What really happens in the heat of a Formula One garage? In this exclusive extract McLaren's former Number One mechanic Marc 'Elvis' Priestley reveals what it was like to work in the pitstop crew for four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton
The British Grand Prix, Silverstone
I can see him now: Lewis Hamilton, McLaren’s World Champion waiting, arcing into view and bearing down on us at 100kph. Several hundred kilos of pointy, sharp Formula One car moving in at speed as I kneel on a marked spot telling me exactly where he’s supposed to land. I take a deep breath, fighting the urge to move back to a safer distance . . . Lewis’s barely in-control car moves in hot, missing me by centimetres and screeches to a stop.
The timer starts . . .
I track the rear wheel as he arrives, my gun landing on the nut before the car comes to a complete standstill, both a test of trust and nerve. If Lewis were to overshoot his pit box, I’d almost certainly get dragged along with him, but he’s one of the best and stops exactly where I need him. The gun unlocks the nut, trying to wrench itself violently out of my hands in the process, and my job’s halfway done before I can even register the sights, sounds and emotions smothering me.
I always loved the danger of pitstops. They delivered the adrenaline rush I needed to operate at the best of my ability, but the risks were high too. A fuel accident might engulf the crew and driver in a mini inferno; the heat coming off the brakes – a thousand degrees of glowing red carbon fibre – could burn instantly through my gloves and cook my skin.
One second . . .
The sensations quickly become intense. I lean back, switching the gun’s direction of rotation as the rear wheel comes off. The new one goes on and I follow it in, pushing it on with the wheel gun. The acrid smell of burning rubber chokes my nostrils, as small marbles from the old tyre become dislodged and melt instantly on the brake discs, smouldering and catching fire.
Two seconds . . .
The nut’s zipped back on with another high-pitched and violent whine. Then the noise explodes around me, the mind-blowing yelp of a 19,000rpm V8 engine flexing its muscles. Lewis is hard on the throttle now, the engine bouncing off its rev limiter, desperate to drop the clutch and get the car back into the race. I’m less than a metre away from the deafening scream and vibrations. I can feel it hammering my bones, my teeth, my muscles, like I’ve jammed my head into the launch pad of a lifting NASA rocket. It’s overwhelming, despite my moulded earplugs and helmet. Behind the tyre I can see thick smoke rising; the brakes are being licked by flame, but there’s no time to do anything about it. The fire will go out as the car moves away and the airflow returns. Instinctively, everything tells you a blaze like that’s bad, yet I can do nothing but watch. Three seconds to change the wheels and tyres meant success. Five seconds was slow, and to hesitate was always to lose.
Three seconds . . .
As with every other pitstop, I do my job, hoping that everything else has gone to plan. It didn’t always work that way: the occasional practice pitstop sessions where we’d sent cars away with cross-threaded nuts or dropped the car off the jacks before the nuts were tight had taught me that mistakes sometimes happened. In those relaxed practice situations I’d think, ‘Shit, if that happened in an actual race it’d be disastrous . . .’ Luckily, it rarely did, and trust, skill and nerve became the strengths my teammates and I relied on throughout my career.
I lean back, my arm instinctively raised in the air as the rear wheel shudders, clunking into gear, and the car drops hard onto the ground. My heart’s racing and my senses are confused and disorientated by the incredible noise shaking my core.
My job’s done.
Go! Go! Go!
Lewis wheelspins away from right under my nose as the sounds, vibrations and emotions reach new levels, and he’s back in the game. Yes! We did it! High fives and fist-bumps all round as we rush back to the garage TVs, pumped on adrenaline, chests puffed out in pride, to see where he emerges back on the track.
Three seconds meant success. Five seconds was slow, and to hesitate was always to lose.
During a career with the McLaren F1 team from 2000 to 2009 I’ve seen plenty of good and bad pitstops. I’ve watched as technical errors and bad strategy calls from the team have cost drivers their Grand Prix victory, even a Drivers’ Championship, the ultimate accolade for any F1 racer hoping to prove their elite status. I’ve also seen how our good calls and quick thinking have delivered great success, and I’ve been involved in many races where the final results have come down to pitstop performance; there’ve been several occasions where the two leading teams pitted their drivers at the same time and I promise you there’s no better feeling than watching your man stop at his box in second place, only to leave with a fresh set of tyres as race leader moments later.
The flipside, as always, were the critical failures, and I witnessed one or two during my career. Seeing another team sneak an edge on you after a particularly slow pitstop was always tough. At McLaren, a notoriously professional and fastidious organisation, we used to pride ourselves on being the best at what we did. To make a mistake was a painful experience, particularly because our actions were being played out and analysed in a very public way. The pressure of performing in front of worldwide audiences could bring with it real anxiety when I first started out as a young man, and I was always struck by the surreal nature of working in a job that I’d been fascinated by as a kid. Watching the British Grand Prix on the telly did nothing to prepare me, however. If anything, it only expanded the fear of failure, and I pictured the fans at home, quick to criticise the pit crew for making any mistakes during a driver’s shot at glory.
Fortunately, I quickly got used to dealing with the pressure and was able to function at the highest level. Which was good because within those years at McLaren I experienced all kinds of drama: Grand Prix wins and soul-destroying losses; controversy and scandal; cheating and espionage. There were episodes of drug- and-alcohol- charged recklessness; lavish parties and extravagant spending. I’ve also been at the frontline of technological advancement in a business that prides itself on pushing development and speed to the absolute limit, while working with some of the most talented and explosive drivers on the planet. It was a dream come true, and I thrived in this exciting sport during a period where the thrills, stakes and rewards were high; in an era when inflated tobacco sponsorship meant we were able to play with a seemingly endless reserve of cash.
From my position in the garage I was involved in some of the most dramatic moments in F1’s recent history. I worked with world-class drivers like Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard, but I was also right there as the controversial battle between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso unfolded in 2007. It was fascinating to watch as Lewis developed from a young rookie into a potential championship-winning superstar; a potential that was realised not long after a damaging fallout with Fernando which would tailspin into part of one of the sport’s biggest scandals: Spygate.
In his first months, however, the youngster was remarkably humble, and I remember a marketing event, I think for Hugo Boss, that we went to one evening, just after Lewis had come into F1. When Lewis emerged from the team’s chauffeur-driven Mercedes to see his own face projected, in enormous scale, on the side of the building, he couldn’t hold back the tears of disbelief and needed a moment to compose himself while the emotions around his life- changing role as an F1 driver hit him all at once. It was rare to witness a reaction like that from a top sports-man, especially when surprise, or vulnerability, is often viewed as a weakness in such a testosterone-driven industry. But Lewis was just a young man entering a strange new world for the first time, and his responses were genuine. I found it to be an endearing quality back then.
Inevitably things changed as his stock began to rise and the war between him and Fernando took centre stage. Both were brilliant in a car, probably the two most complete drivers I’ve ever worked with, but the rivalry, distrust and disrespect they developed for each other bred some characteristics in each of them that would leave many in the team falling out of love with their two star drivers.
At times, I had a ringside seat to some incredible bust-ups between the pair, some of them involving McLaren’s iconic team boss, Ron Dennis. But once the dust had settled and Fernando had moved teams, Lewis began to flourish even more, and by 2008, after just two seasons in the sport, we were celebrating his first World Championship. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
More about the author
In the high octane atmosphere of the Formula One pit lane, the spotlight is most often on the superstar drivers. And yet, without the technical knowledge, competitive determination and outright obsession from his garage of mechanics, no driver could possibly hope to claim a spot on the podium. These are the guys who make every World Champion, and any mistakes can have critical consequences.
That's not to say the F1 crew is just a group of highly skilled technical engineers, tweaking machinery in wind tunnels and crunching data through high spec computers. These boys can seriously let their hair down. Whether it be parties on luxury yachts in Monaco or elaborate photo opportunities in gravity-defying aeroplanes, this is a world which thrills on and off the track.
Join McLaren's former Number One mechanic, Marc 'Elvis' Priestley as he tours the world, revealing some of Formula One's most outrageous secrets and the fiercest rivalries, all fuelled by the determination to win.
This is Formula One as you've never seen it before.