x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Lights, gizmos, action

The debut race for Australia's V8 Supercars at the Yas Marina Circuit was a showcase for the technology used in racing today.

Despite an early progress, Alex Davison, who drove an Irwin Racing car, above, came ninth with his speed petering out towards the end.
Despite an early progress, Alex Davison, who drove an Irwin Racing car, above, came ninth with his speed petering out towards the end.

When conjuring up images of a generic motor sport pit-lane, flashes of dirty, grease-streaked mechanics, fume-filled air and scattered tools of every variety spring to mind. But in the multibillion-dirham surroundings of Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit, the debut race weekend of Australia's V8 Supercars provided another perspective: a techno-savvy world where gadgets, gizmos and technicians dictate proceedings as much as the on-track cars.

At first glance, the pit area of the leading V8 team owners Stone Brothers Racing resembled a beehive of activity. People were everywhere. Team personnel shuffled methodically from station to station, silently carrying out their duties. The tasks, conducted individually, all came together collectively in time for the green light. Senior staff hunched round the monitors, examining multicoloured screens detailing in-car temperatures and pressures for engine, oil, differentials, gear box and coolant. There were lights and displays to indicate position and time updates per sector and dedicated computers to determine lap time predictions.

The start of the race, the first in a 15-event season, was a hyper-nervous affair. In V8s, a category where car-to-car contact is the norm, no one wants an outing cut short: being a first lap casualty is the ultimate in costly, embarrassing and frustrating misfortune. Thankfully, Ross and Jimmy Stone's two cars got away relatively unscathed. As the 20-year-old wunderkind Shane van Gisbergen in the SP Tools car and Alex Davison in the Irwin Racing car made an early progress, the camp was buzzing.

"You need to step back, son," said Dave Stewart, the team's manager. Stewart, who is known for his post-race ear-bashings, or "Dave's raves" as I am informed, is clearly under pressure. Controlling the fortunes of the cars, as well as the communication between team and cockpit, is not an easy job. Wisely, I stepped away from his front-row seat. The first 10 or so laps flew by and it was not long before I got a nudge telling me that the cars would soon be pitting. As the owner 'Rossco's' all-encompassing eyes surveyed the monitors, intermittently scanning his worker bees, he suddenly moved over to the sidewall which splits the pit from the home straight. It was then, as he diligently signed his approaching car into the right hangar as it scuttled down the pit-lane, that the real action began.

During a regular pit-stop, the number of crew is infinitely more controlled and countable than pre-race. There were two tyre men - one for each side of the car - a jack man, a fuel pump holder, a fuel rig operator, someone in charge of the fire extinguisher, a tapeman to carry out cosmetic repairs if needed, and the unfortunate front stock board holder - a man who stands in front of the parking markings, where the approaching car is supposed to stop.

Armed with little more than a thin metal sheet to signal the driver's final resting spot, this hearty team member - surely the bravest of them all - must stand, completely still, as the V8 comes to a halt. I felt for his shins as the V8 went from 60kph to zero in a nanosecond. Eight unsung heroes, scurried about determinedly, knowing one lapse in concentration could cost their driver and team the race. It was frenetic, heart-in-the-mouth stuff. Utterly exhilarating.

What strikes most about the pit-stop is the speed of everything: it was breakneck. The car entered, was jacked up hydraulically, the fuel nozzle went in, the tyres, reaching temperatures of 90°C, came off, flipped through the cavernous legs of their handlers, a new set went on, arms going up to signal job done - it was rapid. The only pause, and it was brief, was for the fuel. When the refuelling was over, the nozzle was withdrawn, the jack deactivated and the car - tyres already spinning - reared off as the scent of burning rubber filled the air. The entire process was slick and professional; the result of hundreds of hours of practice and drills.

When a pit stop goes too long, the feeling of dread is all-consuming. Seconds mean everything and spending an additional sixth of a minute in the pits ends races. A bad pit stop is followed by shakes of the head; a good one gets nothing. In the up and down world of V8s, where a driver's race can be ended through no fault of his own, perfection in the pits is the minimum requirement. And then it was back to the monitors, screens and information overload. Initial concerns of whether the cold rubber would lock and skim - meaning another trip to the pits - were suppressed as a full lap was completed. The pressure though, remained constant. Stewart was up and down every lap. He walked or jogged - never ran - to the edge of the hangar to relay fresh news and tactics to the drivers as they rumbled down the home straight. Conducted via radio communication, Stewart did not have to move. Blinded from view by the track-wall, I wondered if he just liked getting as close to his drivers as possible as they raced past him.

The race went well. Van Gisbergen rallied in the final stages to finish sixth - he came third, his maiden podium, in the second race a day later - while Davison came ninth despite his speed petering out towards the end. Job one done for Stone Brothers and company: 14 more await, starting this weekend in Bahrain.