You Want Fast? Check Out The Dynamos in the Pits

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KATE NOBLEAll team sports are similar in at least one respect: success or failure depends not only on the dazzling performance of highly paid stars, but also on the unseen heroics of less handsomely rewarded team members. In Formula One it is the drivers who earn the kudos and the cash. But while the personalities on the podium are spraying the champagne, the guys down below in brightly colored team wear are every bit as responsible for the celebrations. The anonymous faces in the red outfits of Ferrari, the blues of Prost, the golds of Jordan and the rest of the rainbow-hued throng share in equal measure the joys--and disappointments--of the day.They are the men and women whose ingenuity and skill create the over-powered $1 million machines that scream around Grand Prix circuits at 300 km/h. The Formula One racing car is a constantly evolving machine, with designers and engineers working throughout the year to win minute victories over weight, drag and the laws of physics--or win a millimeter, gain a kilo, as Frank Williams, co-owner of the Williams team, puts it. For most spectators the best display of the teamwork involved is during pit-stops, those brief flurries of frantic activity that can change the course of a race. In less time than it takes to wash one's face, the pit crew can replace four $600-a-piece tires, pump 70 liters of unleaded performance fuel into the tank at a rate of 12 liters a second and even wipe the driver's visor.For many of the teams the 1999 car, to be rolled out at the Australian Grand Prix next March, is already three months into development, while the 1998 car is still being pushed to give its maximum in this season's final race. The basic design of a racing car has to conform to 182 specifications laid down by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the sport's governing body. But the designers constantly try to out-think the FIA to get the maximum advantage from minimum changes. This thoroughbred of automotive skill is built from more than 7,000 parts, half of them in the engine and virtually all individually crafted for this year's model. Only about 10% of the chassis design is carried over from one year to the next. During the course of the season, around 25% of the components will be re-designed as well.In charge of creating the new cars, and updating this year's model, are the teams' technical directors. They coordinate all the elements, from engineering through aerodynamics to computerized control systems. You can spot them by the look of intense concentration as they stand on the pit-lane walls during races, scrutinizing the computer screens that tell them, via telemetry from the 100 sensors inside the car, how each machine is performing as it tears around the circuit. They are the ones who make the split-second decisions on whether to alter the pre-arranged race plan if some element needs changing. Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn's decision to change pit-stop strategy at this year's Hungarian Grand Prix confused the opposition and gained valuable points for Michael Schumacher.Only since Brawn arrived at Ferrari in 1996 has the Italian car attained enough speed and reliability to enable Schumacher to mount a serious challenge for the world championship. And the arrival at McLaren in mid-1997 of former Williams designer Adrian Newey, a man described by Williams as probably without peer, provided the extra input to give the car and its Ilmor-built Mercedes engine the right combination of power and consistency to make it the best entry on the 1998 grid.When the car finally gets on to the track, it is down to the driver--whose pulse rate can hit 190 during a race, and who will lose 1.5 liters of body fluid in temperatures of up to 50C while being subjected to four and a half times the force of gravity on corners, with the engine screaming behind his head at 120 decibels--to get the car from starting grid to checkered flag in the fastest time possible. And when he looks down from the podium through the mist of champagne, he'll know whom to thank.With reporting by Greg Burke/Maranello