McLaren practice their pitstops - Melbourne 2012

First practice hasn’t even started here in Melbourne, but we’ve already had a taster of who has an advantage in 2012. The F1 teams were putting their pitstop crews through their paces this morning, and what I saw was fascinating.

Last season, Mercedes got the jump on its rivals by running wheel nuts attached to their wheel rims. During a pitstop, their wheel guns simply loosened the nut on the wheel to allow the wheel, wheel rim and nut to be removed as one unit, and replaced by another, with the gun then used to simply tighten the attached nut. The system completely removed any chance of a wheel nut coming loose and falling out of a gun when removed, and helped Mercedes record the fastest average pitstop time of the season.

It is thus interesting to note who has copied the technology for 2012.

From what I could see this morning, only two teams have taken Mercedes’ lead, and will use attached wheel nuts in 2012. Those teams are Red Bull Racing and Lotus.

Red Bull's attached wheel nut - Melbourne 2012

Red Bull were trialling the technology throughout winter testing, but struggled to get on top of it. In Barcelona I noticed the team having big problems with the rear nuts and the manner in which they were attached to the rim. The technology does, of course, have the capability to go wrong. Should a nut become cross threaded, the whole set of four tyres would need to be changed, and that will cost a huge amount of time. Any issues with the manner in which the nuts are attached to the rim would thus increase the potential for cross threading.

Red Bull’s solution is an interesting one, as the nuts seem to be far more loosely attached than either the Mercedes or Lotus versions. As you can see, the nuts almost seem to be hanging out of the rim.

The Lotus rim - Melbourne 2012

Lotus’ solution is much more subtle than either Red Bull or Mercedes, with a small nut seemingly forming part of the rim itself.This would appear to be backed up by a much smaller wheel gun being used than at any other team.

The Mercedes attached nut - Melbourne 2012

As for Mercedes, the team looks to have stayed with a similar design to last season. With the teams agreeing between themselves to ban the use of helium in wheel guns, however, pit stops were expected to become slower this season.

From what I saw this morning, it hasn’t affected Mercedes. Not one bit. Because the times that I recorded down in the Mercedes box were sub 2 seconds. My stopwatch read 1.9 seconds. More than once. Red Bull meanwhile were averaging between 2.5 and 3 seconds.

Right now, Mercedes look to be the team to beat in the pits. With a year of experience under their belts with the system of attached wheel nuts, they are the team everyone will be aiming to beat this year. With pitstops so crucial to determining race position, getting this technology right could make the difference between a podium and a win. Getting it wrong, however, could prove disastrous. It is thus interesting that, of the expected top order, only Red Bull Racing has opted to go down this route. More interesting still is that the other two teams using this technology are those widely expected to challenge the established order in 2012.