The tricks F1 teams have used in years past to try and gain an edge

Jon Wilde
Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren being refuelled at a pit-stop. Montreal June 2006.

Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren being refuelled at a pit-stop during the Canadian Grand Prix. Montreal June 2006.

Marc Priestley has lifted the lid on some of the tricks McLaren would get up to as they tried to eke out a competitive edge on their rivals.

Many varied factors contribute to teams’ grand prix performances and results, with every thousandth of a second making a difference.

No stone is left unturned in striving to gain an advantage and according to Priestley’s recollections, that was certainly the case at McLaren.

The 45-year-old Briton spent nearly a decade with the Woking-based team as a senior mechanic, being a part of their operations as Lewis Hamilton won the World Championship in 2008 before leaving to pursue a media career.

In the PitStop podcast, Priestley recounted some of the nuances he had experienced in the quest to make that vital little difference – starting, appropriately enough, with a pit-stop trick when refuelling was permitted.

“I’ll tell you a great little trick which is a top secret,” said Priestley.

“At the time, the fuelling nozzles, every team had the same kit, a standard bit of kit, and the rules meant you couldn’t modify it. It used to deliver fuel at 12 litres per second and as you’d connect it on, inside this giant nozzle this little butterfly valve would whir open, allowing the fuel to flow, and when you had your required amount of fuel in, this motor would whir up again, close the valve and the lights would eventually turn green and you could disconnect it.

“That used to cost you a bit of time because you’d be waiting and waiting, the fuel would have finished but you had to wait for this motorised valve inside the nozzle – you couldn’t see it – to close before you then got the green light to disconnect.

“One of our bods in the engineering office realised there was a slight delay waiting for this motor to close the valve, whereas actually there’s no fuel flowing at that point.

“What we did was get a doctor’s stethoscope with a bit in your ear, the other bit running down the sleeve of your race overalls with the little bit the doctor puts on your chest concealed in your hand so nobody could see it, and as the nozzle went on we’d hold that on the edge of the big nozzle.

“Inside that, you could hear through the stethoscope the motor starting to whir closed and you’d hear that before the lights went green. So as soon as you started to hear this whirring sound we could disconnect the nozzle. It was like a tenth of a second, but that’s enough to give you an advantage.

“Nobody could figure it out, and it was legal because we hadn’t modified the rig – nobody could see it, nobody knew it and nobody could work out how we were disconnecting fractionally before the lights had gone green.

“And it was that tucked away behind the scenes – a simple little doctor’s stethoscope.”

Photographer uncovers ‘amazing’ extra pedal trick

Priestley also told the tale of McLaren adding an extra pedal to their car to assist with accelerating out of corners.

“There was all sorts of stuff back then,” he said. “The game was pushing the boundaries.

“There was a good one just before my time, I joined in 2000. Back then you had your two pedals, accelerator and brake, and a hand clutch on the steering wheel.

“When you go into a corner, someone came up with the idea of a third pedal, an extra brake pedal tucked down in the cockpit, which as you entered a corner would apply the brakes on the inside rear wheel because when you start to spin up when you go through the corner, you start to hit the accelerator, it’s easy for that inside rear wheel to break traction. It’s unloaded at that point, it’s got less grip than the outside and as you start to apply throttle, it’s easy for that to spin, so you’ve got to be a bit more hesitant on the throttle.

“So we came up with this idea that if you press this third pedal, it would apply a tiny amount of braking on the inside rear wheel just to stop it spinning and then you could get onto the throttle a little bit earlier, so you could power out of the corner sooner.

“It was an amazing idea, nobody had thought of it before and it was secret because it was buried away in the cockpit, nobody could see the third pedal.

“Until one day, these photographers started to take pictures of the car going through a corner and all of a sudden someone noticed the right rear brake going through a right-hand corner was glowing bright red. This was on the acceleration phase – you shouldn’t even be on the brakes at that point and it’s glowing bright red, and people are starting to think ‘what’s going on here?’ And these suspicions started arousing.

“Then one day, Mika Hakkinen broke down. His car packed up at the side of the track, and one of the photographers who’d had all these suspicions came along and just out of curiosity jammed his camera down inside the cockpit after Mika had got out and left his abandoned car and just snapped a picture randomly.

“When he got it out he saw this third pedal, gradually started to figure out what had gone on and it blew the cover on this story and it got banned. The technology got banned.”

For more stories about life in the F1 pit lane, Marc Priestley’s book ‘The Mechanic’ is available for purchase.

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