INSIGHT: The art of the perfect IndyCar pit stop

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: The art of the perfect IndyCar pit stop

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: The art of the perfect IndyCar pit stop

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While all this is going on, the drivers out on the track have a broad idea of what their pit windows are going to be, but with everyone along pit lane eavesdropping on everyone else’s radios, some smoke and mirrors come into play as the crew count down towards the moment that they issue the instruction to come in.

SIMON PAGENAUD: There’s a lot of gamesmanship. The team will wait until the last minute to call you into the pits. Everybody is scanning each other’s radios, so if you want to do an undercut, for example, you need to make sure that nobody’s aware that you’re going to do it so that you can be the first one to jump. “Undercut” meaning that when you go back out on track, everybody else is on old tires and you are on new tires, so now you get one lap where you are two seconds faster, and you make so much time. Then when you come out of the pits they’re on cold tires and you’re on hot tires, so you make even more time. It could turn out to be five seconds’ gain, which is huge. On the overcut side it’s not quite the same, because you’re seeing people pitting in front of you.

TREVOR LACASSE: Typically, we won’t jump until Ron (Ruzewski, Power’s strategist) actually calls Will on the radio because you’ve got other teams listening to what you’re doing. As soon as Ron tells him, “OK, pit now,” that’s our cue. And that’s what I’ve told my guys — either you’re going to cue off of me jumping off the wall, or when Ron says to pit, then we’re clear to jump over because at that point what we’re doing is public knowledge.

MARCUS ERICSSON: Usually you want to know a little bit earlier than, like, a corner before pit entry, because then you can use push-to-pass. I always try to use push-to-pass on an in-lap when I know I’m pitting – you can gain a few tenths from that.

FELIX ROSENQVIST: They try not to say too much on the radio, so you kind of have a little code word that indicates that you have one lap before you come in. And that whole lap, especially if the guy in front of you is trying to undercut you and get clear air, you have to do a massive lap. You have to basically burn as much push-to-pass as you can, because you’re fighting the other guy and he’s in the pits and you’re on the track, so you really try to maximize it, take everything out of the tires.

Then you come to the point where you need to come into the pits. At Laguna Seca, you’re coming off Turn 10 and then you’re veering into the pits, and you can make up a lot of lap time under braking. That brake zone… you don’t get a lot of practice; it’s kind of a slippery area and you only have five or six times in a weekend where you’re actually committing 100%. So it’s a bit of a guess. You really need to work out a reference or work with the engineers to figure out where you want to brake, because you don’t want to stuff it into the wall on pit entry.

All the pit entries are different, too. At Laguna Seca you have one braking zone, then you have a little corner, then you have the line. It’s hard to make up 0.4s on the track, but in that section, you can make 0.4s, 0.5s easily.

SIMON PAGENAUD: You want to gain as much time as you can in the braking zone on the way to the line, but if you blow it, it’s such a huge penalty that your race is over. It’s a tricky one to balance, and some drivers will go over. I’m a driver who always tries to be at 99, not 100, because it’s too big of a penalty.

WILL POWER: There’s always that fine line as you’re approaching the line — do you want to gain a tenth or risk a speeding penalty? So you kind of play for that nice spot in between. It’s the same thing with hitting your marks. You can gain a ton of time on the way in, and then slide long and lose a couple of seconds. Or you can lose a little bit, but make sure you hit your marks and gain that way. So you’re playing that risk vs reward, depending on your situation. If you’ve got a massive lead, why take the risk?

Once Felix Roseqnvist gets the call to come in, he focuses on mashing the push-to-pass button and squeezing out whatever life is left in his tires before heading onto pit road. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

SIMON PAGENAUD: As you get to the pit sequence you start breathing a bit more to relax, to get your heart rate down, because you’re about to have the most excruciating 10 laps of the race. You’re basically qualifying again inside the race for 10 laps.

The team calls you in, and usually you can reset your anti-roll bar positions for the new tires that are coming up. When you get to the end of a stint the tires will wear and usually you need to have the rear bar at full-soft and the front bar at full-stiff because the rears are gone, so you’re trying to give some stability to the car. Going to new tires, it’s going to be so much different — you gain so much rear grip that you need to readjust the anti-roll bar position. So you might readjust by four positions on the rear, back down three positions on the front, and reset.

So you’re doing that a few corners before pit in. And then some drivers will also play with the brake balance. Some pit lanes are more slippery than others, and in some pit lanes you need to go rearward on the brake balance to avoid locking the fronts and sliding into the mechanics. You do that at the latest moment possible so that it doesn’t bother you on-track.

MARCUS ERICSSON: You can play with your bars if you have time — you can change your bars for pit-in. I don’t do that a lot; I focus more on the pure driving side of things. Usually when I’m in the pit lane and on the pit speed limiter I change my bars so I have them ready for the next stint.

SIMON PAGENAUD: You can also adjust engine settings, throttle maps… Fuel mixture as well, depending on how much power you want to use. That’s usually based on the team telling you, or you can decide yourself — I usually know what I have and do it myself.

WILL POWER: Sometimes you’re making adjustments in the car. Sometimes you’ll get a drink. Sometimes the strategist will be calling you down, saying, ‘We’re going to go to this tire, we’re going to do a tear-off…’.

FELIX ROSENQVIST: Then when you’re going into pit lane, you’ve got a while to breathe, and just think about your actual pit stop. Which is pretty tricky as well — some tracks, like Laguna Seca, have pretty tight pit boxes, so the car that’s parked previous to you… you have to really brush his tire that is standing there if he’s also preparing to do a pit stop. Then you immediately swing around the other way, and if you nail that, it’s just about enough for you to get square into your box. Normally at tracks like this you can arrive a little bit crooked, which is not optimal, and that’s where lap time can start to go away quickly. If you’re a bit crooked, pit exit becomes a bit tricky… all those things add up very quickly. 

SIMON PAGENAUD: Once you’re in pit lane, some tracks are easier than others. You’re looking for your board, so you recognize where your timing stand is… and remember, at this point your heart rate is about 180, 190, you’re already breathing really heavy, so you need to recover so that everything in your mind is working right. Sometimes people making mistakes in pit lane is because you went over the line of what you can physically do, and you’re not as “present.” Dehydration, heat… you have to be in check with all that.

WILL POWER: That’s a big thing, making sure you don’t miss your box. Over the weekend you pick banners or flags, or put tape on the wall, and you use those to get your bearings. It’s harder at some tracks than others, like if you’re in the middle of the pitlane and there a not many (visual) references, like Iowa. I often look at the numbers around me, so I’ll think, ‘Oh, Rahal is there,’ so I know when I see their number then I know it’s this number, then this number, then it’s mine.”

At this point, the sequence arrives at one of the moments that define the success — or otherwise — of the entire stop: how accurately the driver hits their marks.

TREVOR LACASSE: Oh my God, that is everything.

JOSH JUNGE: Working with a veteran is… I don’t want to say it’s a breeze, but it is definitely a luxury compared to working with somebody that you have to constantly work on as far as them hitting their marks, or the speed at which they come in. I fully appreciate Graham (Rahal) as the seventh member of our pit stop team, because he truly is. He’s the seventh guy that’s over the wall, and everything that he does is just as important as what we do out there.

TREVOR LACASSE: For a driver to be a bit long on his marks, that’s OK because you can follow him through. But a driver that’s short that costs you time, because you’ve got to basically reset. Going long, you can try to pull it with you a little bit, because for the most part both front tire changers and the inside rear changer are usually on the nut before the car’s actually stopped.

A driver who stops right on their marks is a driver with a happy chief mechanic. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

SIMON PAGENAUD: You see your board, the team counts you down “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” — which doesn’t do much, really, it’s just a reminder that you’re getting close — and then it’s all about carrying enough speed into the box, because there’s a lot of lap time there, too. Going from 45 to zero, or 60 to zero… it’s very important. You could lose half a second right there. But you could also lose a lot if you slide, so again, a big balance adjustment.

It’s easy to fail the process. There’s a list of things that you need to go through. I like the team to remind me of everything like we do in sports cars, because I think it’s the best way to avoid a mistake. But, you know, pit lane speed, a reminder that pit lane is slippery, a reminder to go into neutral…

FELIX ROSENQVIST: They talk to you a bit on the pit lane – “think about your marks, think about your brake bias, your tools…” – but in the pit stop they try to be quiet because you’re focused on just reacting and looking at your guys. So they don’t really want to talk too much.

I always look at my fueler in the mirror, so when I see he pulls (the probe) out, I’m getting into first gear and getting ready to go, just to react a little bit quicker. So that’s a very tense moment. But when you’re just driving in pit lane you can breathe a little bit. It’s the only time in the race where you can’t really make any lap time.

SIMON PAGENAUD: I’m looking at my crew chief, basically. You can have lights on your steering wheel to tell you when the fuel probe is in and out, and that helps you to react quicker.

Mike Shank talks to me and tells me to stay in neutral, rev the engine, select first gear, go, watch your outside or stay inside. We use two lanes, so if someone is on the outside you’ve got to stay on the inside, so you’ve got to be aware of your environment. And the timing stand helps you with that.

WILL POWER: You’re holding the clutch with your hand close to first waiting for those fuel lights to go out so you can grab first and go. And the strategist will talk you through whether someone is on your outside, or if you’re clear.

TREVOR LACASSE: It’s a lot going on there, because you’re on an open intercom system with the timing stand, so you got those guys talking; you know, like Ron will tell me, “It’s a slow outside rear,” or whatever. “We had a bad plug-in there so it’s going be a second,” you know, keeping his eyes on you as well, telling you the play while you’re working. So when you stand up, you’re not surprised by something, or you know the area to look for or whatever. So there’s a lot that goes on in those six seconds, from the strategist talking to you, making sure everybody’s done and you got a clear hole to merge into…

FELIX ROSENQVIST: It’s actually one of the most tense moments of the race focus-wise, but physically… these cars are heavy to drive, and every lap out there you’re fighting the car a lot. So physically, you get to rest a little bit. But not mentally. The focus is always there.

TREVOR LACASSE: You put a lot of trust in your jack guy. He’s your eyes on the tires. So my cue… If the car’s on the ground we’re good to go there, and then I’m watching the fueler; kind of bouncing the eyes between the fueler and having a gander down pit lane to make sure you’re not sending (the driver) into anybody or into traffic. But as soon as I see the fueler pull, that’s usually my cue to send him.

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