Written by Emily Morales, Edited by Sean McKean
The world of Formula One has undergone numerous changes and advancements since its commencement in 1950. With the more apparent changes being technological, you can easily forget just how much pit stops have also been a part of the evolution. With just as much history as the sport, why have pit stops also become an important factor in F1?
What Is a Pit Stop?
To the many new fans of F1 or any other motorsport, you may see yourself asking this question. A pit stop is a brief point in a race when drivers head to their designated pit lanes to adjust their cars. In F1, this can include changing to different tyres, replacing a front wing, or other mechanical repairs if needed. It is required that a driver comes in for a stop at least once in a race, due to an FIA rule that states drivers must use two different tyre compounds in a race. Whatever task required, this is all the job of the pit crew.
At the Indianapolis 500 in 1950, a racing driver named Bill Holland pulled in for a pit stop, recording a time of 67 seconds. Compare that to the fastest time in F1 history held by Red Bull:, 1.82 seconds at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix. Though a reason for the slow stop could be a result of few crew members involved, as at the time, only four crew members could work on the car, including the driver himself. Today, the number of people working on a stop has changed from four to 20 pit crew members!
In 1982, the first in-race fueling took place during the Austrian Grand Prix by the Brabham team. As the years went on, it became essential as they realised starting the race with half of fuel would allow for a quicker race time. The implementation of refueling in races added a new element to team strategies. However, as more and more teams recognized the advantage this new element provided, dangerous situations arose.
The Problem with Refueling
Although refueling in a race proved to provide an upper hand to a driver's race performance, this came with its own set of problems, one of the biggest issues being the number of fires caused by refueling. During pit stops, teams would try to cram in as much fuel as they could into their cars as quickly as possible. Due to the type of fuel used in 1983, this was very dangerous, which is why in the following year, refueling was banned altogether.
This would not be the end, as it was reintroduced again into the sport ten years later in 1994. Focus was once again on teams using this to get ahead of their competitors. Though even after a decade since its ban, problems were still present as drivers were involved in dangers themselves. One example of this was in 1994 at the German Grand Prix, with. Benetton driver Jos Verstappen was involved getting caught up in a fire incident at his pit stop. The disconnection of his fuel hose caused the fuel to leak onto his car, which resulted in his car becoming engulfed in flames.
Unfortunately, fire incidents only continued as the years went on. Another incident occurred at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2009. In this accident, Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen was caught in a fire as McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen was released from the pitlane with his fuel hose attached. As a result, fuel sprayed all over Raikkonen, with it even going into his eyes. Finally, in 2010, in-race fueling was banned.
Pit Stops of Today
As mentioned in the beginning, there were very few people involved with the pit crew in the early years of the sport. Now, in the more modern times, there are two jack operators, as well as three people per wheel, along with other mechanics. This allows for faster pit times and for each person to focus on their jobs quickly.
With the average pit stop time now taking two to three seconds, one of the factors that remains the same is the need for a good pit strategy. A strategy is what makes or breaks a race for a driver and their team. Depending on how and when it is done, can affect where a driver ends up at the end of a race. A team must pit at least once to change tyre compounds, whether more pits are taken is up to strategists and the need to.
A Bad vs A Good Strategy
Over the years, there has certainly been a great number of what many consider a bad pit strategy. A bad strategy, in this case, implies that, because of how poor it was, it affected the drivers and team's result and performance.
At the 2021 Russian Grand Prix, McLaren driver Lando Norris consequently fell from leading the race to finishing seventh all in the span of eight remaining laps in the race. The cause of this was - of course - making the wrong decision to not pit and change to different tyres. On lap 46 light rain began to fall, dampening the track. Though soon enough the rain intensified causing some of the drivers to go off the track. McLaren, noticing this, wanted to take action quickly to not be the case for Norris, who was leading the race, especially with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton closely behind.
As many of the drivers were doing, McLaren wanted to pit Norris and change from hard to intermediate tyres, which would work well in the new wet weather conditions. However, even though Norris was starting to struggle in pace, he ignored team orders and decided to try to pull away from the rest who pitted as much as he could in his hard tyres. With Hamilton pitting on lap 49 of the race, he emerged 25 seconds behind the McLlaren. Still, even with this gap, he managed to catch up to Norris with now a four-second difference between the drivers by lap 51. With two laps left and poor judgment made, the strategy backfired as Norris slipped off the track, giving Hamilton the lead. In the end, Norris ended the race in seventh after finally going in for wet tyres, and Hamilton took his 100th race win all because of a good strategy.
As F1 continues to grow and expand, it can be assumed that pit stops will keep being a part of that evolution. Rules are susceptible to change as seen with refueling at the beginning of the sport. The battle for first between Norris and Hamilton at the Russian Grand Prix is just one of the few examples in which one team uses the pits as an advantage, and when things can also go wrong for another. In their case, it was also a great example of why pit stops have become and continue to be so important in F1.