A Grand Prix driver at work

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As he was number one in the team he had two cars at his disposal, one his car for the actual race, the other as a spare car and specially set-up for qualifying. Morning testing had not gone too well, with numerous little niggling mechanical problems, and in the afternoon qualifying, further troubles prevented him getting the best out of the T-car, so that he ended up in 8th place, nearly three seconds slower than the man holding temporary pole position. It was a bit frustrating, as pole position is often his, but no matter, there was another qualifying session on Saturday.

Saturday morning went a lot better and everything was set for a real crack at pole-position time. Apart from the money you earn for being on pole-position for the race, there is the advantage at the start, the knowledge that you will avoid start-line accidents, but more than anything else it is a question of pride. If you want to be number one in the Formula 1 world you must always be the best.

Qualifying was due to start at 1 pm, conditions were good, and about 10 minutes before 1 pm engines began to be started up and warmed in readiness, while the special ‘short-life’ tyres were being warmed up in their electric blankets, the car sitting on jacks minus its wheels.The turbochargers had been set to give maximum boost for the tweaked-up qualifying engine, there was the minimum of fuel in the tank, the ride-height was at its lowest, suspensions settings were set for one hard lap, the aerodynamics were trimmed for the ‘ultimate’ rather than the ‘optimum’ and the driver was about to put on his helmet and gloves. The mechanics started the engine, it fired and then spluttered. Consternation. A quick check of all the easily seen things. Nothing wrong. Try again. No joy. The engineer came over, the engine man joined them. Check this, check that, fuel pressure seemed suspect. Undo a union, fit a check-gauge, crank the engine over, fuel squirted out, the driver hurriedly grabbed a fire-extinguisher and stood by. Qualifying had started, the opposition were already out on the track. Diagnosis by the engine men. Fuel pump failure, the mechanical one that is buried down at the front of the engine. You can’t run the engine on the electric one, the mechanical pump will have to be changed. Mechanics’ hands appeared from everywhere. The driver put the fire extinguisher back on the bench and walked to the back of the pit. “Mechanical fuel pump.” he said as he walked by. Two small boys appeared at the back of the pits, he signed their programmes for them, his engineer came over and had a few words and they looked at their watches. 1.10 pm, 50 minutes left. The mechanics and the engine men were ripping things apart; it meant that the engine/gearbox unit had to be disconnected from the monocoque, in order to get at the defective fuel pump. Undo the fuel pipes, the wiring harness, the gear linkage, remove the body panels and the rear aerofoil, undo all the engine mounting bolts, insert a special trolley under the engine, remove the rear jacks, disconnect brake and clutch hydraulic pipes, disconnect the throttle linkage and many other bits and bobs. The time is 1.20 pm and the whole power unit is wheeled back from the monocoque and the engine men disconnect the pipes to the troublesome fuel pump while others have gone to the transporter for a new one.

The driver still sits at the back of the pit . His engineer joins him again, they discuss the situation. He is still in 8th place on the grid, but there are three or four other drivers who are about to relegate him further back. Quiet calm, no panic anywhere, sweat is pouring off the mechanics as they work away.

It is 1.30 pm. Only 30 minutes left. The engineer suggests re-rigging the race-car as best they can and recording some sort of lap time with it.  No hope of challenging for pole-position, but it should be capable of getting him into the first half-dozen. Driver puts on his helmet and gloves, mechanics re-set the ride height of the race car, trim the aerodynamics, put in the minimum of fuel, fit warrned-up qualifying tyres and the driver climbs into the cockpit, as calm and cool as if nothing had happened. The team-manager comes in from the pit wall. “Jesus Christ!” he mutters, “twenty-five minutes of qualifying left and the car is in a dozen pieces”. It is 1.40 pm and the race-car engine is being warmed up. The engine men have fitted a new fuel pump. 1.45 pm and the driver eases out of the pit garage and sets off down the pit lane. Eyebrows raise in other pits, not knowing what is happening. “He’s late out.” they think.

The engine/gearbox unit is being wheeled forwards to locate onto the pick-up points on the monocoque. As hands insert the engine bolts, others start connecting all the pipes, wires, rods etc. These chaps could do this in the dark, they know their way round the car so well. 1.50 pm and the car is ready to lift down off the trestles. No time for fancy lifting gear, all the mechanics give the old ‘heave-ho’ and the car is lifted bodily, while trestles are changed for normal jacks and the car is down on the ground. While wheels are fitted the engine is fired up, systems checked, pressures checked, all is well. Body panels back on, nose cone on, rear aerofoil on, the second set of qualifying tyres and wheels are put on and the car is off the jacks.

The driver has done a fair time with the race-car, but only good enough for 12th position, for the pace has been hot and the opposition have been going hard.

1.55 pm, only five minutes left. The driver screams into the pit lane, leaps out of the race-car almost before it has stopped, mechanics wheel it quickly, out of the way, the driver runs across to the T-car, whose engine is running and warming up. lnto the cockpit in one stride and down behind the wheel, mechanics snap the seat harness into position, the driver dabs the engine control with his right fool. Brrarrp, Brrarrp, Brrarrp, he’s ready to go. Out of the pit garage, down the pit lane, it’s 1.57 pm. A pause at the pit lane exit for the marshals to check the markings on the qualifying tyres and he is away on warm-up lap. The commentator notices, “he is going out for another attempt.” He doesn’t realise what has been going on.

It is 1.59 pm as the driver passes the pits to start a flying lap. It is going to be the last lap of the session, the man with chequered flag is already unfurling it. The driver’s pit signal reads “1 min. Place 9, 42.0”. There is one minute left, they are already three places out, but no matter, and 1 min 42.0 secs is needed for pole. The driver comes by again, really flying under the chequered flag. The Olivetti timing read-out says 1 min 42.329 secs. Three tenths of a second off pole-position; third place on the grid.

The whole team relax visibly and start to clear up the mess of the frantic work. They are hot and sweaty and filthy, but it was all worth it, the driver didn’t really let them down, he never does. The car arrived back at the pit. It is 2.05 pm and the pole-position man is being interviewed by the media-men. The driver gets out and takes off his helmet; he shrugs. “I am sorry.” he says to the team manager and his engineers; he thanks the mechanics and apologises to them for not getting pole-position. ‘1 am sure the car could have done it, if we had had two goes at it”. There are smiles everywhere. Everyone had done their best, it had been an incredible example of team work, which is what Grand Prix racing is really all about, and something which so few of us are privileged to watch at close quarters. The engine?  Renault. The team? Lotus. The driver? Ayrton Senna da Silva, from Brazil.

— D.S.J.

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