Why The Pit Lane Might Be The Best Vantage Point For GT Racing
The checkered flag drops and the first car over the line takes the win, a Mercedes AMG GT3 that has been piloted around the stark Rockingham Raceway for the past two hours. It’s two drivers, Lee Mowle and Yelmer Buurman, have each put in an hour’s effort to keep the nose pointing in the right direction and the wheels turning, just the same as all of the other finishers of this round of the British GT. A trophy and a squirt of champagne later and those on the podium are ready to do the press interviews and soak up the adulation. To the victors go the spoils, and why shouldn’t they? It’s no mean feat winning a race in these powerful cars and in a field of this caliber. Of course, whilst turning the wheel and caressing the pedals is about individual performance, there’s a whole team effort involved in this business of going racing, that save for the brief occurrence of a pit stop, we rarely get to see. That’s a story that is lived out over a much longer period than the two hours of the race…
Days before the drivers line up on the grid, the transporters and vans are loaded with cars, equipment, spares and all manner of other paraphernalia associated with a race weekend. Luggage, sponsorship material, pit hoardings, food. You name it and It’s probably on the huge list of items that must be assembled, checked, packed and then disgorged and put into place once the team reaches the other end. Then once the racings finished, the process happens in reverse. The job doesn’t end for the teams until long after the TV cameras have stopped rolling and the fans have left the track, and once the weekend is finally concluded for them, the cycle begins again for the next event.
For the duration of the GT race weekend, come rain or shine, the pit lane and garages are a hive of activity, and as I observe and absorb what is happening around me whilst trying not to get in the way of the fast-moving crews, I can see a similar pattern throughout the garages. As much as racing is about the bravery and skill of the drivers, it’s also a science, an experiment. Track temperatures are taken throughout sessions, tyre pressures are checked, recorded, and careful adjustments are made to the car’s setup along the way, all in the effort to find that extra turn of speed or eek out that little bit more grip or perhaps enable the braking to be left just a bit further into the turn. Of course, it’s a compromise, there’s no such thing as the perfect setup, but the end goal is the same; to be the quickest in a decidedly quick field, as well as maintaining the balance of speed vs reliability. To finish first, first you must finish, as Rick Mears would no doubt remind us.
Then there are the mechanical tasks between sessions, oil to be changed, un-spent fuel drained and carefully measured to monitor usage, brake discs and pads to be swapped in and out as well as changes to other race specific components. Whilst the amount of activity is ferocious, it never seems rushed. These crews are well drilled and in control, they know what to do and when to do it—when things go to plan that is. Of course, with racing the unexpected is invariably just around the corner and when a car falls off the track or suffers a mechanical failure, the repairs can be as easy as jet-washing off the road rash and patching up some bodywork, to hours of rebuilding the car’s innards.
Inevitably some teams find themselves burning the midnight oil in the effort to get their drivers to the grid once Sunday comes, and behind the closed doors of the garages the work carries on until the job is done. Cometh the hour and cometh the teams though and the full complement of exotic Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Aston Martins and other GT3 and GT4-spec cars line up on the grid for the fruition of everyone’s efforts. Some of the race machines look a little second-hand, bearing the scars of the weekend’s mishaps, but for the next two hours it’s in the hands of the drivers. Well, almost…
Around the halfway point of proceedings, I find myself in the pit lane again, and the first hour of racing has seen its fair share of incidents. Fast cars have fast shunts, and amongst the caution periods, this competitive field has exhibited some wonderfully entertaining, but hard racing. What is about to take place though is a few minutes of tremendous activity and excitement, that for me serves as a microcosm of what these pit crews are all about. The British GT championship has an enforced pit stop window, for tire changes, quick adjustments, driver swaps and the most hazardous activity, refueling. Once the race time ticks over 60 minutes and the first driver has completed their minimum time in the car, the pits become thick with activity as the machines arrive and crews leap into action. There are mechanics, tires, and car parts all over the place in a collective chaos that isn’t nearly as out of control as it might appear on TV.
In the bubble of each pit box, everything is under control despite the frantic pace at which the four-strong crew, designated re-fueler and car controller go about their work. Each member of the team knows their job: the cars are grounded via a copper wire and the refueling happens in a team of two or three depending on the car. The bowsers of high octane fuel are emptied, whilst the car controller is primed with the fire extinguisher should the unthinkable happen. Next the mechanics whip around the car in a blur changing wheels, a demented dance of flying tires and whirring air guns, whilst other small adjustments are made and minor fixes carried out in between. The drivers assist each other in their change over and when the minimum pitstop time has elapsed (a minimum is applied based upon results to keep the field more even) the car is released, back into the race. It’s not quite the slick stops of Formula 1, but these are much smaller crews doing more than swapping rubber, it’s impressive and each team I watch doesn’t miss a beat.
That frenzied ten minutes summed up what these teams are about for me, each member playing their part in order to achieve the best for everyone, diligent to avoid any errors—nobody wants to be the reason for the team’s race weekend to end. And as I watch the drivers spray the champagne on the podium, I’m certain that the role everyone plays is not lost on them either.
Thanks must go to Bob Neville of RJN Motorsport and everyone else in the paddock that took time out of their day to answer my endless questions.