The Beautiful, 60-Year Evolution of the Formula 1 Pit Stop

It's hard to imagine that a team could possibly get faster, but then again, we've already been saying that for years.

Derek Mead

Derek Mead

There's an adage in auto racing that races are won in the pits. But it hasn't always been that way: the super-fast pit stops of today, conducted by highly-trained crews that are more athlete than mechanic, are the result of a long road of innovation that's often overshadowed by the cars themselves.

As recently as the 90s, NASCAR teams were still trying to perfect the art of the pit stop. In a 1997 article, the Herald-Journal's Monte Dutton wrote that NASCAR's "elite [consisted] of no more than five or six crews, each capable of giving their drivers the crucial 1.5-2.0 seconds that puts them back on track ahead of the others." Leading the charge was Jeff Gordon and his "Rainbow Warriors," which was one of the first pit crews in NASCAR to be handpicked for speed, with regular drills and training helping gain an edge.

In Formula 1, which has long held itself as the pinnacle of motorsport, pit stops have been evolving for decades. The above video is particularly jarring. First, it shows Bill Holland pulling in for a pit stop during the 1950 Indianapolis 500, which came during Formula 1's inaugural season. Note that only four crew members—including the driver, which also did mechanic duties during the early days of racing—are allowed to work on the car. Relatively high-speed tire changes were possible thanks to knock-off hubs, but all told, the stop still took a full 67 seconds.

Compare that to the Ferrari stop later in the video, which came at the 2013 race in Melbourne. Now, clearly the rules have changed: There are a hell of a lot more mechanics on the crew, for one. Also, the car doesn't have to wait for fuel to be pumped in, as refueling during races was banned in 2010.

Of course, things took longer in the days when cars could be refueled during the race, but still nowhere near the quaint stop in the 50s. Per Wikipedia, whose memory is better than mine, F1 pit stops usually took between six and 12 seconds in the late aughts, depending on how much fuel was needed.

Allowing refueling adding an extra element of strategy, many fans argue—do you burn more fuel for more power, or try to save time in the pits?—and they often provided some of the best opportunities to pass an opponent. But it also led to something of an arms race over refueling tech. And when you're trying to pump fuel too quickly, disaster can strike, as F1 Elvis writes:

1983 saw a number of fires as teams tried all means possible to shove as much fuel into their cars as quickly as possible at a pitstop and back then it was often a form of highly volatile rocket fuel, making it perilously dangerous. Refueling was banned the following year and this brought the focus away from pitstops and into the ability to conserve fuel and tyres during a race.

In an effort to spice up the show after a ten year break, 1994 saw the reintroduction of mid-race refueling and inevitably teams very quickly began to look at ways of speeding up their stops once more.

There was a rather horrific incident at the 1994 German Grand Prix, when Jos Verstappen's Benneton burst into flames after a fuel rig—one altered by the team to pump faster—sprayed race fuel all over the car: 

Modern Formula 1 remains a game of tenths of a second, and even with refueling banned, it's clear there's still an advantage to be gained by making pit stops even faster. Current crews are huge: Aside from a pair of jack men, the lollipop man (who alerts a driver when to leave), and a guy tasked with fire control, there are 12 dedicated to just swapping the tires, with a man at each corner to remove a wheel, one to place the new wheel, and a third to loosen and tighten the single nut holding the wheels on. 

As you might imagine, even the hub and nut design in Formula 1 is an engineering marvel, as even those parts offer the chance to shave hundredths of a second off a lap time:

As compared to Holland's vintage stop, the current F1 pit stop is a model of efficiency, where every little movement adds precious time. See the comparison below between a top-notch McLaren stop and an average one from Red Bull at the 2012 German Grand Prix. As Jalopnik explained at the time, the 2.4 second stop was about a second faster than other teams that day.

By the next year, Red Bull had lowered the record time to under 2 seconds. Remember, this is for swapping four tires on a hot race car under huge pressure, with close to 20 crew members all working in concert. It's a stunning effort, one that's the result of decades of refinement. It's hard to imagine that a team could possibly get faster, but then again, we've been saying that for years.