Life in the pit lane, where championships are decided in a flash

After Ferrari beat McLaren's tyre change by 0.8 seconds to win the Italian Grand Prix, David Tremayne joins F1's unsung heroes

Away from the world of multi-million-pound car development laboratories and drivers whose small change takes care of the Monte Carlo harbour fees, another drama will play out in Singapore this week.

At Monza a fortnight ago, the records show that the Italian Grand Prix was won by Fernando Alonso. In the pit lane, everyone knows that his Ferrari mechanics helped make the crucial difference. These are not select millionaires but up to 16 ordinary, yet gifted, guys; team mechanics who have worked their way up the system and often migrate from team to team, are paid real-world wages of between £30,000 and £50,000 a year, are drilled to perfection – and whose split-second synchronisation brings their teams huge rewards. So in the last grand prix the title race turned on a 0.8-second margin: Ferrari changed Alonso's tyres in 3.4sec; McLaren's men took 4.2sec to do Jenson Button's.

In truth neither were bad performances. The record, held by Red Bull, is 3.2sec. Bound by the limits of the quicklift jacks and air guns (despite technology's rapid progress in the cars, the pit-lane kit is reassuringly retro), anything under four seconds is good; below 3.5sec and you may have just won your team a race.

So it is not surprising that these drills are carried out with military precision and efficiency – especially as this is a dangerous environment. Since refuelling was banned for this year, the risk of a horrifying pit-lane fire, such as the one that momentarily engulfed Benetton's Jos Verstappen and his crew at Hockenheim in 1994, is no longer a worry. It also cuts down on the numbers of mechanics – and limbs – that can get in the way. In 2005, the Sauber refueller Silvan Ruegg had his leg run over by Jacques Villeneuve at Silverstone. In 2008, Felipe Massa rejoined the Singapore Grand Prix with the refuelling rig still attached to his Ferrari. That danger has been removed, too.

But accidents can and do still happen. In Hungary last month a loose rear wheel from Nico Rosberg's Mercedes bounced down the pit road before striking the Williams mechanic Nigel Hope. He was treated in the medical centre before returning to active duty. In the same race Renault's Robert Kubica crashed into incoming Adrian Sutil's Force India when the Renault pit let their man out prematurely, in what is these days termed an "unsafe release".

Much depends on the key figure referred to as the lollipop man. It is he who holds the stop/go sign and oversees the whole pit-lane operation. But they, too, make mistakes. At Monza, the Hispania Racing F1 Team driver Sakon Yamamoto was signalled that it was safe to leave but a technician was still leaning unexpectedly into the cockpit attending to a radio problem, and suffered concussion in the ensuing ugly accident, The lollipop man had reacted instinctively when he saw four raised hands from the wheel changers. In all of these cases, the teams concerned were fined up to $50,000 [£32,000].

It is not difficult to see why the tension levels are sky high during a race. Nobody wants to be the guy who fumbles a wheel change, who lets their team down. Changing a wheel is not actually that difficult. But doing it perfectly under immense pressure and on a massive stage certainly is. An F1 wheel and tyre is so light – around 15 kg – you can toss it into the air with two hands. One guy undoes the wheel nut with an air gun, and while he's changing the rotational direction of the gun, a team-mate whips off the old wheel and a third man bangs on the new one before the gunman tightens everything up again. Simple enough? Try doing that when you're the outside-front or rear-wheel changer. Each man tends to keep the same role all year, and those on the outside arguably run the biggest risk as the car behind swings out of its pit, or the car in front cuts in.

The men on the outside are nearest the oncoming scream of rival cars' comings and goings, and the corner of a front wing is brutally sharp-angled and wide. Moreover a mechanic's safety is never going to be the main focus of attention for an adrenaline-charged driver as he makes his pit stop. However, if conditions are slippery and the driver locks his wheels, it's the inside men who can suffer.

These unsung heroes are so focused on their sole task that extraneous things tend to be blanked out. "The car could have been on fire when I was a wheel man," the McLaren chief mechanic Pete Vale admits, "and the first time I'd notice that would be after I'd changed my wheel."

Vale, like most, started as a mechanic and worked his way up. As McLaren's lollipop man he oversees all the preparation for the stop and has ultimate responsibility not just for his crew, but for rivals while he controls the whole thing.

"We always warn the guys on the radio beforehand if a stop is going to be tight," he says, "and make sure everyone is where they should be, doing what they should be doing. We all have to be careful not to encroach on another team's space, but we say that behind the blue line in the pit lane is our space, the drivers and cars have all the rest of the track.

"We all try not to hinder other teams, but you don't always get back the space you give. And you tend to be very focused. All of the wheel-change crews are focused entirely on their wheel, they are blinkered to anything else. Me, I'm looking for those four raised hands. When I see them, and it's safe to let the car go, it goes."

Like all the teams, McLaren pratices wheel-changing drills all through the winter, and on average 30 times on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday before each race. Practice really does make perfect in this world of conditioned response, not only in making the difference between winning and losing, but also in keeping it all safe.

Gone in 3.5 seconds: Anatomy of a perfect pit stop

*The picture above right shows the Mercedes team drilling the perfect pit stop in Singapore yesterday. The driver (here his place is taken by one of the pit crew themselves) must break to stop exactly on the marks, without stalling the car, and – crucially – not lock up the breaks if the conditions are wet. That would jeopardise the efficiency of the whole stop.

*The man with the stopwatch is checking that the pit crew are working together as efficiently as possible. In the real race, the same man often becomes the "lollipop man", who holds the "stop/go" board and tells the driver when it is safe to pull away.

*Three mechanics work on each wheel. One takes off the used tyre, another stands by to fit the new one. The third has a wheel-nut air gun. He needs to refit the wheelnuts, taking special care not to crossthread. That could result in a wheel becoming loose at high speed.

*One mechanic at the front of the car and one at the rear are ready with quicklift jacks. These just need to be pushed under the car and pushed down to lever is off the Tarmac just enough to change the wheels.

*Other mechanics are always available to help fix other problems - from faulty radios to filthy visors. In a race situation, there are also "spotters", two pit crew who check to see that no other cars are passing.

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