It happens in a blur: in a matter of seconds, the DeltaWing team changes drivers. It's the most highly-choregraphed moment in auto racing
25 seconds of pure adrenalin rush – that’s the only way to describe one of the most pressure-packed moments in sports car racing: the driver change. Take the classic pit stop then add the carefully choreographed movements required to quickly get one driver out and another driver buckled in - and the tension goes up exponentially.
Melneciuc brought a wealth of racing experience along when he joined the DeltaWing team last summer, nearly all of it in motorcycle racing. A former rider, mechanic and owner of his own team, Melneciuc worked with some of the top motorcycle racing teams, including American Honda, Ducati and Kawasaki. But as the economy worsened, the motorcycle industry took a hit, prompting Melneciuc to reevaluate his future – at just about the time DeltaWing crew chief Stef Chistel came calling.
“I raced motorcycles from 1990 til 2004,” said Melneciuc, “until the motorcycle industry went flat. I knew most of the guys on the team, who kept trying to get me to come and do the “car thing.”
"Then Stef called to see if I could come to the race at Circuit of the Americas.”
Why was Melneciuc so necessary at the CotA event? Besides himself, the other new player in the team mix was the long-awaited DeltaWing coupe. With a very small opening to squeeze the drivers in and out, the coupe brought with it an entirely new set of challenges regarding ingress and egress – and that’s where Melneciuc came in. Crew chief Stef Chistel holds the stop sign and drink bottle while six crewmen go over the wall on pit stops - Paul Taylor on the air jack, Trey Whitworth on the front tires, Ed Sullivan on rear tires, Ben Cooper refueling and Graham “Snake” Wace with the fuel vent (behind the pit wall, Trevor Gowen has the fire bottle, Jim Handyside acts as deadman and Armin Zerle handles the tires). Melneciuc’s job is to get the exiting driver out and the new driver buckled in and ready to leave the pit lane.
“In a perfect pit stop, the drivers have the belts slackened, the drink tube out, helmet cooler belt out and they’d be taking the radio out right before the car came to a stop. I run around the front of the car and open the door. Hopefully by that point, the headrest is up, so I start to help the driver get out of the car by grabbing them underneath their arms and pulling them out.
“If there’s an insert for the seat, the new driver puts that in and I make sure it’s aligned correctly. Then I reach for the junction box, which all the seatbelts plug into. I grab that with my right hand and with my left hand, grab the right side buckle, which is the first one to go into the junction. Hopefully by then the driver is settled in and fishing around for the other belts and bringing them to a central spot so I can get them all plugged in to the junction box. Then I fasten the drink tube, make sure the belts are tight, close the door and off they go.”
While Melneciuc is focused on the drivers, the other mechanics get the tires changed, the fuel into the DeltaWing coupe’s 10 gallon tank, the windscreen cleaned and get the drink bottle changed. When Sullivan is finished changing tires, he quickly leans into the pit side door of the car to help get the final buckles handled – a much appreciated second pair of hands.
“If the tire change goes smoothly, Ed can jump in and help. That’s huge, because I can’t see the shoulder harness on the left side of the driver at all; the driver’s helmet is in the way. So if the belt is twisted, I can’t see that. If Ed is there, he can make sure the belt is straight and help me get it clicked in and then plug in the helmet blower (which keeps the driver’s head cool) and close the door. In a perfect world, he’d be there for 10 seconds, which is a big help. If we can repeatably do driver changes in 25 seconds, we’re in good shape.”
The driver change sequence sounds pretty straightforward – but naturally, it’s not. At Daytona, each of the four DeltaWing drivers was a very different size (from 5’5” Gabby Chaves to 6’1” Alexander Rossi), so what is a perfect fit for one driver does not work for the next. Add the lumbar insert into the mix - and timing and plenty of advance planning becomes critical.
“We did a lot of driver change practice at Daytona, then had a team meeting to talk about what needed to be done and what the drivers could do to help us. It’s such a small opening to get them in and out of – and at Daytona and Sebring, we had the darkness to deal with.”
Ah yes, darkness; the next hurdle. With the night component coming into play for at least three races in 2014, being able to see the tiny seat belt junction box is critical for Melneciuc. The team had begun to work with helmet lights during pit stops, but with all the frenetic activity, the inherent instability of a light attached to a moving helmet made that system unworkable. But when you’ve got a team full of clever mechanics and engineers, a solution is never far away.
“We couldn’t see anything in the car during night practice at Daytona after one of the helmet lights got knocked off, so it was completely blind in the cockpit. Josh (Foley, the team data engineer and designated ‘fixer’) rigged up some lights inside the cockpit – he put up a strip of LED lighting above the windscreen, facing the driver. It’s not just for the pit stops, but if anything was to go wrong, the cockpit is so much better lit now.
“There are four buckles that go into the seat belt junction box and the tabs are pretty small. It’s a small junction box with small tabs – add to that the fact that you’ve got gloves on, the tabs don’t give you a positive “snap” sound and it still is fairly dark in there. The drivers are trying to get in as quickly as they can, so belts can get knocked away – everyone is trying to move as quickly as possible and there’s the adrenaline factor, so it’s a lot going on in just a matter of seconds.”
Because it’s easier to get the driver plugged in and belted up on the right side of the car, Melneciuc has to make sure he’s got his feet planted firmly on the pavement as he pulls the driver out on a track like Daytona – because Daytona runs anti-clockwise, the right side of the car faces out into the pit lane and oncoming traffic. That brings a new element of danger to the situation.
“When I pull the driver out, I’m taking a big step backwards – and they are too. With pit lane so congested, I have to be well aware of the other cars coming in and try not to go too far out.
Does Melneciuc get nervous in the moments before a driver change? After all, team manager David Price and engineer Alan Mugglestone plan the pit stops at least five laps in advance, so there’s plenty of time to think – which is not always a good thing.
“I don’t know why it is, but it seems as though the jitters and the tension are gone during the race. It’s much calmer than it is during practice – it’s been that way for me since the motorcycle days.”