Connections and Communications
Over the past ten years or so the pit scene at a Grand Prix has changed enormously and the number of cars and volume of noise has more than doubled. There are more people doing more things and time saving has been of paramount importance, while the search for information and knowledge has grown apace; in addition new facilities and new ideas have mushroomed. When a car stops at its pit during practice today the whole scene seems to be a spaghetti-like tangle of tubes, cables and wires as everyone goes about their job.
The driver has a rubber pipe from a connection on his helmet to the “life support” oxygen bottle fixed inside the car, another connection from his helmet feeds into an inter-com system into which his engineer, his team manager or his chief mechanic, or all three, can plug in to hold conversation. If wheels need changing then mechanics have impact wheel-nut spanners operated by compressed air, with long flexible tubing running from the air bottle in the pit out to the wheel-spanner. Meanwhile tyre technicians are taking tread temperatures with a probe on the end of a wire from a sensitive and accurate temperature gauge, and the brake technicians are using a similar probe on the end of a wire to read brake disc temperatures, feeding the probe through the wheel spokes to record the temperature of the shielded side of the disc. If the car is due to go out again then there is a mechanic at the rear of the car with an air-line to the push-on connector for the compressed-air starter motor, and with some teams there is a subsidiary electrical wire and push-on connector from a slave battery to boost the ignition system for starting. At one time the Brabham team had built-in air jacks on their cars and this meant another flexible air line from the pit to the plug on the side of the car. With all these wires, cables and flexible pipes about the place it is not surprising that occasionally a driver will accelerate away before everything is disconnected! However, most of the connections are simple push-on snap connectors that pop out in emergency, though it has been known for near to leave the pits with a length of cable still attached to it. The most unpopular mistake for a driver to make is to rush off before his team manager has unplugged his inter-com.
With all these connections in operation it is not surprising that things go wrong occasionally. If an engine is reluctant to start you will often see a mechanic empty an air bottle and still not get the engine started. If there is room to push-start the car, all well and good, but if not there is a rush and a panic to get another air bottle. Even worse is when an air bottle empties during a wheel change, especially if it is near the end of qualifying, for there is no reserve method of tightening some wheel nuts. You will hear the impact hammer ratchet noise start to slow up before the nut is tight, but this is when team work pays off, for instantly the mechanic on the wheel on the opposite side of the car will hand his tool across the moment his job is finished. Sometimes a chief mechanic will be over-seeing the whole job and he will be quick to grab the good hammer and pass it over while the mechanic is fitting the safety pin. It is a badly organised team that doesn’t have a spare supply of air bottles readily to hand, and most of the big transporters have built-in compressor units for keeping a supply of full bottles. If you look round behind the pits you will find air-compressors driven from the vehicles 240 volt on-board system, chuffing away merrily filling the three-foot high air bottles.
A study of the use of the inter-com system between driver and team is always interesting. If a driver is really flying and challenging for the front of the grid you will see the team-manager and the engineer plug in before the car has come to rest, or while the mechanics are wheeling it back into place. If a driver is dragging his feet or complaining, or is out of favour, you will see him sit there for quite a few seconds before someone plugs in, and with the all-enveloping helmets of today a driver has very limited peripheral vision and often cannot see where everyone is. If there are problems or alterations at the back of the car you will see the team-manager giving the driver a running commentary over the inter-com, or if he’s the excitable type the team-manager will be trying to calm him down or placate him. Some drivers seem to be totally unflappable, no matter what the mechanical crisis is and are content to sit and wait quietly, without the need of words from the team-manager. You will see these drivers reach out and adjust a rear-view mirror to keep an eye on what is going on. You will see some drivers shouting and yelling long before anyone has plugged in to them, their helmets having earphones and microphones built in to them, and when the team-manager “comes on the air” the face inside the helmet gets very excited and unless you know about this radio link you could be excused for thinking the driver had gone mad. Other drivers will sit motionless and silent for quite a long while after their engineer has plugged in and you will see him fiddle with the connection or the head-set, wondering if it is working properly; then the driver might “come to” and say “it is still not handling well”.
There are those team-managers or engineers who must look at whoever they are talking to and they speak with a lot of expression on their face and in their eyes. You see them talking with expression and passion to the back of a coloured Bell Star helmet and hope the chap inside is listening and paying attention. It is amusing sometimes to move round a bit and Iook at the driver’s face inside the helmet. This works both ways, of course, and some drivers cannot talk through an inter-com microphone without turning their head and trying to look up at whoever is on the other end of the wire. Then you get the totally confident people who say few words and you wouldn’t really know there is any communication taking place if it wasn’t for the black wire running from the eningeer’s belt to the driver’s helmet, or to a plug on the car. A classic pair to watch are Patrick Head and Alan Jones: you would think at times that Patrick Head is watching an aeroplane up in the sky, while Jones is looking straight ahead with a totally blank look on his face. Then you realise that Head’s lips are moving and if you look closely you’ll see Jonesey’s mouth form the word “Yep” or “Nope”. When you see this you know all is going well with their practice and they have got everyone on the run.
One of the things not to do in the pits during practice is to get run over due to being in the wrong place. If you are standing in front of a car and you see the engineer pull out his inter-corn cable you can be sure it is time to get out of the way, for the engine is soon going to start and the driver doesn’t want to waste time once the engine is running. Similarly you can get the message about what is going to happen if you see four mechanics standing at the ready with wheel nut tools and all the curly air-lines being held up out of the way. If they are all looking down the pit road it is time to make yourself scarce, for a quick 4-wheel change is about to happen. In spite of this you will see pressmen or photographers walk right across the space where the car is due to stop. It is a good thing that the overall noise and confusion in the pits prevents you hearing what some of the mechanics have to say.
While all this is happening about the car when it stops at the pits, the car itself has its own communication system which has been perfected during 1980. Sticking out from the monocoque is a tiny antenna, usually hidden away among the front suspension members, and this is connected to a tiny transmitter inside the nose which passes a signal to a receiver on the timing line, which operates the timers in the time-keepers box. Each car has its own frequency and thus records its lap times automatically. It is a very sophisticated system built by Longines and is a subject unto itself. — D.S.J.