A Thorough Analysis of the Pit Stop Strategy in Formula 1

Formula 1 is the most prominent of motorsports with millions of fans worldwide. Each year, F1 teams, composed by a multitude of professionals (drivers, car engineers, R&D staff, technical & mechanical officers, team managers and others) compete through a series of races, ultimately aiming to win the F1 championship. Doing that is no easy task; apart from a great driver, the formulation of an effective team race strategy is necessary. The strategy is adapted and implemented differently in each one of the twenty (twenty-one for this season) Grand Prix of the F1 championship; and one of the most important features that comprise it is the pit stop strategy.

Abstract

This research reviews the key role of pit stops as a main part of a well-designed F1 race strategy. The main objective is to analyze the importance of an efficient pit stop and the impact that it has in the race. The second part presents the evolution of pit stops through the years. In conclusion, a good pit stop is a fundamental element in F1; one that may lead a team to the top of the podium. Finally, the research will go through an analysis of the pit stop crew, which is considered to be one of the aspects of the “F1 Trinity”, with the other two being the driver and the car.

Introduction

F1 pit stops are one of the most intense and exciting features of a Grand Prix. In fact, races are frequently won and lost because of the pit stops and the pit crews, as a stop of a few seconds can give the competition a lead of a few hundred meters. Therefore, the pit stop time during a race is crucial for a F1 team. In just a few seconds, a great number of actions (change of tyres, mechanical repairs, adjustments to the wings and many more) are carried out by F1 teams’ pit crews. Because of that, every F1 team must design an effective race strategy plan during a Grand Prix based on the special characteristics of each race. Part of this strategy is the decision of when is the right time for a car to have a pit stop, which tyres should be used and of course taking into consideration what the competitors might do. For example, releasing a car from the pits into a convoy of slower cars is typically avoided, as it will cost time; and in F1 even milliseconds are precious. So, it is very important for a F1 team to be able to plan and implement a flexible pit stop approach during a Grand Prix.

Methodology and Data Collection

For the purpose of this research, the data that have been collected and analyzed are divided in two parts. The first part consists of historical data that were collected for the evolution analysis of the pit stops through the years starting from the 1950s up to the present.
The second part consists of a detailed graphical analysis for the last two years’ fastest times in pit stops; proving simultaneously the importance of having an effective pit stop during a race.

A few more words about the pit stops

In F1, a pit stop is where a F1 car stops in the pit stalls during a race for a quick maintenance, change of tyres, mechanical repairs or adjustments and many other actions necessary during the race. The pits are located on a pit lane which is parallel to the start/finish line and connected to the main track. The pit lane has a row of garages (usually one per team), where the pit crews are waiting, ready to make every required action. Usually, F1 pit crews consist of about twenty mechanics (their role will be analyzed in detail below), who move in perfect harmony, crowding around the F1 car to change a set of tyres, make adjustments to the front and rear wing, repair any mechanical issues and any other needed repair actions in as short a time as possible. For pit crews who practice this ‘choreography’ thousands of times in a season, a delay of one tenth of a second might cost a position in the podium for the driver and the team. F1 teams formulate a plan during the race, of whether or not a car will come into the pits at different stages of the race, always taking into consideration the number of pit stops required in every separate Grand Prix. Over the years, the pit strategy has become one of the most important features of the race.

The number of pit stops during a Grand Prix typically depends on the track and the general race circumstances such as the weather conditions. Moreover, it has been calculated that each driver is required to make an average of 2 pit stops per race (not taking into account unpredictable events). An unscheduled or extended pit stop, such as a sudden mechanical problem, can be very costly to the driver’s chance of success; because while he is on pits for service, his competitors, remaining on the track, are gaining time on him. For this reason, the pit crews undergo intensive training to perform every possible pit stop operation as quickly as possible. F1’s world record for the fastest pit stop is 1.92seconds (2013 USA Grand Prix – Red Bull F1 team).

Pit Stops Through Years

When the F1 championship began in 1950, pit stops were a fairly disorganized affair. But through the years, as the sport became more professional and the cars more advanced, the importance of a well-drilled pit stop became more crucial.

Pit stops tended to be disorganized, long and often chaotic as late as the 1970s – especially when a driver came in to make an unscheduled stop. The age of the modern pit stop arrived when changes were implemented to F1 regulations in 1994, by allowing in-race refueling. The rule of refueling lasted until 2009. After the last readjustments on the regulations a driver’s visit to the pits became breathtaking in both speed and efficiency.

The graph below depicts a timeline of the average pit stop time during races from 1950 to date.

 

In the 1950s, pit stops had an average time of almost 67 seconds. Fifteen years later, an effective pit stop was about 45 seconds. In the early 70s, this time dropped to almost 27 seconds. At the beginning of the next decade, for the first time in modern F1, it was ruled that cars can stop for refueling during the race, rather than just for new tyres; and the average pit stop time was 11 seconds. In 1984, the in-race refueling was banned for the first time, leading to progressively faster pit stops (almost 8 seconds). At the beginning of 1990s the average time was close to 6 seconds; but in 1993, the team of Benetton recorded a tremendous pit stop time of 3.2 seconds (nowadays, that time would be considered to be a relatively slow pit stop). The next year, FIA (Federation Internationale de l’ Automobile – F1 governing body and committee) decided to change the rules on Grand Prix races and allowed in-race refueling, causing a bit slower average pit stop time at almost 8 seconds (the amount of fuel, rather than the tyre change, became the critical element at pit stops). The in-race refueling was banned once again at the end of 2009. Currently, the average pit stop time, lasts approximately 2-2.5 seconds. This breathtaking time and speed in the pits is due to a culmination of years of development, learning and improvements in technology. The official world record belongs to Red Bull’s F1 team with 1.92 seconds during the 2013 USA Grand Prix (Red Bull’s pit crew changed all of the four tyres of Mark Webber’s car in only 1.92 seconds, helping him to win the third final position in that Grand Prix).

Summing up, pit stops are becoming faster and faster through the years as the sport caught up to the reality that pit stops play an important part in a Grand Prix outcome. Teams gradually involved more and more people at the process. In 1950s, the typical pit crew team consisted of four engineers, while today the same number is twenty.  Moreover, many improvements have been made to pit crews’ equipment aiming to minimize the time it takes to service the cars. The most incredible part of that evolution, is that there is almost a 96% reduction in pit stop time from 1950s to nowadays.

A Closer Look at Pit Stops & Analysis of the Pit Crew

When the car visits the pits every action needs to be done in a matter of seconds. All of the four tyres are changed, the driver’s helmet visor is cleaned and the engineers make adjustments to the wings and fix every mechanical problem that has appeared over a very short time, as every millisecond counts.

While drivers and engine manufacturers usually receive most of the praise for a victory, the members of the pit crew are the unsung heroes. As everyone already knows the role of a F1 driver and as there is also an abundance of knowledge for the car’s engine and aerodynamics, it’s now the time to analyze extensively the roles of the pit crew members.

The picture below, presents the twenty pit crew members (the 21st is the driver) one by one.

(source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/formulaone/article-4401632/Formula-One-pit-stop-does-crew-work.html)

Numbers 1 and 11 are the rear and front jack respectively. Their role is to raise the car off the ground by using a modified version of a car jack, so that the wheelmen can operate easily while switching the tyres. Number 10 is the backup front jack having the same responsibilities with the front jack.

Then, for each one of the four wheels of the car, there are 3 different members of the pit crew staff. The first one, the gunner, is responsible for initiating the removal of the wheel from the car and is armed with a pneumatic gun in order to loosen the nuts; the second one (called first tyre carrier) removes the wheel and the last one (called second tyre carrier) is responsible for putting on the new tyre to the car. All of them, are responsible of switching as fast as possible all of the four tyres. Firstly, the tyre gunners (3, 7, 14 and 19) remove the wheel with their pneumatic gun, and after that the second member of the crew (2, 8, 13 and 18) removes the wheel and allows the third one (4, 6, 16 and 20) to put in the new wheel to the F1 car. Once this is done, the tyre gunner removes the gun and raises it in the air to signal the lollipop man that work on that wheel is over.

The lollipop man (number 15) is operated by the chief mechanic and is responsible to oversee the whole procedure. He is like the conductor of the F1 pit crew ‘orchestra’ and he is also responsible for letting the driver know when he can move on again.

The rest of the crew members are responsible for a variety of extra contingent duties. Numbers 9 and 13 are responsible for wings readjustments while numbers 5 and 17 are responsible for cleaning the driver’s visor and for stabilizing the car at each side.

From the agile tyre carriers to the jack men, all members of the pit stop crew need to be quick and efficient. As a result, pit-stops are always hectic moments in a team’s race and require absolute concentration and precision from each member of the team.

Pit Stop Best Times During the Last Two Seasons

As established above, the pit stop time is crucial during a race. This chapter focuses in the last two seasons of F1 championship and presents the top10 pit stop times during these seasons.

The first graph below depicts the fastest pit stop times in the season of 2015/16.

Nico Rosberg won the drivers champion with 385 points leaving Luis Hamilton in the second place with 380 points. Mercedes won the constructor’s champion winning 19 out of 21 Grands Prix. Based on the abovementioned graph, Williams was the most efficient team at pit stops, by having 7 out of 10 fastest pit stops from the abovementioned top10 list under 2.30 seconds in that season. Furthermore, Felipe Massa with Williams achieved the fastest pit stop that year at 1.92 seconds, matching the world record.

The second graph below depicts the fastest pit stop times in the season 2016/17.

In contrast to 2015/16, the sample was more distributed the next season. Lewis Hamilton won the drivers champion with 363 points leading Mercedes to winning the constructor’s champion as well. In the abovementioned graph, Williams (with driver Felipe Massa) achieved the fastest pit stop time with 2.02 seconds, in the British Grand Prix. Red Bull (with driver Max Verstappen) got the tenth best time of the top10 list with 2.33 seconds during the Russian Grand Prix.

Pit stops regulation facts

Because of the importance of the pit stop during a race, FIA has set some rules and regulations, with the most significant mentioned below:

  • The pit lane at every Grand Prix is divided in two lanes: the ‘fast lane’, which is the lane closest to the pit wall and the ‘inner lane’, which is the lane closest to the garages.
  • Pit crews are allowed to enter the pit lane only before the pit stop and must withdraw to their garages when they are done with their work.
  • The equipment that the pit crew is going to use is specific and no powered devices can be added to them.
  • Each team is responsible to release a car from its stop, only when it is safe to do so.
  • For safety reasons, the pit lane speed limit is of 80km/h (or less) at all Grands Prix.
  • Any team, whose driver exceeds the pit lane speed limit will be fined and get a time penalty (usually known as driver-through penalty costing 5-10 seconds delay).

Results and Discussion

This research, after a brief explanation of pit stops has showed their evolution through the years and has repeatedly highlighted their importance in F1 races. From the 1 minute (or more) stops of the 1950s to the current swift stops of 2-3 seconds, the pit crew members have always put in their best effort to change tyres, make readjustments and repairs in order to help their team to reach the podium. The pit stop time is so crucial during a race that can even determine the final positions on the podium. Finally, the question for the future is whether or not the pit stop time can be dropped even more. This is arguably, a very interesting fact as the technology is in a rapidly evolution that may lead to pit stop times of less than a second in some years.

Conclusion

Summarizing, while the driver may be the one getting all of the attention, F1 is as much a team sport as any other; and this is nowhere more evident than in the pit stop. Each team has a crew of nearly twenty people, working hard with completely fast, precise and coordinated moves from to fixing and repairing all the mechanical issues to just changing the tyres. The pit stop time is the key to success in the race and teams know it better as every year they spend hours of training to achieve as fast as possible pit stops during races. The world record as it mentioned above in this research for the fastest pit stop belongs to Red Bull team with the outstanding time of 1.92 seconds.


Biblography

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I believe in the proverb of Plutarch: "exercise without physical qualifications and knowledge is incomplete". As an ambitious data scientist, I'm always aiming to broaden my knowledge by interpreting & managing data in order to solve complex problems. In Statathlon, I'm combining my main passions: sports & data science

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