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How F1 Pit Stops Work – In Depth Guide

Pit stops are an integral part of every F1 Grand Prix race. If they are timed just right, they can be the key to victory. If they go wrong, they can rob a talented driver of any hope of a decent result. But why is this the case? What is involved in an F1 pit stop?

F1 pit stops involve over 20 crew members and are usually executed in less than 3 seconds. Pit stops are normally only for the purpose of changing tires. The rules require every driver to pit at least once every race (when it’s dry) to change tires. Pit stops can often affect the outcome of a race.

There is a lot more going on than your eye can catch in under three seconds. Let’s have a look at each aspect around these important, frenetic, and carefully orchestrated efforts in the pit lane. It’s also important to understand how pit stops can sometimes impact who wins the Grand Prix.

Anatomy Of An F1 Pit Stop

As short as a pit stop in F1 is, it is an incredibly coordinated set of actions, each with a very small tolerance. There are multiple people and pieces of equipment involved, and they all need to operate as expected and as quickly as possible in order to pull off the perfect pit stop.

Sequence Of Events In A Pit Stop

A pit stop begins with the driver turning into the pit lane entry. A line is painted on the track that defines the pit entrance, and they are not allowed to cross that line. Once the driver is in the pit entry, they slow down to approach the speed limit of the pit lane. As they cross the line to enter the pits, they engage the pit lane limiter, to force the car to stay within the speed limit.

By this time the crew will be standing ready at the team’s pit box, awaiting the car’s arrival. The driver needs to pull into their own pit box, being sure that they are lined up in the center of the box. The driver needs to bring the car to a stop on the mark of the box, as that is how the crew have lined themselves up.

Once the car stops, both the front and rear jacks are engaged by crew members, lifting the car up and lifting all four tires off the ground. The car is steadied on each side by two other crew members while it is resting on only the jacks.

Time For The Tires

The tire crews then set about their work. First, the tire gunman uses a pneumatic wrench (called the wheel gun) to remove the wheel nut. Another crew member removes the old tire, and a third crew member moves the new tire into place. The gunman then uses the tire gun to secure the new wheel by tightening the wheel nut back on.

Once all four tires have been correctly fitted, the car is put down and the jacks removed. When it is confirmed that no cars are passing by the pit box, the light goes green, and the driver is released from the pit box. They then pull out into the pit lane and drive towards the exit, still with the pit limiter on to stay within the speed limit.

Once the driver has crossed the line marking the end of the pit lane, they’re back on the throttle to accelerate back onto the track. While rejoining, they must stay inside another line to ensure a safe entry back onto the track, with no unexpected maneuvers to cut off other cars making their way past the pit lane exit at much greater speed.

Why Do F1 Drivers Pit?

F1 drivers pit to change their tires. Sometimes drivers will pit to replace their front wing if it is damaged, and during a pit stop the crew may also make adjustments to the front wing to adjust the car’s downforce levels. F1 drivers must pit to change tire compound at least once in a dry race.

The modern era of F1 requires drivers to pit in order to change their tires. However, more than that, the rules of F1 require that each driver must run two different tire compounds during the race. This rule therefore forces each driver to make at least one pit stop, in order to switch tires to a different compound.

A driver could make the pitstop to change tires only to fulfill this rule, such as with Alex Albon for Williams in the 2022 Australian GP. In that race, Albon was able to complete almost the full race distance on only one set of the harder compound tires that he started the race on, while still maintaining a reasonable pace. He was able to run as high as 7th in the order due to not having pitted.

On the penultimate lap, he came into the pits to switch to another compound, purely to stay within the rules, and was able to still take 10th place. This secured one World Championship point for Williams, which is a significant achievement for the team that has found itself struggling at the back of the pack in recent years.

Pit Stop Strategy

However, drivers usually pit for a new set of tires in order to keep up their race pace. The Pirelli tires used in modern F1 are specifically designed to wear quickly, with their grip dropping off after a limited number of laps. This means that a driver needs to judge when to come into the pits to switch tires in order to keep their lap times consistent and stay competitive out on track.

Often the softer compound tires are selected for starting the race, as they generally provide the best grip immediately. However, they do not last for many laps (sometimes only in the region of 10 or 15 laps) and so force a pitstop quite early on. Medium and hard compounds wear slower, providing good levels of grip for longer, but with slightly slower lap times.

Although F1 drivers must pit at least once in dry conditions to change tire compound, it’s fairly common for teams to run a two-stop strategy. This is when the driver will pit twice in the race, running either three separate tire compounds, or just running two of them in some other combination. This is often faster than going for just two longer stints on tires that wear very fast.

Pitting For The Win

Pit stops are often used as a way to pass another car – either by the undercut or by the overcut (depending on the tire situation). In the undercut, the trailing car tries to pit before the car in front. This allows the out lap (the lap after pitting) to be done on fresh tires with a faster lap time, while the car in front is still lapping on their old, worn tires.

By the time that car comes into the pits to change tires, the first car that pitted has hopefully made up enough ground on their new tires to be further down the road and be ahead when their rival comes out of the pits.

Less commonly, the overcut can be used, where the trailing car aims to stay out on older tires longer than the car they are chasing. For this to work, the trailing car needs to lap the circuit on their old tires faster than the leading car can on their new tires. This happens rarely, and only when the drop off in performance of the older tires is limited.

Wet Weather

If there is rain during a race, this will also force the drivers to pit for new tires. The usual tire compounds are slick tires, meaning that the tire surface is completely smooth across the width of the tire. However, when the track is wet and slippery, these slick tires can cause F1 cars to aquaplane and lose grip easily.

A wet track needs treaded tires to allow the water on the track to be displaced by the treaded parts of the tires. Having less rubber in contact with the road, these tires have less grip on a dry track compared with slick tires. However, they are absolutely essential to keeping the cars on the road when the track is wet.

Choosing The Right Tire To Put On

“Full wets” are heavily treaded tires that allow for racing in pouring rain with a soaking wet track and some pooling of water. Intermediates are somewhere in between full wets and slicks, and are used when the track is damp, or drying out. This is when the drivers will encounter dry patches of track and wet patches on the same lap and need a tire that provides reasonable grip for both.

Changing weather conditions will prompt drivers to come into the pits to change tires. It can be incredibly challenging to judge the conditions accurately to choose the best tire with the optimum grip. Some races have seen drivers pit multiple times to switch between slicks, intermediates, and full wets, searching for the best tire in changing conditions.

Other Reasons For Pitting

There are a number of other reasons that F1 drivers pit. Depending on incidents that might happen out on track, some of the penalties that are given to drivers require them to come into the pits. A drive-through penalty requires them to simply enter the pitlane and drive through it, at the reduced speed demanded by the pit limiter.

A stop and go penalty requires the driver to actually stop in their box and remain stationary for a defined length of time, usually 5 seconds, or sometimes 10 seconds. These stop/go penalties can also be served as part of a normal pitstop – the driver simply stays in their box for the additional time before the mechanics get to work on the normal pit stop.

Drivers can also come into the pits if there are issues with the car. It’s not uncommon for a car to lose their front wing in a clash with another car, or with the wall. Due to the fairly regular occurrence of this type of damage, the nose section is designed to be quickly removed. A spare front wing is always ready and waiting in the garage.

Key F1 Pit Stop Rules

Pit Lane Speed Limit

The first key F1 pit stop rule is the pit lane speed limit of (usually) 80 kph – about 50 mph. This is critical enough that each car is equipped with a pit lane speed limiter which the drivers engage just as they cross a line to indicate the pit entrance. Speeding in the pit lane is a guaranteed penalty, and a frustrating error if it happens. Some tracks may have lower pit lane speed limits.

Unsafe Release

Secondly, the F1 Sporting Regulations require that a car is not released from the pits “in a way that could endanger pit lane personnel or another driver.” An unsafe release can occur when a driver pulls out of their pit box directly into the path of (or even colliding into) a passing car in the pit lane. It’s the team’s responsibility to ensure a safe release, or the driver may get a penalty.

This rule also requires that the driver is not released if there is an obvious, unsafe problem with the car. This rule memorably came into play with the Haas team having both cars retire with loose wheels at the 2018 Australian Grand Prix. The team was fined for releasing the cars from the pits with a loose wheel, as it was a dangerous condition.

No Reversing

Another rule is that cars are strictly prohibited from reversing in the pit lane under their own power. This is predominantly in the interests of safety, as drivers have limited visibility behind them. If a car needs to go backwards in the pit lane, it needs to be pushed by the mechanics. Nigel Mansell was famously disqualified from the 1989 Portuguese Grand Prix for reversing in the pit lane.

Closed Pit Lane

There are also times when the pit lane is closed, at the Race Director’s discretion. At this time, a driver may only enter the pits for absolutely essential and clearly obvious repairs to be made, but sometimes this isn’t even possible. A potential reason for the pit lane to be closed could be a car stopped on track dangerously close to or within the pit lane entry.

How Many F1 Pit Crew Members Are There?

There are at least 20 crew members involved in an F1 pit stop. Most of these are simply for the tires – 3 crew members are required for each tire. The gunman undoes the wheel nut, the second crew member removes the old tire, and the third member places the new tire for the gunman to tighten on.

Four tires require 12 crew members for the change. The crew members operating the jacks, front and back, are another two. A third mechanic is on standby with spare jacks if either of the jacks fail. While the car is up on the jacks, another two crew members steady the car, one on each side. That is 17 crew members directly involved in every pitstop.

A further two crew members are on hand for any adjustment that may be required to the front wing. Over and above this, one or two crew members will be overseeing the pit stop and operating the lighting system to signal the car’s release. There may be more or fewer pit crew members involved depending on the team, but it’s usually around 20.

How Do F1 Tires Stay On?

F1 tires stay on as they are mounted to wheel rims. These are fixed to the car via wheel hubs. The hubs provide the support for the wheel and are also an integrated piece of the car that includes the brakes and their cooling ducts. The wheels are attached to the wheel hubs by a single wheel nut.

How F1 Wheel Nuts Work

F1 wheel nuts are part of the wheel rim arrangement. They are captured loosely within the structure of the wheel rim. Therefore, the wheel nut actually stays with the wheel throughout a pit stop. This makes it much quicker and easier to attach the new wheel, as the nut is already in place once the wheel is slid onto the wheel hub, and it only needs to be tightened.

The single wheel nut has a large diameter, with a number of radial ridges or fins that allow the wheel gun to mate reliably with the nut. The intention is to effectively transfer torque from the pneumatic air gun to the wheel nut, to get it on as quickly as possible without slipping. The fins also help with predictable alignment of the gun and nut.

F1 wheel nuts have very few threads, between 3 to 5. This means that the nuts need to do fewer rotations before they are tight, resulting in a shorter time needed to tighten them.

How F1 Wheel Tethers Work

F1 wheel tethers are cables that connect the wheel rims to the chassis of the car, over and above the structural suspension connection. Their purpose is to prevent a wheel from coming loose from the car in the event of an accident or other mechanical damage. Considering how fast an F1 car goes, a wheel that breaks loose would have an incredible amount of momentum.

Each wheel and tire assembly weighs in the region of 12 kg, and if something that heavy came flying at you at speeds of up to 200 mph, the effects are horrifying to think of. This risk is mainly present for marshals around the track, and there has been more than one incident of a marshal killed by a loose wheel.

Since 1999, it has been regulated that each wheel must have a tether. This was increased to two tethers per wheel, as there were still incidences of failures. Since 2018, F1 cars are now required to have three independent tethers per tire, to be even more sure that at least one of the tethers will hold onto the wheel. Unfortunately, they do still sometimes come loose in the biggest crashes.

Do F1 Cars Refuel During Pit Stops?

F1 cars do not refuel during pit stops. Refueling during a pit stop was banned in 2010 due to safety concerns and as a cost-saving measure. When refueling was allowed, it would mean pumping large volumes of fuel in very short spaces of time, which was inherently dangerous.

A number of accidents and fires occurred, which were visually horrifying although often with limited injury. Further to this, the fuel pumping rigs were expensive to develop, build and transport, and so there was a cost benefit to all teams with the decision to stop refueling.

Refueling played a key role in race strategy in F1, so in 2010, the sport switched to tires with engineered degradation, forcing pit stop strategy to revolve around tire wear rather than fuel loads.

Why Are F1 Pit Stops So Fast?

F1 pit stops are so fast because the pit crews train very hard and the entire pit stop is essentially a choreographed event. It’s not uncommon to see F1 pit stops take less than 3 seconds, and the fastest pit stops in F1 used to take less than 2 seconds to complete.

F1 pit stops are renowned for being incredibly fast. The evolution of the pit stop in F1 is a common example in boardrooms globally to illustrate the efficiency that is possible with a dedication to performance. But why does it need to be done that quickly? What motivates the F1 teams to give so much time and attention to doing it so fast?

The reason that F1 pit stops are so fast is that every second lost in the pits is a second lost out on the track. In F1, where lap times are the fastest in the world, a second is a significant margin on the track.

If a pit stop is delayed by just a few tenths of a second, it could mean that the driver loses two or three positions in the race. As we explained earlier, pit stops can be used as a means of passing another driver, but only if a delay in the pits doesn’t undo the time gained on the outl ap while trying the undercut.

How Are F1 Pit Stops So Fast?

There are a number of elements that allow a pit stop in F1 to be so fast. Firstly, the number of people actively involved in the pit stop has expanded to over 20. This allows extreme division and specialization of labor, where 8 members of the crew have the sole responsibility of either taking off a single wheel or putting on a single wheel.

In addition, lessons have been learned from previous errors and malfunctions. Now, each team has a spare available for every critical piece of equipment, able to be used immediately should the primary piece of equipment fail for any reason.

Further to this, details of the components required in a pit stop have specifically been engineered to allow the shortest possible time required. The wheel nut is a good example of this. As explained above, each wheel is held on by only a single wheel nut, as this is much faster to loosen and tighten than multiple nuts. The nut itself has multiple features to allow reliable and quick pit stops too.

Longer Stops With Refueling

Before 2010, in the era when refueling was allowed, pit stops were slightly slower due to the volume of fuel that needed to be pumped into a car during a pit stop. Usually, the tire change was completed fairly fast, but the car would wait for the calculated volume of fuel to be pumped in. Therefore, the rate of fuel pumping became the limiting factor on the length of a pit stop.

This led to the development of large, high velocity fuel pumping rigs that were able to deliver over a hundred kilograms of fuel into an F1 car in a matter of seconds. These were specialized and expensive pieces of equipment – not only expensive to design and construct, but also expensive to transport to races. At the time however, they were worth the gain in pit stop time.

Shortest Pit Stop In F1 History

The current record for the shortest pit stop in F1 history was set by Red Bull in 2019 at the Brazilian Grand Prix. They completed a pit stop on Max Verstappen’s car in the ridiculously quick time of 1.82 seconds. Other pit stops have been recorded that are under the two second mark.

F1 pit stops are a stereotypical example of how processes can mature and become more efficient. In the 1950s, pit stops were usually in the region of 60 seconds. However, modern F1 consistently sees pit stops completed in under three seconds. Red Bull and McLaren are renowned for their incredibly fast pitstops in recent seasons.

Why Are F1 Pit Stops Slower?

There are a number of reasons that a pit stop could be slower. The most common cause for a slower pit stop is human error. This can be due to the driver not lining up correctly in their box, or perhaps overshooting the mark and forcing all the pit crew to move before starting on their tasks.

The human error could be from the pit crew – sometimes the wheel gunman struggles to get the gun on straight and cross threads a wheel nut. The most common cause for human error with the crew is when poor communication or a last-second decision (such as under a safety car) means that the driver heads into the pits before the crew is ready.

This can result in the wrong set of tires, a mixed set of tires (two different compounds, which is not allowed), or even rear tires and front tires being switched (also not allowed). It can be painful to watch the chaos in the pits when insufficient time has been given to prepare the correct set of tires.

A further potential reason for a slow stop is the failure of a piece of mechanical equipment, such as a jack or a wheel gun. All F1 teams have spare pieces of equipment readily available as a backup for these exact instances. However, a delay is still caused while the crew member needs to reach for the backup piece of equipment.

Why Did F1 Pit Stops Get Slower In 2021?

F1 pit stops got slower in 2021 because, about halfway through the season, the FIA put rules in place that dictated certain tolerances that must be adhered to by the pit crews. This was done to ensure automated systems weren’t allowing for pit stops faster than humans alone could manage.

The FIA essentially mandated some minimum time lags between the inputs of the crew members and the signals given to the driver. There must now be 0.15 seconds between the wheel nuts being tightened and the jackmen lowering the car, and a further 0.2 seconds between the jackmen lowering the car and the driver being given the signal to go.

Longest Pit Stop In F1 History

Technically, the longest F1 pit stop in history was 43 hours and 15 minutes. This was due to a wheel nut that could not be removed from Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes at the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix.

The explanation was that the pneumatic gun was not placed on the nut correctly, and the rapid rotation of the socket ground off the head of the nut.

Before this incident, the longest pit stop was generally agreed to be at the 1972 Canadian Grand Prix, where Skip Barber was in the pits for 56 laps of the race while the throttle of his March Ford was fixed. He managed to complete 24 of the total 80 laps.

Final Thoughts

F1 pit stops work as a result of a team of around 20 people all working on one specialized job each. With rigorous training, pit stops can take less than 3 seconds to complete. The timing of the pit stops and the associated strategy around tire changes can influence the outcome of a race.