Red Bull’s Formula 1 team may not have won the constructors’ or drivers’ championship this season, but it did prove its mastery of what happens in pit row. At the German Grand Prix in July, its pit crew set a record stop time, swapping out the car’s tires in 1.88 seconds. Then in November in Brazil, it reset the record, doing the deed in 1.82 seconds. Only one other team, Williams, has cracked the two-second mark this year.
Even if Red Bull sets yet another record at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend, the last race of 2019, it won’t be as cool as the midair pit stop it pulled off recently. That one took place inside an Ilyushin II-76 MDK cosmonaut training plane—the Russian equivalent of what Americans call the “vomit comet”—and in zero gravity.
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In a sport where races are often won by a few seconds, minimizing the time the car spends off the track is vital. Crews may wear fireproof suits instead of leotards, but their performances are as choreographed as any ballet. Take away gravity, though, and you make a mess of all those practiced movements. “We thought it would be the same,” says Mark “Wincey” Willis, a Red Bull Racing support team coordinator. “We never realized how different it would be.”
This idea for this stunt—from the same company that sent its car up a snow-covered ski slope and over the salt flats of Argentina—had been kicking around for three years. But it was only recently that the timing, permissions, and logistics worked out. Instead of the current car, which Red Bull does its best not to damage, the team went flying with a racer from 2005, which also fit better in the aircraft.
Typically used to train folks going into space, the Ilyushin flies a giant parabola, providing 20 seconds or so of weightlessness at a time, between 45-degree climbs and descents. The crew spent their first few cycles on the basics, adjusting to the rapidly changing g forces and learning how to move while floating. Even simple movements are different without the influence of gravity: Stand up with too much energy and you fire yourself into the ceiling. Good thing they had plenty of tries. The 14 crew members (downsized from the standard 20) took seven flights, with about a dozen up-and-down cycles each time. Through trial and error, they adjusted to the alien environment.
That was just the basics, the stuff any old astronaut can handle. Next came figuring out how to do their jobs in an environment where working a drill can send you spinning in circles as easily as the lug nut. In a pit stop on Earth, four “wheel gunners” attack the tires, using a pneumatic wrench to pop off the wheel’s single lug nut; one tire carrier pulls off the used donut, another pops the fresh one on, and the gunner sticks the lug nut back on. The jack men drop the car back onto the ground, the stabilizers let go of the car they’ve been holding in place, and the driver peels away.
On the plane, the wheel gunners held steady by pushing their rear ends against the cabin wall. Without gravity, there was no need to lift and lower the car with a jack, nor for a driver to stop in a precise spot. (One crew member sat in the car—otherwise it would’ve looked odd).
The ability to float also made the space above the car accessible in a new way. Usually, one crew member leans over the car, holding its top to steady it as the tires fly off and on. In the Ilyushin, he flipped upside down, bracing his feet against the ceiling and holding the car from above. The tire carriers, too, went upside down, leaving more room for the wheel gunners in the tight cabin.
Another lesson: The importance of getting your feet under you before the plane pitches down and gravity returns. It was in that transition that the crew encountered the sort of issue that rarely comes up on the ground: One crew member landed on the car’s front wing, helmet first, doing a bit of damage.
Even on their smoother performances, the crew came nowhere near matching their standard two-second times, taking most of the 20 seconds they spent in zero gravity to change out the tires. “For some reason, everything moves in slow motion,” Willis says. You can’t work as quickly as you can in the environment to which your body has evolved. But the trip did change his experience of doing a traditional pit stop, in traditional gravity: “It felt boring.”
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