Lead image: Bryn Lennon – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton/The Athletic)

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