x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Searching for perfection

Meet Gerard Lecoq, the man who has fashioned the Toyota pit stop team into the quickest on the Formula One circuit.

Gerard Lecoq keeps Toyota's pit crew on their toes.
Gerard Lecoq keeps Toyota's pit crew on their toes.

There is no such thing as the perfect pit stop and there never will be, according to the mastermind behind the leading pit stop crew in Formula One. While a first race win still eludes them, for the last two seasons, Toyota have generally been regarded as the quickest and most consistent team when it comes to their regulation pit stops.

In all, 23 team members take part as drivers Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli come in for their customary stops, and the man barking the instructions is Frenchman Gerard Lecoq, who has been at the team for the duration of their eight years in F1. Lecoq, who had formerly spent eight years at Sauber, is Toyota's chief mechanic and, if a pit stop goes awry, which it sometimes does in F1's high-pressured situations, then the buck stops with him.

But he relishes the buzz of it. "For me, the best thing in Formula One is overtaking and, after that, the pit stops," he said. "It always makes your heart beat a little faster, although less now as there have been so many for me. "For me, the situation is simple. I have to make sure that everyone is in position and that all the guys are ready and in good condition for the pit stops." For an F1 season, this starts as early as December when Lecoq puts his team through their paces at Toyota's factory in Cologne with four weekly pit stop practice sessions.

Such is the intensity of the sessions that they are limited to just half an hour at a time. "After that, there's no point," explained Lecoq. "It becomes too hard. But the practice runs are so very important. We know that mistakes will always happen - that's human nature - but we try to put everything in place to avoid those mistakes. That's the point of the practice runs. We go over everything we can possibly envisage."

These practice sessions take place during the course of the season at the team's German factory. As well, they run through it once daily during the race weekends. During practice, the team members are primed for their race positions with their headphones on and Lecoq barks possible in-race situations over the radio to try and catch the team unawares. On the whole, the crew came through the sessions I witnessed seemingly unblemished, but a raft of shaking heads at different stages suggest they had not achieved perfection.

Such are the meticulous standards set by Toyota that those who slip up in practice are, in effect, named and shamed, with the timings of each session posted on the wall in the team's garage at the end of the session. And for Lecoq, that all goes back to his quest for pit stop perfection, a task he realises he will actually never achieve. "There is no perfect pit stop," he said. "That would mean that the gap from the car stopping to the crew starting would be zero and likewise, the gap from the crew stopping to the driver leaving the pits would be zero. But that's impossible. It's my job to get as close to zero as possible. But every time, you feel you can get better and better."

In the race itself, Lecoq effectively warms up his crew before pit stops. Team members can even be called up to do stretches while the fiery Lecoq, who could comfortably double as an archetypal sergeant major, gives them what he calls a "wake-up call". "When the pits happen, the guys will have been sitting down for a while and be a little relaxed," he said, "but it's not good being relaxed. You need a nervous energy for the pits so just before we get them going a bit."

Different characteristic traits lend themselves to different roles in the pit crew and Lecoq says he weighs up a person's pit stop potential as soon as he meets them. "For example, you would never give the gun used to change tyres to a nervous person but a nervous person still has a role to play," he said. "A nervous person lends himself perfectly to take off a tyre because it's 'bam' - a short, sharp burst of energy.

"A gun guy needs to be someone very cool and relaxed, while the lollipop man [who waves the driver off at the end of a pit stop] needs to be cool as well but also to be all seeing, a nosy sort of person, perhaps." The lollipop man is the key figure in the 23-man team and the one that decides when Glock or Trulli are free to return to the track. As for the breakdown of the rest of the team, there are five men working on refuelling, part of which is made up of a reserve refuelling crew in case the initial equipment fails, as it did at this year's Belgian Grand Prix.

There are then three men on each wheel - one working the gun to release the wheel nut, one to remove the used tyre and another to put on the new tyre. There is a jack man at the front and back, with another jack man on the side in case the front wing needs changing for whatever reason, and two other team members to adjust the front-wing flap if required. At present, the quickest a pit stop can be done is in about six seconds, depending on the amount of fuel required. In the first second, the jack man will lift up the car while the four wheel nuts are removed.

In the second second, the old tyres are removed while the driver's visor is wiped. A second later, a new tyre is fitted, by which stage any wing tweaks will have already completed. In the fourth second, the wheel nuts are put back on and, the following second, the gun men's hands go out to signal the all-clear on their particular tyre and the jack is released. The remaining time is spent on refuelling - at least it will be for this last race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Refuelling will be banned for next season by the sport's governing body, the FIA.

What that means for crews next year is even faster pit stops. "There is less margin for error next season," says Lecoq," which will mean there is more pressure and therefore more chance of mistakes," he said. "So we have to be better prepared. And now the job of the crew is even harder and more dangerous. For example, the lollipop man has to look even more with eyes on the four wheels the whole time rather than just the refuelling rig and the rear jack."

Lecoq will be working to ensure an unblemished record, a virtually impossible task during the course of the season but one he feels the team nearly achieved this year. Lecoq clearly has a passion for his role in F1. "It's just so exciting and it's pretty cool," he explained. "There's danger in it all as well, and you know that things can go wrong and things can happen. They haven't for me but they can and perhaps that's also part of the buzz. All that matters is that I get the drivers away cleanly and secondly as quickly as we can. But sadly, we'll never get it just right."