We are very pleased to be able to present this article on a most important aspect of racing by one who is a recognised authority on the subject.—Ed.
By Prince Chula of Thailand
IT was with diffidence that I accepted the invitation of MOTOR SPORT to write something on pit control. In spite of the fact that I have perhaps achieved some measure of success as a pit manager, I still regard myself essentially as an amateur in motor-racing, owing to my ignorance of the complicated technicalities of an internal combustion engine. However, I suppose I cannot go too far wrong if I confine myself to my own experiences as manager to my cousin, “B. Bira.”
With us “pit control” really started with the preparation of the car, for without a well-prepared and reliable car no amount of fine driving or pit control can ever achieve any success. In 1937 our Maserati blew up after “Bira” had had a duel with Raymond Mays in the International Trophy. A few days later I read in a motoring paper, “Prince Chula was angry. He can find no excuse for mechanical breakdown.” This remark was an exaggeration, but in some ways it was true. I do not think a well-prepared car for an independent driver should break down. I think it was the refusal or the failure to realise the difference in the approach to racing between a firm and an independent which accounted for the fact that, although there were many fine British independent drivers during the past five seasons, few achieved consistent success.
A firm races to improve their cars more and more, so they must forever be experimenting, hence unreliability must sometimes be faced. An independent should he racing for the fun of the thing only and the most fun surely can be obtained, if not actually in winning, then in keeping the car going in full fettle right through the race. This can best be achieved by keeping the car which one has bought as standard as possible, just giving it the most careful preparation. Many independents were so busy trying to make detail alterations to their engines that thoroughness in ordinary preparation must often have been lost. Their cars might have been faster than a standard car for a few laps, but they were soon in the dead-car park. I am one of those who believe that a racing car must be designed in one complete whole, and once that had been achieved by the manufacturers, an independent should leave it alone. We ourselves had countless failures in the first three years of racing, when we were still groping in the dark, and it was not until the beginning of the 1938 season that we discovered the true method of an independent, and with this right policy properly carried out in that year by my mechanic, Stanley Holgate, we only had four retirements out of sixteen races. Each of these was traced to faulty material, so by adding a crack tester to our equipment, we went through the 1939 season without a single retirement and “Bira” was never once placed lower than third. So much for preparation.
The next step for pit control is at the practice, and there again the control is as necessary and important as in the race itself. I am not suggesting that the driver is not capable of judging for himself how he should carry out practice—far from it. I merely think that he ought not to have to do so. He should be able to concentrate entirely on his driving, and the entire policy of practice should be supervised by pit control. First class driving is an art so fine in itself that to give it full justice a driver should have no time to worry about other things.
Many people, I believe, used the practice period for further tuning. We did not. Our car was tuned at Brooklands a day or so before, and once the official practice began, we left the engine alone, unless it was absolutely necessary to work on it. Apart from minor things such as brake adjustments, the car was left as it came from the garage.
The practice period was used for “Bira” to get the car round the circuit at the fastest speed and yet within safe limits. The idea was that he should get used to knowing his fastest limit on every corner of the course, but it was naturally hoped that this limit would not be found necessary in the race. It was also used to match our car against the speed of the others. This would give us some idea as to what the race would be like, but would not dictate our race-policy as will be shown later. I believe in “Bira” trying to make the fastest lap or as near to it as possible in practice, provided naturally no risk is taken. It has a remarkable psychological effect on the others. On many occasions it caused our strongest opponent to take his engine down the night before the race in the hope of getting more speed. This usually resulted in a hurried assembling. The car would have more speed in the race, but would last only a few laps.
In the race itself, pit control would be impossible if the driver and the manager did not share completely the same race policy, and did not trust each other implicitly. After trying some others, “Bira,” and I soon discovered that for a lone independent driver there was only one policy. This was to drive the car at the fastest and safest speed throughout the race, regardless of what the others might be doing, in fact, to drive as if one was racing alone. The safety factor concerned keeping the car on the road, and keeping the engine speed within the margin advised by Holgate. My pit control, therefore, consisted entirely of giving “Bira” full information so as to help him to keep as rigidly as possible to this permanently established policy.
Readers who have seen me give “Bira” the “faster” signal may be surprised to read the above, as the theory and fact then seem to be contradictory. The explanation is that my “faster” signal did not really mean that “Bira” ought to have gone faster than he should have done, but that he was not going so fast as he should have done. Thus it was made quite clear that “Bira” was not to obey the “faster” signal unless he agreed that he was not going fast enough. If he was convinced that he had reached the fastest safe limit, and yet the “faster” signal was given, he was to ignore it altogether. A good illustration of this case was the Sydenham Trophy Race at the Crystal Palace in 1938. It was a handicap race, and although ”Bira,” driving the E.R.A. “Romulus,” was leading his group of 1,500 c.c. cars, he was not catching up the smaller cars as he had been wont to do. Further, his lap time was below form and with the engine sounding perfect as he passed the pits I gave him the “faster” signal again and again without result. It was only after the race that he explained the fact that oil had been dropped on the farther side of the course making it slippery, so he rightly ignored the signal and kept to his fastest safe pace, thus finishing second behind Smith’s M G. If, on the other hand, he had tried to go faster he might have passed Smith, but he was much more likely to have skidded off the road altogether.
This mutual trust between us in pit control can be seen again and again in the sixty-eight long distance races in which ”Bira” ran, winning twenty of them. If “Bira” had eased off and then found he was given the “faster” signal, he would always try to obey, however unreasonable it might seem to him at the time. The best case of this was perhaps the International Trophy Race in 1936. Towards the end of that long race “Bira” was a safe second, but I thought he was a whole lap behind Mays. The mistake was caused by the fact that we had a muddle at the refill stop, and I had omitted to put that lap down on my chart. Thus it seemed absurd to keep “Bira” going so fast, and he was allowed to ease off. With eight laps to go, Mays came to his pit for another refill, and I discovered then that “Bira” had been behind him, but really in the same lap, thus he was now in the lead. The “faster” signal was promptly given to “Bira.” Utterly bewildered, he yet obeyed and kept ahead of Mays till the last lap. That Mays then passed him to be repassed by “Bira” within sight of the winning post is now well known in racing history. The close finish which delighted the thousands of spectators would not have taken place had “Bira” hesitated to obey what seemed an absurd signal.
It was agreed between us that he was left with no discretion with regard to the “slow down” signal which had to be obeyed, and yet he was not to slow down of his own accord. This is due to the fact that unless one is in possession of full knowledge according to the time chart, one cannot know when it is safe to slow down, There were many occasions when “Bira” was leading easily and thought he ought to have slowed down, and yet had to drive at full speed because the signal was not given.
The best example was the Isle of Man Race, run in a downpour of rain in 1937. “Bira” was driving magnificently in the appalling conditions, and by half distance had a lead of 56 secs. over Fairfield, who was second. When he came by the pit, one could catch a glimpse of “Bira’s” surprised face as he searched for the “slow down” signal. Somehow I had had an intuition before the race that Fairfield would not have to stop for a refill. I was proved right, and although “Bira” was overtaken while he was refilling, his lead had been so great that he was able to get it back, and obtain victory.
Although our policy is to drive consistently fast, regardless of others, I always gave “Bira” his position in the race, those of the others, and the gap of time separating him from them. These signals were designed to keep him amused and informed as to the general situation. Thus spectators have often found that I gave more signals than anybody else.
As I see it, races are won by fine drivers driving well-prepared cars. The task of the pit manager is to help in coordinating their efforts into the same harmonious channel.
Editorial, December 1998
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