A farewell to helium-powered wheel guns

When Formula One’s leaders met in Geneva on November 3rd to vote on the proposed name changes for three teams, they also decided on a minor rule change for 2012: a ban on using helium to drive the wheel guns during pitstops.

Using helium to power wheel guns is but one of a million rabbit holes of baroque technical excess you’ll find in Formula One. Like mercury-filled inerters, $20,000 CNC’d rotary dampers and drivers edging an extra millimeter onto the kerbs, they are a way to shave another few microsends off the hour and a half or so between lights out and the checkered flag.

What helium does is make the wheel guns rotate faster due to its extremely low density, which translates into a faster wheel change, which translates into a faster pitstop, which translates into the sort of pitstops we’ve been seeing this year from the top teams: well below three seconds. The 2011 record was set by Mercedes with a time of 2.3 seconds, which is slightly less than it takes for me to type “two point thr—”.

The trouble with helium is that it’s a precious and non-renewable resource, and while Formula One teams can no doubt afford it, we’re wasting enough of the stuff on toy balloons already, so the teams have all agreed on not using it from next year on, even if it’s little more than a token gesture to stave off peak helium. Until we figure out a way to pipe plasmatic helium from the Sun, we’re stuck with the amount here on Earth, and a world without helium would spell serious trouble for fields like medical imaging and rocketry, not to mention party services.

Formula One’s magnificent and intense wheel guns will, of course, stay for 2012 and beyond. They’re quite amazing pieces of highly specialized machinery. Made by the Dino Paoli company in Italy, they produce over 2,200 pound-feet of torque: four Bugatti Veyron’s worth.

Photo of wheel guns by Mark Thompson/Getty Images. Helium poster by Jacob Fredrickson.