Motor Racing: The pendulum swings to the pits

Suzuka showdown: Pit stops may decide the F1 championship winner as two title rivals take their duel to the wire
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THE WHOLE procedure may take less than 10 seconds and its consequences can be as decisive as a knock-out blow. On Sunday it could determine the outcome of the Formula One world drivers' championship.

Once, twice or even three times in the Japanese Grand Prix, pit crews will brace themselves for the blur of activity that is as vital as anything that happens out on the circuit.

For two teams especially, this perfectly synchronised, high-speed routine will stretch the nerves and pump the adrenalin to nearly unbearable proportions. One slip, one minute miscalculation by McLaren-Mercedes or Ferrari, could hand the title to the other camp.

All the investment, endeavour, expertise and emotion of the 16-race season has come down to this final race showdown at Suzuka and the pressure on the championship leader, McLaren's Mika Hakkinen, and his rival, Michael Schumacher, of Ferrari, will be shared by every member of the pit-stop crews.

When a car comes into the pits, 20 figures, clad in protective clothing, will swoop on the car. Up to half a dozen others will play a role in the operation.

Senior team personnel, in collaboration with the driver concerned, will decide on the timing of the pit stop. The driver can save vital seconds with a quick "in" lap and a quick "out" lap, while observing the pit lane speed limit.

He can further assist the cause by stopping precisely on the spot marked out in front of his garage, and following the instructions of the lollipop man, who acts as co-ordinator and will release the car when the work has been completed.

The instant the car is stationary, its engine still running, it is jacked up at the front and rear. Three men are deployed on each wheel change. The gunman loosens the wheel, another removes the wheel, a third replaces it and the gunman moves in again to secure it.

That part of the job can take as little as four or five seconds. More time is required to refuel the car. The fewer stops scheduled, the more will have to be pumped on board and the longer the clock will tick on.

Someone, meanwhile, will have wiped the driver's visor and screen, someone will have removed any litter from the radiator, and someone will be on permanent standby with a fire extinguisher. It is teamwork at its most strategic, precise and demanding.

When the lollipop man is satisfied the work has been done, he releases the driver who now has the responsibility of making a clean and swift getaway.

Schumacher and his crew, previously at Benetton, now at Ferrari, have frequently and famously tilted the balance of races with the timing and the efficiency of their pit stops. The last grand prix, at the Nurburgring, swung Hakkinen's way when McLaren sent him out moments ahead of the startled German.

McLaren polished up their act again in the team's concluding test, at Silverstone last week, that also served as a bonding session before the mechanics and engineers packed their bags for Japan.

Dave Ryan, McLaren's team manager, who will oversee the pit stops from his position on the pit wall, has no doubt that the championship could be decided by his unsung heroes in black.

"I give the guys the warning a car is coming in and they get ready," Ryan says. "Then I just pray it goes right. You can practice till the cows come home, put a million per cent effort into it, but it can all go wrong on the day.

"Mika's stop at the last race was probably our best of the season. Most races hinge on the pit stop. It is always a battle for somebody, whether it's for the lead or 10th place. Everybody is pumped up for it.

"Often the significance of the stop doesn't become apparent to the guys until they've completed it and the car has gone out again. They're concentrating on what they have to do and don't always know the exact race situation.

"But then when it's over and they've done a good job, it's a tremendous feeling. When it's not been such a good job, they obviously feel bad about it.

"Pit stops have brought the team into it more and tyre changes can be very exciting, but I have to say I'm not a fan of refuelling. It's artificial. I have a healthy respect rather than a fear of refuelling. We do as much as is humanly possible to make sure it's as safe as possible."

Ryan believes the standard of pit stop work has improved in line with most other aspects of Formula One racing.

"We always look at what other people are doing and if Schumacher shows us something new we have to take note," he said. "We look at every angle of the race. We can't afford to relax.

"I've got a lot of respect for all the teams in Formula One, but the efforts of some of them can go almost unnoticed. The attention is inevitably focused on the top teams. I'd like to think we'd be considered among the best.

"Our guys said they wanted to practice pit stops at Silverstone last week and that was good for everyone - good for the drivers as well as the guys.

"We hope to be as prepared as we can be for Sunday. The guys hear everyone telling them this is it, but the thing is to treat it like any other race. The Nurburgring, also a very important race for us, was relatively trouble- free and we got the result.

"We have to treat Suzuka in the same way. We know the importance of it. We have to make sure we don't let down Mika, or [the other McLaren driver] David Coulthard.

"Hopefully the guys will enjoy it, be in the right frame of mind and come out of it with the right result."