The Mechanic’s Tale: Life In The Pit-Lanes Of Formula One
The memoir by Steve Matchett tells his story from getting a mechanic’s job at a Ferrari Dealership, then moving to a BMW Dealership and leveraging what he learned there into getting hired by the Benetton Formula One racing team in 1990. Matchett is promoted out of the factory and tours with the cars and drives, but for the mechanics it’s a 24/7 grind. Things go right, things go wrong, drivers come and drivers go. Then Benetton hires a young German driver by the name of Michael Schumacher and Benetton wins the 1994 Championship.
Schumacher doesn’t stay long at Benetton but neither does Matchett. Schumachers goes on to win seven world drivers championships; Matchett writes a book and now finds himself with David Hobbs commentating for NBC-Sport during the races.
The books are full of interesting stories about the racing teams, their drivers (Schumacher, Brawn, and Mansell), their mechanics, and the races courses that span the globe. Matchett gives the reader his insights into this exciting sport: what they do to prepare, race, and unwind.
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Excerpts from the book
Oxford, ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires’, that great and noble seat of English learning. Imagine everything that is both exciting and vibrant about Oxford: the carved facades and exquisite stonework of her majestic college buildings with their long centuries of values and heritage and tradition. Her celebrated Bodleian Library, containing at least one edition of every book published in Britain; the athletic challenge of the Isis river, whose waters flow past the college boat-houses, with teams of devout rowers constantly in training for inter-collegiate competitions and the chance for the lucky few to defend Oxford’s honour against the might of Cambridge. The emotion and inspiration of Mozart’s Requiem heard within the surrounds of the Sheldonian Theatre; the grand elegance of the Randolph Hotel; the intimate snug of the Eagleand Child where C.S. Lewis planned his next excursion to Narnia. Let your mind meander through the glorious sunshine and gentle breeze of a lazy summer’s afternoon spent in the tranquillity of Christ Church Meadows. Imagine all of these splendid things; rejoice in them, treasure them, hold them, lift them to the skies. Now drop them, see them shatter and lose them forever. What you’re left with is a vision of Witney. Witney is a small, dull and utterly uninspiring provincial market town, about twenty minutes’ drive north-west of her infinitely more distinguished relative. And it was to Witney that I drove for my interview with Nigel Stepney.
page 35, 36
Joan is also quite aware of my perception of exactly what Grand Prix racing is. Being inside Formula One is a very demanding and dedicated life, full of highs and lows, a life full of tears and heated emotions. At times it can seem like it’s one of the most important things in the world. However, for some of the more impressionable souls it does become the only important thing in the world, the true reality of their situation is lost to them. The reality is this: Formula One, for all its associated passions, is a job of work, another way of earning a living. The fact that a newly designed suspension (upright) has no intention whatsoever of fitting the wishbone may cause all sorts of arm waving and general gnashing of teeth and result in a vast stream of faxes, phone calls and e-mails back and forth between the circuit and the factory as people try to pin the blame on one another, and some of those people may well refuse to speak to each other for weeks, or even months, afterwards as tempers continue to brew and simmer, but take just one step outside of Formula One’s micro-universe and nobody living in the real world gives a damn about the upright. In the real world the only concerns are that the cat needs feeding, the puncture on Gran’s bike still wants looking at and that the video must be unplugged to stop it desperately trying to record the Dad’s Army repeat over what remains of the Monza highlights, half of which have already been lost due to the kids taping the Mr Blobby
weekend special on top of it. Real life in the real world, where Grand Prix racing is something to be enjoyed as a distraction, a weekend hobby.
Formula One is just another job, but treated properly it can also be terrific fun, and as the teams stump up about 99.9 percent of the costs, it’s a wonderfully cheap way to see the world tool It’s also a colossal stepping stone if you wish to move on to other things and are prepared to take full advantage of it. My first book is an example: it would have been infinitely more difficult to have persuaded a publisher to have taken me seriously if it weren’t for the huge lever that working for Formula One gave me. If you work for a Grand Prix team and have written something of merit about them, then people in the book world are immediately interested in taking a closer look at your efforts. If, on the other hand, you work for a Vauxhall dealership and have written a truly revealing and scintillating account of your experiences, then there is every likelihood that your manuscript will stay firmly at the bottom of the slush pile, gathering dust, remaining unopened and unread.
page 101, 102
The very next morning [Michael] Schumacher’s marriage to Benetton was declared officially over and after exchanging his blue overalls for a pair of bright scarlet, he was free to enjoy his honeymoon and look to the future with his new racing partner, the highly distinguished motor-racing magnate, Scuderia Ferrari.
His future at Ferrari is secure for as long as he wishes to stay but it was at Benetton that he honed his great skills to such perfection. His great skills. Aside from the obvious talent one sees on TV when he is behind the wheel and his excellent health and fitness, what exactly are his great skills? What does the camera miss? Well, prior to any Grand Prix, when the team was busy testing and developing cars, Michael always wanted to be there whenever possible. During his time with us his commitment to constantly try to improve the car was so intense and his feedback so useful to any development work that the engineers were just as keen to have him there too . In fact his input was so beneficial that it finally became pointless for the team to offer a third driver a permanent testing contract.
Schumacher has the ability to memorize the handling of his chassis through the entry, the apex and the exit of each comer of every lap. He can recall each detail of the car’s behaviour, however minute or insignificant it might have appeared at the time. He complemented this ability with a sound mechanical understanding of the car, and was aware of exactly what needed attention in order to cure any problems. In discussion with his engineers, when his comments on the handling of the chassis and any changes that had been made to the car were cross-referenced with the telemetry data, it was possible for the team to make very quick and accurate progress.
Schumacher possesses a deep, multi-layered character and his abilities in a car are a result of an exotic compound of many different skills. The fact that his character is so complex makes it nigh on impossible to pinpoint one particular aspect and say, ‘That’s it, that’s it right there. That is what makes him so bloody good. Copy that trait and you can beat him.’ Unfortunately, and all his Benetton partners will agree, his talent just isn’t that straightforward or easily defined . Certainly a lot of his strength is drawn from his natural confidence (some say arrogance, but they would be wrong) and his remarkable attention to detail. Attention to detail in all things. For example, many drivers are capable of delivering impressive lap-times -Frentzen or Irvine for instance; some are gifted with exceptional speed -Alesi or Coultard: some have good race craft (the ability to look after their cars, take care of their tyres and pace their race) -Martin Brundle is a master of this. Occasionally a few drivers possess more than one of these essential attributes -Coultard, Hakkinen, Berger, Hill. A very, very few drivers display all of these attributes and many more. Providing they are fortunate enough to be in the right team at the right time (and enjoying a long passionate affair with Lady Luck) it is these chosen few who are destined to be crowned Formula One World Champion and enter the annals of history as a motor-rating legend -Fangio, Lauda, Piquet, Prost, Senna and now Schumacher.
Michael’s crusade isn’t stimulated in the same way that Senna’s was. Ayrton felt he was driven to win, that he must win, and that nothing else would suffice. He was, of course, absolutely thrilled when he did finish first, but as he waved to the crowd, one could sense in Ayrton’s eyes that he thought the only possible true, honourable result had just occurred. Michael’s motivation is slightly different: he has a deep, concentrated passion to win every motor race he enters, it’s as simple as that. He recognizes that to consistently win is a very demanding challenge, but he loves to win: he lives to win and as a consequence he willingly gives 110 percent to ensure that he does so.
However, just like Ayrton, when the race is over and the work is done he is, quite visibly, delighted with the achievement of it all.
Michael has a unique driving style too: he likes the car to be built with a very stiff suspension, a set-up which reduces chassis roll to the absolute minimum. This is fine providing the driver is capable of handling the car in such a knife-edge condition; the problem is that reducing the roll produces a car which is constantly trying to break free and slide across the tarmac as the tyres lose adhesion with the track. Forever playing with the steering wheel to catch and correct the oversteer, and constantly feathering the throttle to persuade the near-on eight hundred horsepower to relent for a split second and allow the tyres to grip the track again is physically very demanding and requires great strength of mind. Nevertheless, that is how Michael chose to drive and in his hands at least, the results of such a set-up speak for themselves.
Successful for Michael, perhaps, but it is certainly not the case that all drivers like this ultra-stiff, almost cart-like reaction of their car’s suspension. Thoughout the 1995 season, Johnny Herbert frequently complained about the handling and general performance of the Benetton (and, to be fair, so did several of his predecessors too). It is sad to say that in 1995 there were even dark mutterings that the equipment Michael’s partner was given just wasn’t the same as the other man’s and that the team ’s technical back-up was biased towards Michael. But such things I simply cannot believe. When you stop to consider what a race team is actually doing, then such an argument seems to defy logic or reason. As a Grand Prix team, Benetton Formula exist to win as many races and score as many Championship points as possible (as do all race teams, of course). It follows that it would prove quite illogical for the team to give inferior equipment to one driver or another. By doing so it would offer an instant and most welcome advantage to the opposition.