Mission control: A tour of an F1 pit perch

Will Gray

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Sitting directly across from each team’s pit garage, six engineers occupy canopied platforms containing six seats - light-heartedly nicknamed ‘prat perches’ – and whenever the cars are out on track this is the most important place in the pits.

Technical director Mark Smith often occupies one of those seats and he explains: “For the races that I’m at, on the Friday and Saturday sessions I am on pit wall along with the chief engineer, two race engineers, the team principal and the team manager.

“On the Sunday, I move into an alcove in the garage, with the same information, same intercom access and same communications channels as the guys on the pit wall, but we put our strategist on pit wall so he’s with the race engineers and chief engineer during the race.

“He’s basically in the truck office for the Friday and Saturday, but for the race it’s good to have the strategist out there.”

The engineers sit in front of a bank of data screens, provided by sponsor Dell, which can supply a huge range of different information, from the global TV feed to specific car telemetry data about areas that can help monitor potential problems.

Typically, the different engineers watch a similar but slightly different selection of data feeds.

“I don’t run any telemetry on the pit wall, basically because there are specialists to do that,” says Smith. “The race engineers or the performance engineers, who sit in the truck, are far more focused on that so it’s almost pointless for me to be looking at that.

“I have the TV, all the standard stuff, and then we run our own race timing and monitoring software, so I open up various screens from that, some of which is duplicated with the FIA information but some is far more detailed.

“I look specifically at tyre degradation, which I can analyse for our car and for any other car too. That basically involves looking at lap times and it has to make assumptions about fuel level, which is a little bit more meaningless in the early sessions but once people start doing long runs it makes a bit more sense.

“I also look at straight line speed through the speed traps, to get a feeling for the aero level we’re running, segment times and ideal lap times that the drivers might have been able to achieve.

“The team principal has probably got a similar screen set-up to me, but the race engineers will be looking at telemetry.

“The chief engineer has very little time to look at telemetry in detail - he may have it just as an overview of tyre temperatures and so on - but the race engineers are always monitoring that closely.”

There is so much telemetry information coming off the car, however, that the engineers cannot follow everything - so there is a huge group of other engineers staring at screens behind the garage walls and even back at the team’s base in Leafield, keeping tabs on specific areas and communicating back to the six men on pit wall.

“There are various communications channels that we have and then the engineers in the garage will have their own channels too,” says Smith.

“For instance, the head of the controls group is based in the office in the truck and he’s got the telemetry guys in the garage feeding information through to him. He’s making the final calls on anything chassis related, primarily gearbox, and then feeds through to us. Same with the engines guys and KERS guys.

“On pit wall, there’s a channel that allows myself, the team principal, chief engineer and team manager to talk to each other without disturbing the race engineers, so we can discuss various options of strategy, and then the chief engineer can communicate that to the race engineers.

“Even back at the factory, in the operations room, we don’t have a dummy pit wall but we basically have stations, a wall with monitors –all the timing monitors and TV channels – and they are also in communication with the race track.”

So with all this remote communication and so many engineers involved, why do the six most crucial members of the team still sit perched on stools, exposed, right next to the racetrack?

“We could get the information anywhere, but being close to the car, particularly when the car comes into the pits, enables you to make, on occasion, quicker decisions than you otherwise would be able to make,” explains Smith.

“It’s just you’re more aware. You see with your own eyes the issues the guys may have with the pit stops and if there is some problem that needs addressing, it may be someone is required to come off pit wall and go to the car. That’s not the most efficient way of doing things, but it happens - it happened to us in Montreal actually, when the team manager came across to take control for the stop-go.

“It’s a far more tenuous link than it ever was because of the amount of information that is coming off the car and can go anywhere. But it still needs to be fairly local because there are still potential communications issues. So for the time being I think there is a requirement for us to still be up there on pit wall.”

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