Quick Chat with Mark Winterbottom and Steve Richards

With the endurance races not far off Ford Performance Racing has increased its focus on all things unique to Sandown and Bathurst. One important element to success is a quick and efficient driver change. Mark Winterbottom and Steve Richards took time out from driver change practice to give a firsthand view on how to get it right…

Steve Richards and Mark Winterbottom during the driver swap session earlier this year

If you are the driver coming into pit lane about to get out of the car when do you start preparing to exit the car and what are the steps to actually exit the car once it has stopped?
Winterbottom: It starts about half a lap from the stop when you get the call on the radio to pit. At that point you disconnect your helmet fan and Velcro the hose to the roof. Once you get to pit lane you loosen your belts, roll bar and brake balance positions get changed for the next driver so all he has to focus on is doing up the belts and driving out of pit lane. The main part is to pull the radio out just before you stop as it is the last thing that connects you to the car so that has to be out to stop any unwanted delays. You unplug that and Velcro it to the helmet as the car stops. You then release the belts and drop the window net and try and get out in one smooth motion which includes pulling your seat insert out with you. Ideally three seconds is what we allow to exit the car once it’s stopped. That allows the driver getting in the maximum amount of time as he is the priority and needs as much time as possible to settle him as any discomfort may inhibit his performance.

Obviously the process is very different for the driver waiting to get in the car. Where does it start for him?
Richards: The driver waiting to get in will be ready in the pits with helmet on around 15 laps prior to being scheduled to get in. You’re ready so far in advance as that is where the pit window usually opens as if anything happens to change the strategy it could mean the stop comes much earlier than planned. We will have our helmet connected to the radio in the garage so we know what is going on as an incident or weather may necessitate an earlier stop. It is really all about preparation and not being rushed. You don’t want to get to a situation where all the practice and everything you’ve done to make the change as good as it can be are undone because you are panicked. Once the call comes you wait at the edge of the garage with your seat insert watching the car come down pit lane. Once it stops you go through the motions – pretty much the reverse of what Frosty said – and hope everything goes as practiced.

What has changed in the art of driver change over the years as the cars are a lot more complex today than in the last decade?
Richards: The cars are more complex though the category has also adapted its regulations to ensure we don’t get into a position where safety is compromised through things like restricted fuel filling. When I say that, nowadays there are more things to do as driver comfort and performance is more of a focus than it once was. What we do to fill the change time is far busier as we have helmet fans, cool suits and other things that need changing during the stop. But these all help performance and allow you to drive at 100 per cent from the start of the stint.

How important is it to have a partner you have prior knowledge of or has a lot of experience in driver changes?
Richards: It is the most important thing. You need continuity so you know how the other driver has things in the car set-up and how they drive the car so you know what changes to make to the settings of the car prior to exiting it. Throughout the practice sessions you are talking about the same things to get the best result out of the car. Familiarity and continuity is a big part of success at Sandown and Bathurst.

What is the main thing to get right in driver changes? Is there something that stands above the rest as key to a fast and clean stop?
Winterbottom: I think the priority is to not get the belts caught and twisted. It is good being fast but if you twist the belts during the change it can then slow you up as you fix the problem or make it really uncomfortable for the driver getting into the car. It is not ultimately about doing one 13 second change, but if you can regularly do 15 or 16 seconds every time you will benefit in the long run. A lot of crews put practice off due to the bruises and bumps you get but you just have to get on with it. If you make a mistake you have to deal with it for the next 30 laps or so and if you are not comfortable for that amount of time at Bathurst you are going to know all about it.