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A chat with Marc Priestley, former McLaren chief mechanic

Marc Priestley was a mechanic with McLaren for nine years, he and many like him are the unsung heroes of Formula 1 – one of the guys who we seldom see on TV but also one of the guys crucial to any world championship campaign and as such, one of the guys that sees things we don’t ordinarily see.

Marc made his way to the summit of the sport through a long and arduous route from the ‘minor leagues’ to one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport – enjoying great triumphs and hard times along the way. We are fortunate to have him reminisce about his days with the Woking team.

But before we move on here is a brief overview of his impressive motorsport credentials:

  • 1995 left Kent College with BTEC National Diploma – Motor Vehicle Engineering
  • 1995-1996 Tangent Motorsport mechanic
  • 1996-1997 Ratrace Motorsport mechanic
  • 1997-1999 Chas Berger Motorsport mechanic
  • 1999-2000 Speedsport Formula 3 Number 1 mechanic & Orbit Motorsport Formula 3000 senior mechanic
  • 2000-2001 McLaren test team Number 2 mechanic
  • 2001-2006 McLaren race team Number 2 mechanic
  • 2007 McLaren race team Number 1 mechanic
  • 2008 McLaren race team chief mechanic
  • 2009 McLaren Project leader and Co-ordinator
  • 2009 Joined Motor Sport Vision as Race Team Co-ordinator & Team Manager
  • 2010 freelancing in various roles including consultancy, public speaking and occasional GP2 mechanic
  • 2013 became TV pundit and part of Sky F1 team

Marc, impressive CV especially the McLaren years – immediate question is why did you leave them?
Marc Priestley: The decision to leave McLaren after so long was very difficult. Working as part of an F1 race team is much more than just a job, it really is a way of life. It’s easy to become totally immersed in the Formula One ‘bubble’ , a fast paced world of pretentiousness and fairytale finances, and lose touch, ever so slightly, with reality.

You spend so much time with the guys you work with, time away from home, that it almost becomes family-like and in the end that was one of the main reasons for calling it a day. I have my own family and with the calendar moving towards more and more races and with more and more of those being long haul, I wanted to be able to spend more time at home with them.

The other reason was a professional one. I felt as though my career had gone about as far as it could go with the race team and at the time there were no suitable positions in the areas I wished to go at the McLaren factory, so after much debate and soul searching, I took a leap of faith and moved into a big management role at the FIA Formula Two Championship.

Highlights of your decade with the team?
I’ll never ever forget the day I got the job, first and foremost. I was a huge McLaren fan and so when I got the phone call it was like a dream come true! I remember phoning everyone I knew to tell them in excitement.

Anyone who’s ever been part of any sports team, I’m sure will appreciate that it’s an emotional roller coaster. Highs and lows can be only moments apart, but the highs are what keep you going and I was lucky enough to be with a top team, winning races and even championships. Victories with Mika, DC, Kimi, Juan Pablo, Fernando and Lewis were all great, each in different ways.

I’m trying to pick one favourite here, but just can’t as there are a handful of ‘ extra special’  race wins that took us all to the very top of that roller coaster and formed some of the highlights of my career. I will say, that my time working with Kimi was brilliant. We had a particularly close knit car crew and I include him in that, and every success we shared meant an awful lot to us all.

We knew how to celebrate too! When Kimi won the 2005 Japan GP, overtaking Fisichella on the very last lap and having started from 17th place, we went crazy and a somewhat excessive 3 day party duly ensued.

Forgettable moments?
For many race fans the 2011 season will be remembered as being a little on the boring side due to Seb’s dominance of most races. Having said that, Seb and his Red Bull team mates will see it differently. I know I would have happily forgone all the reliability issues and DNF’s that plagued our championship challenges and taken a comfortable race win at every event in a season!

I know its a bit of a cliché, but everyone at each team, from the drivers to the factory cleaners, work so hard to even get their two cars on to the grid on a Sunday afternoon, that to see all that work become fruitless with a collision at turn 1 or a car failure, can be soul destroying. Memorable ‘on track’ lows for me include Mika’s last lap clutch failure when leading the Spanish GP in 2001 and Kimi’s last lap suspension failure at the European GP 2005, also whilst leading the race. There’s nothing worse than being less than a lap from victory when it happens!

Off track, a particular low for the whole team was the ‘spygate’ affair of 2007. Lewis and Fernando squabbling with each other created a large split down the middle of our garage and in a year where the constructors championship was ours for the taking, to have it taken away by the FIA because of the stupidity of certain people, really hurt. For many team members, particularly all of the guys back at the factory, the constructors title is the one which means the most and the chance to win it doesn’t come around too often!

There’s no way I can talk about lowlights without mentioning, unquestionably the lowest point of my entire motor racing career. Deaths in motor racing these days are fortunately few and far between, but sadly I was working at Brands Hatch in 2009 when Henry Surtees, son of former F1 world champion John, was killed racing a Formula Two car. Nothing can ever prepare you for something like that, it instantly and cruelly brings into perspective what we all do and as a team manager I had to try and offer some kind of support to the mechanics who had earlier strapped their driver into the car as normal, wished him luck as they left the grid for the race start, only for him never to return.

What was it like working for Ron Dennis?
Ron is a unique character. Quirky, imposing, fascinating, terrifying, frustrating, clever, demanding, particular and brilliant. The whole McLaren Group of companies is built around his way of thinking and to his incredibly high and exacting standards and things run his way or no way at all. To work for Ron you need to be a certain type of person. Many have come and gone, not being able to understand why things need to be a certain way, why everything ‘McLaren’ has to be spotlessly clean and not only work, but look immaculate too.

You can look at it on one level and say, “If the car’s quick, surely that’s all that matters?”, but Ron would think that’s shallow and short sighted, as he has a far greater vision. He sees a much larger picture which incorporates, and places paramount importance on, the company’s image to the outside world and how that directly effects marketing, sponsorship and therefore income to produce, not only next year’s car, but fast cars for the next ten years.

It can be a real pain in the arse at times working for him, but for me it wasn’t really until I left and looked back from outside, that I appreciated what he does. The values he’s instilled will remain with me and even though his presence around the team has lessened, McLaren will continue down the same path which has made it so successful, largely because of him.

Any lesser known Dennis moments you would care to share?
For all Ron’s hard and often cold exterior persona, there’s definitely a small soft spot in there somewhere. I found myself staying a little too long at a Saturday night party in Singapore once, I didn’t realise it but Ron was there too. With time running out to make it back to my hotel in time to go to work and the queue for taxis stretching back further than I could even see, Ron appeared from nowhere and asked what the hell I was still doing there. Quivering slightly, I explained that I had been desperately trying to get home for hours but there were just no taxis. I have absolutely no doubt that he didn’t believe a word, but watched in amazement as he summonsed his driver and then asked me to send the black Mercedes back for him once I’d got home!

What was it like working with Lewis Hamilton?
It was really interesting to see Lewis come into the sport in such a blaze of glory and media hype. We had all followed his progress in GP2 on the garage monitors at GP’s and he often used to pop in to have a look around our cars. At that time he was almost in awe of what we did, fascinated and wanting to learn more and more. Just after the announcement of his McLaren race seat, he joined us for a week at the Finnish Olympic Institute where we were taking part in various physical assessments and team building exercises. He was so excited and enthusiastic, even perhaps a little shy.

Over the next few months, and now years, it was fascinating, if not slightly disturbing, to watch this kid being transformed and moulded into the ultimate McLaren marketing product. Lewis is an incredible driver, but there’s been a definite shift in his personality since his meteoric rise to World Champion, perhaps unavoidably in the circumstances.

He came into this sport and was given the best car on the grid and the best possible support for two years in a row, where he duly and deservedly won the world title. As a very young man, all of a sudden he had people doing everything for him. He had whatever he wanted, along with the adoration and worship of millions of fans around the world and I suspect there’s very few people who can remain unchanged after all that. 2011 was a bad year for Lewis, in many areas of his life.

He didn’t quite have everything his way, events looked to be conspiring against him and, at times, he didn’t handle it at all well. He lost a lot of love last year and it will be really interesting to see how he comes back in 2012. Don’t forget, although he’s been world champ already, Lewis Hamilton still has many things to experience in life and in racing, and you sometimes have to go through the bad times to really appreciate the good ones.

Did you know he was going to be so good so quickly?
The quick answer is no, no one really knew how he would do. He did pretty well in pre season testing, although the car wasn’t anywhere near quick enough out of the box and until we reached Australia, we didn’t have a clear idea of how we compared to other teams. His race craft in a GP2 car was great, but it’s an enormous step up to F1 for a youngster and when you combine that with everything else that he had to contend with, it was a bit of a gamble on Ron’s part.

We thought he’d use 2007 to learn from Fernando and if he could consistently bring it home, we’d all be happy. As it turned out, he pushed the then current world champion from early on and I always remember the race at Monaco where we were 1-2, with Lewis behind, comfortably quicker than everyone else and he was pushing like mad, eager to risk everything to try and get past. He got very frustrated at being told to “hold position” to see the race out as he thought he could have won!

Any lesser known Hamilton moments you would care to share?
At the 2007 European Grand Prix I was in charge of Lewis’ car when severe rain and numerous crashes brought out red flags during the race. We were beached in a gravel trap, but Lewis had kept the engine running and marshals craned him out, back onto the track and he limped back to the grid for the restart.

A race restart is somehow always a slightly chaotic procedure, but we’d got the car back into position, cleaned it up and checked it over and were ready to go. With around 6 minutes to go, I asked our gearbox technician to just have a quick check to make sure no gravel had got into the tube at the back of the car where we insert the starter motor to fire up the engine. He bent down to have a look and then turned back to me with his face as white as a sheet.

The tube, about 25mm diameter and half a meter long, was jammed full of gravel! Using whatever makeshift tooling we could get sent over the pit wall to the grid, we frantically managed to extract most of the stones, but two remained buried all the way down. We had less than two minutes to go and no way of starting the car! With only 90 seconds until the restart of the race and with the engine reaching critically low temperatures, using a combination of long rods and sticky tape, we managed to pull out the last stone, engage the starter motor and fire up the car.

Throughout the whole frenetic 10 minutes, with people running to and from the car, scrambling around the back end and coming so close to not being able to race, Lewis remained serenely calm, focusing on his launch and run down to turn one.

Tell us about the 2008 world title win and your involvement….
Brazil 2008 will, I’m sure, always go down as one of the most dramatic conclusions to a world championship ever and it was great to be part of that. By then I was no longer directly working on either car, but remained part of the pit stop crew and therefore actively involved in the race itself. As a team, most of us had been in the situation of going into the last race as championship contenders before, so I don’t think pressure was an issue for us, but on too many occasions we had come away on Sunday night as runners up.

I don’t remember too much about the race, other than that amazing last lap to be honest. The atmosphere in the garage was electric and the tension almost unbearable as the title appeared to be yo-yoing in and out of his grasp all the way round the lap, as the cars literally skated around through the torrential rain. Everyone held their breath, fists clenched tight, half off chairs and just the occasional shout of encouragement punctuating the silence as we all fixated on the screens. With 3 or 4 turns to go we saw the whole season slipping away as Lewis struggled to keep the car on the track, only for seconds later and with one corner to go, see him gain the one place he needed and the garage erupted into uncontrolled euphoria!

Highlights of the 2008 champion year?
As above really. As I mentioned earlier, every race win is a great occasion, but I’d been there too many times before to get too carried away until the job was completed in Brazil.

What do you make of the F1 scene nowadays?
F1 has changed so much during my time, regulations, both sporting and technical, drive the sport in different directions in attempts to cut costs, improve safety, develop different technologies or improve the show. The current format, as with every derivative, has its critics and supporters. Engineering ‘eureka’ moments are now few and far between because the latest technical regs are so restrictive, that’s a real shame for me as I always felt that was a big part of the F1 challenge.

The current trend for overtaking aids has perhaps made racing more interesting, but as Kimi said this week, “Is it really overtaking?”.

Vettel?
One of the nicest GP drivers around. Awesomely quick and still learning!

Button?
Super experienced and really pleased he’s finally found success on track. Quietly giving Lewis plenty to think about.

Alonso?
Very, very good in the car. Lost a little respect for him as a man when he was with us in 2007 (Spygate)

Hamilton these days?
Big test this year. We’ll see how good he really is after the turmoil of 2011. Great drivers don’t lose talent overnight, but getting the psychological side right is key. I think he’ll do well.

As we speak; team launches happening, testing about to start – give us some insight into what is going on right now in a top team?
Very very busy. There have been many late nights working at the factory over the past few weeks as deadlines approach. At the top teams, parts are being updated even before they ever reach a car. Nowadays 90% of development is carried out in a wind tunnel or in the simulator, so car build has to wait until the last possible moment to ensure the most up to date parts are available. Even between ‘finishing’ the car at the factory, loading it into the transporter and it arriving in Jerez, a whole batch of new parts will be shipped and waiting for the mechanics to fit when they arrive. I have had years when the front wing has been in its 13th incarnation by the first race!

Do you miss Formula 1?
There’s lots I miss, as I said earlier, it’s a way of life. I have many good friends up and down the pit lane and the thrill of qualifying on pole or winning a race, can never be replaced. Having said that, I’m really enjoying the flexibility of what I do now and seeing my four beautiful kids growing up. I spent years giving up a huge part of my life for McLaren, as the current guys are now, they won’t get much sleep or time at home now until they return from Malaysia at the end of March. I don’t miss that!

What are your personal plans for the future?
I would like to move more towards the media side of the sport. I feel quite strongly that F1 still doesn’t portray itself well enough to the fans and viewing public. Having worked on the inside, I watch a grand prix now and appreciate everything that’s going on behind the scenes to make the more visible things happen.

The frantic calculations in strategy, the constant radio traffic between pitwall, drivers, garage and mission control back in the UK, discussions during a race with Charlie Whiting and so much more. I think the complicated nature of Formula One’s regulations often prevent the layman from being able to understand, in real time, what’s really going on during a race and I’d love to be able to help improve that.
I’m also busy right now writing a book about my own experiences at McLaren and F1 in general, so look out for it.

Marc’s just joined Twitter, follow him @f1elvis