- GP Week
Let's get truckin'
Abhishek Takle recently spent a grand prix Friday embedded in the Force India pits, getting a new perspective on life as an F1 truckie...
The car barrels down the pit lane towards him at 80 kilometres per hour, a relatively sedate speed for a Formula One car, but still quick enough to put your heart in your mouth when it's heading straight for you.
The driver hits the brakes just metres before he comes to a stop, seeking to minimise the time loss, and gently nudges the front jack, stopping on his marks.
Force India's Chris Smith, anonymous among the crew of 20-odd people servicing the car in their fireproof overalls and faceless in their standard issue helmets, lifts the front of the car up onto the jacks, watching the front tyre men, waiting for them to raise their hands and give him the 'all clear' signal.
Once he has it, Smith drops the car back onto the tarmac with just enough time to get himself and his jack out of the way as the lollipop man raises the lollipop and the car shoots out of the box, the trailing edges of the front wing mere centimetres away from him.
It's a perfectly choreographed dance, rehearsed over and over again, but however many times the team may practice it, no two pit stops are the same.
"Every race is totally different and if we're in the middle of a gang and we want to get out quick, it's determination to get that car released quicker than the other cars," Smith tells GPWeek in the Force India hospitality unit over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend.
Given the speed of pit stops today, this burst of activity for all its intensity is over in a little over two seconds, real blink- and-you-miss-it stuff, and shaving off vital milliseconds from the duration of a stop can be crucial in a close race and can gain or lose you places on the track.
Not only does the driver have to hit the marks just right, leaving his braking as late as he possibly can, but Smith has to anticipate when the car will stop, and get the jack under it without leaving any time on the table.
This is equally true when the car exits the pit box, and the time loss between the car being dropped from the jacks, the lollipop being raised, and Smith getting out of the way has to be minimised, leaving as tiny a margin as possible. As a result, things can sometimes get a little too close, the margins a little too fine, for comfort.
"First race in India," Smith recalls, casting his mind back to one of the closest calls he's had as a front jack man. "I have a good communication with my lollipop man but I dropped the car and he released the car at exactly the same time. Looking at the footage afterwards, it became clear that I only just got out of the way in time.
"Yeah, it's close but that's the job. It's good," Smith says with the casual air of someone who has come close to having a supermarket trolley run over his leg let alone a 800 horsepower thoroughbred racing car capable of accelerating to a hundred clicks in under three seconds.
A garage technician at Force India and part of an army of mechanics, crew and engineers that form the backbone of any F1 team - an army that keeps a team on its feet - Smith started out in the sport a decade ago when the outfit was run under the Jordan name as a 'truckie,' driving the team's transporter trucks from race to race, back when the calendar was not as crowded as it is now with a lot more races in Europe.
"It was good fun in those days but we had less races so it wasn't so rushed to get from A to B and back to the factory and turn things around," Smith, who hails from a motorsport family and whose parents, uncle, aunt and relatives have all been involved in motorsport, says. "It was a lot easier.
"But now there's three or four more races these days, we don't have so much time. So we employ relief drivers to drive our trucks for us and then they wash them and look after them while we set the garage up. But, yeah, I miss the driving."
He may no longer be driving the trucks from race to race, but Smith still has a whole host of tasks to get through, apart from acting as the front jack man on race day, from setting up the pit gantries and the garages to looking after the fuel bowsers that pump fuel into the cars to packing up all of the equipment after a race.
"We fly on a Monday and we start work Tuesday morning setting everything up and by Wednesday afternoon, the garage is completely ready for when everybody turns up Thursday morning. Then Thursday is just finish prepping the cars up and just get everything ready for when the visitors turn up - Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And then I just get my fuel bowsers ready to start using on the car so we can fire up Thursday. That's it really."
It's a tough slog, one that demands long hours (the FIA actually had to introduce a six hour curfew as part of the rules a few years ago to stop teams working through the night), long periods of time on the road away from family and friends and one that's gotten even more hectic over the last few years as the calendar has swelled to bursting with ever more races in far-flung locations.
None of the work involves the glamour that spectators tend to associate with Formula One and Smith is part of a group of people, a gang of unsung heroes, who quietly tinker away in the background, getting dirt and grease under their fingernails.
Watching Smith in the garage during the second practice session at Suzuka, for instance, he works to what may look like a monotonous routine - filling the car up with the planned amount of fuel, logging the exact amount of fuel put in for each run, polishing the car, detaching the fuel hose, and polishing the floor to scrub it clean of the rubber left by the tyres once the car exits the garage.
The same routine is repeated every time the car comes in after its run but for all the monotony, Smith's tasks are no less crucial than that of the race engineers on the pit wall in making sure the car is 100 percent ready to go out onto track.
"There's hard times and there's good times," Smith says. "When you've got the time then we'll go out and have a good play. If we have an early night, we'll go out, have a bit of fun, chill out and be ready for the next day. But if there's a bit to do, then we'll be in early, get it all done, ready for the circuit, ready to go out on Friday morning.
"When it's got to be done, we'll get it done."