As technologically advanced as race cars are nowadays, their success or failure ultimately hangs on the human element. From a driver making a mistake to an engineer drafting a bad strategy or a supplier machining a faulty part, it takes outright excellence across the board to succeed at the highest levels of motorsport. Nowhere else is this more visible than in the pit stops of the greatest and most grueling race of all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
It's not hard to imagine how challenging endurance racing really is. Typically all you have to do is look at the duration of the race; four, six, 12, or 24 hours. The longer the race, the more challenging it is. What is hard to conceive is the physical and mental toll that these long races take on team members. It's something that has to be seen to be believed, and that's exactly what I had the chance to do at the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans.
I joined Cadillac Racing for its long-awaited return to Le Mans after a 20-year hiatus and was able to witness the inner workings of an organization with a legitimate shot at the overall win. Chip Ganassi Racing, the team responsible for fielding two of the three Cadillac Hypercars, is no stranger to winning on debut. It did so back in 2016 when it won the LMGTE Pro class with the Ford GT.
"These guys will be here all 24 hours ready to go every 20 to 30 minutes and spring into action in the case of an unforeseen stop," five-time Le Mans class winner Oliver Gavin said to me as he pointed at the No. 3 Cadillac crew. "They'll have food delivered and do their best to get some sleep in short increments throughout the race."
Gavin was my chaperone for the entire race weekend; though I believe he probably thought the arrangement was closer to babysitting than chaperoning. The British racing driver is one of the most accomplished endurance racers in the world, having secured 51 race wins with Corvette Racing alone, five IMSA championships, five American Le Mans championships, and that's on top of his five Le Mans wins. Oh, and he's 50 years old. The guy apparently really likes the number five.
Walking with Gavin into the Cadillac garage along the main straight of the Circuit de la Sarthe was like walking into a Vatican restaurant with the Pope. Everyone said hello, high-fived him, or simply came up to have a chat. Once his admirers were gone—most of them former colleagues from previous General Motors racing efforts—Gavin led me through the garage of the No. 3 Cadillac and asked me to stay put.
At that point, we were just two or three hours into the 24-hour race, but the way the garage was arranged was completely different than the day before. The mood was too. On Friday, I witnessed how Cadillac, Ganassi, GM Powertrain, and Dallara hustled to fix the No. 3 after it caught fire during qualifying on Thursday evening. It was a monumental task, one that you can read about here. But now, with the cars on the track, the mechanics getting some rest, and the engineers fixated on their monitors, the mood was eerily chill.
"Come this way and do not cross this line right here," Gavin signed to follow him as he pointed at the thick red line painted on the floor. "PIT LANE," the line read. That's where, per the rules, the garage ended and the hot pit started. Another 30 feet past that line was the iconic race track.
Out of the three Cadillacs, you could say the No. 3 is the most popular, per se. Not only is it bright yellow and therefore very hard to miss, but it's also driven by some pretty big names: IMSA race winner Renger van der Zande, four-time IndyCar champion Sébastien Bourdais, and IndyCar's winningest active driver and 500 winner Scott Dixon. The team had just radioed the car and confirmed it was due for a pit stop, so the crew in the garage was preparing accordingly.
Like little ants working on their colony, a crew member suddenly appeared with a dolly stacked with tires. The tire ovens were just on the other side of the garage and I could feel the heat radiating off of them. Other folks began putting on their helmets and adjusting their tools in preparation for the stop. And then, in what seemed like a cheesy '70s workout video, the tire changers began doing squats and stretching exercises under the direction of the team's own personal trainer. Seeing grown men in race suits, helmets, and goggles doing squats was rather humorous.
Before long, the lollipop man was out on the box waving his sign to get the attention of the incoming driver. The No. 3 was coming in for a partial pit stop, meaning fuel and tires only, and you can watch the stop in the video below.
There are several kinds of pit stops in endurance racing. Sometimes a car will stop strictly for fuel, sometimes it'll stop just for tires, and sometimes it'll stop for both. Other times it'll also add a driver change. And those are just the planned pit stops. In some unfortunate cases, a car will limp back to the pits only to be brought into the garage and mended back to health by the crew. This might involve a full engine change or just some bodywork and it could take anywhere from a few minutes to multiple laps.
There is a very specific sequence that must happen every single time a car is called into the pits. The average pit stop for a prototype in the Hypercar class ranges from 55 to 65 seconds during the race, but the process for a pit stop begins a lap or two before the car comes in and ends once it's safely and successfully back in the race.
Box, Box, Box
"All the engineers and strategists in the garage are constantly monitoring the car as well as the pace of its rivals, and weather too," Gavin told me. "Once they consider it optimum timing, it's time to send the message to the driver."
The sequence, in Gavin's own words, goes something like this:
- Team sends pit box message to the driver
- Driver affirms pit message
- Team and driver discuss which services are needed (fuel, tires, driver change, etc.)
- Pit crew gets whatever tools or parts will be needed for the stop
- Driver prepares for the stop on the in lap, undoing FIA-approved items that may restrain them like cool shirts, drink bottles, helmet air intakes, etc.
- Driver announces it's entered the pit lane
- Driver engages pit speed limiter via the steering wheel
- Pit crew stages
- Lollipop man waves sign to help the driver spot their box
- Car stops in its marks
- Engine off
- Crew member attaches grounding cable to car's wheel to prevent static from igniting fuel fumes
- Fueling begins
- Windshield is cleaned, bodywork inspected and driver's water bottle replaced
- Driver change (if applicable)
- Refueling complete
At this point, the car is ready to leave the box and rejoin the race with fresh tires and possibly a fresh driver. Regulations do not allow other work to happen while the car is being refueled, with the exception of a driver change, driver service (water and such), or visual inspection by the team or team partners (Michelin, Dallara, GM). In the case of a full-service stop, the process then continues once the fuel nozzle is removed from the car. You can see this format in the video below, taken at 5 a.m.
- Hydraulic jacks lift the car
- Four tire mechanics equipped with two wheel guns begin tire change
- Wheel gun mechanic removes the wheel nut
- Tire changer removes old tire and presents new tire
- Wheel gun mechanic secures wheel nut
- Hydraulic jacks are lowered, triggering the hypercar's electric motor
- Lollipop man confirms safe release by lifting the sign
- Car rolls away under electric power followed by the ignition of the gas V8 engine
It's... a lot. And over the course of a 24-hour, this routine can happen about once every hour. If something goes wrong, as it did for Dixon when torrential rain hit an area of the track, the crew then has to put in additional time and effort.
As a percussionist myself, I often zero in on timing and rhythm. Everything out there usually follows a beat, and a pit stop is no different. Watch the tire changers run from one side of the car to the other, firing up their guns, and they do so in almost perfect unison. In the full stop video above where there is a driver change involved, you can hear the wheel guns go off at the same time despite it being two different people working on opposite sides of the car.
Over the course of 24 hours, I witnessed more than two dozen pit stops between the Cadillac and Corvette racing crews, and I never grew tired of watching. Especially at night, when there were fewer people around. The way the bright lights reflected off the car and the crew members' helmets made the entire scene look even more impressive.
And that's the greatest takeaway of witnessing a pit stop at Le Mans; the perfectly choreographed ballet of mechanics dancing around a car carrying tires and tools. All the while there are series officials staring at them waiting for them to make a mistake, camera crews breathing down their necks, and silly journalists like myself recording them as if it were a circus act.
The look in their eyes as they prepare for the car to come in shows pure discipline and focus, while the elation on their faces after nailing a collective job shows pure joy. It's a job that no machine could ever replace, and that's what makes it so magical. With all the technology found in today's racing industry, it still comes down to highly-skilled humans making it all click.
While Cadillac and Ganassi couldn't quite get the overall win, they still managed to get on the podium in third place with the No. 2 car. The No. 3 finished right behind in fourth. However, there was solace for GM, as Corvette Racing secured its ninth Le Mans win. Needless to say, Gavin was a happy man.
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