‘An F1 driver was dangled from a car for spilling cocaine’: Exclusive extract from “The Mechanic”

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“The Mechanic” reveals what really happens in the heat of a Formula One garage from McLaren’s former number one mechanic Marc Priestley.

The book will be published on November 2nd but before it hits the shelves here is a exclusive excerpt for F1 Fanatic readers from the third chapter.

Paranoia and Playboys

Anarchy often ruled behind the scenes, despite the precision and quality of work taking place in the garages. I suspect McLaren would’ve loved a team of perfectly cloned, robotic mechanics and engineers that could meet the company’s unique and constant demands for attention to detail; a crew that represented the company in a polished corporate manner. What Ron Dennis had instead was a group that worked impeccably in the team colours, but once set free from the shackles of the racetrack, enjoyed the liberal, lavish behaviour that Formula One insiders thrived on at the time. I soon learned that working in F1 brought with it an often debauched and hedonistic lifestyle.

I’ve found myself in the back of a stretch limousine as drugs were passed around freely, even though the teams obviously had a total ban on drug use. On one occasion an F1 driver was dangled out of the window of a moving car for accidentally knocking over someone else’s line of cocaine. I visited parties where there was almost no attempt to conceal the class A drug-taking happening on the dance floor, and at others, high-class models and prostitutes were selected and paid for by teams to adorn their glamorous venues. I’ve heard of at least one F1 driver who was caught drink-driving in Monaco, but was let off because the officer who’d caught him was later very well ‘looked after’ at the next Grand Prix as a special guest, and the incident went undocumented.

There’ve been a long list of cover-ups and deliberately misleading stories over the years. I’m sure it’s even worse if you go back another generation of the sport, but F1 was a wild and fun place to be during my time. Luckily, I managed to stay out of serious trouble, but was never far away from a bit of fun and a joke. I covertly appeared in the back of almost every celebratory Ferrari team photo throughout 2006, by running over at the last moment as the team were assembling in the pitlane and jumping up in my McLaren kit. I even ended up on the back cover of Michael Schumacher’s biography, buried in amongst the red team shirts in one picture.

I jokingly threw a Bacardi and Coke into the face of a very drunk Schuey at a Mercedes celebration in Germany, and once rewired the horn into the brake pedal of our test driver Darren Turner’s road car while he was out on track. We’ve been thrown out of bars and nightclubs and had to send letters of apology, together with signed team caps and merchandise, in order to be allowed to remain in certain hotels after more destructive incidents. We just couldn’t help ourselves, but over time, I’ve managed to convince myself it was our way of letting our hair down and off-setting the high pressure, punishing hours and gruelling schedules during that era of Formula One. Whilst it’s not an excuse, it might at least serve as an explanation for some of our more questionable behaviour.

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As a young man in F1, I partied hard. On more than one occasion I remember my phone’s morning wake-up alarm going off while I was still leaping around a dancefloor somewhere. We became skilled at sneaking back into hotels undetected, usually through side doors, while our elder, more responsible teammates unsuspectingly had breakfast a few metres away. After a super-quick shower and change, we were back downstairs and ready to return to work again. Tiredness and hangovers were something I managed to deal with in my younger days (I guess we all do) and it wasn’t uncommon to repeat the process night after night, something I couldn’t even dream of doing today. Despite playing as hard as we did, though, we always managed to find a way to focus on the job when it mattered.

Friday was normally a traditional night off from the booze, mostly because it was our longest day at the track. Having started around 7am, if we were finished in the garages by 11 to 11:30pm, it was deemed a pretty good day and it’d guarantee at least seven hours of much-needed sleep and recovery time after the previous few evenings of partying. That said, I remember a particularly horrific occasion in Brazil, after two near-sleepless nights out, when at around 11pm on Friday evening all we had left to do was push our car along the pitlane to the FIA garage and check its weights and measurements for legality – a mere formality. Imagine my horror when we wheeled the car onto the official precision flat plate, only to discover the measurements all pointed to some serious chassis damage. A significant crack was then uncovered beneath the driver’s seat area. I couldn’t believe it. I was exhausted, broken and already desperate for sleep. Back to the garage we went and the resulting chassis change meant I finally rolled into bed around 4am

Although I loved finally being part of the pitstop crew, I’d become desperate to move into a more permanent, active role than my occasional nose cone changes. Annoyingly, though, without someone actually leaving the team, key spots on the pitstop crew didn’t open up very often. Still, I got variety, working in a number of fringe positions, starting with holding open the sprung ‘dead man’s handle’ on the refuelling rig, which was a safety device to automatically shut off fuel flow in the case of an accident; I held the ‘splash board’, a long lollipop-type device, like a protective screen on a stick, which prevented the fuel nozzle from spraying potentially explosive fluid onto the hot exhausts and brakes at the rear; I steadied the car; I cleaned the radiator ducts; I adjusted the front wing; I topped up the engine’s pneumatic system. I did all sorts of things when needed at different times over my first year, but I was adamant I wanted to get myself into a more regular, more senior position as quickly as possible.

Eventually, at the end of the 2002 season somebody left the race team and I was moved onto the right rear corner crew, initially as ‘wheel-off man’, and I loved it. I was involved in every single pitstop from then on, taking off the right rear wheel and dumping it on the ground behind me, then quickly turning round to pull on the release handle of the refuelling nozzle, in order to assist the fuel man. It felt like an added responsibility, which fed my narcissistic tendencies for a while longer. I was in my element.

Refuelling was a major part of pitstops at that time and it was generally the procedure that determined the total length of most stops. Once all four wheels were changed, everyone would wait for the fuel nozzle to detach, before releasing the car back into the race. As such, it was a job we worked on improving wherever we could, and one of my favourite technical pitstop tricks was in this area. Once the nozzle was attached to the car, fuel would flow through the giant, aircraft specification hose at 12 litres per second. When the system had delivered the required amount of fuel, a motorised butterfly valve inside the nozzle would close, and once completely sealed, the lights on the display would change from red to green. That was our cue to pull back on the safety and release handles before detaching the nozzle. Every team had the same standard equipment and it was strictly forbidden to modify or adapt it in any way.

Some years earlier, the Benetton team had removed a fuel filter inside the nozzle to speed up the flow of fuel into the car. The theory might have been correct, but the most infamous pitstop fire in modern history, on Jos Verstappen’s Benetton car in the Hockenheim pitlane in Germany in 1994, meant they were rumbled. Even tighter restrictions and checks on the equipment were immediately implemented.

Realising there was nothing we could do to enhance the rig, we focused on the human factor instead. There was always a moment of delay between the required amount of fuel going into the car and the motorised shut-off valve fully closing. That delay was then increased by the mechanic’s reaction time in removing the nozzle from the car once the green light had flashed up. Our solution was ingenious: we rigged the fuel man with a stethoscope, which traversed up his sleeve and into a discrete earpiece. The other end (the bit the doctor normally presses to your chest) was pushed onto the fuel nozzle for each stop. The electric motor inside whirred into action when it was time to close the butterfly valve, and by listening in, the fuel man was able to react more quickly. He could start the process of pulling back on the release handles and by the time the valve was completely closed and the green light illuminated, the nozzle was almost detached. It might have only saved us a second or less with each stop, but those margins were sometimes the difference between us getting out ahead of, or behind, our main rivals. It was also technically legal, since we hadn’t modifed the standard fuel rig in any way, although we knew the FIA would have almost certainly frowned upon it, had they found out. We went to great lengths to keep the whole thing top secret.

I loved the technical arms race in Formula One, and pitstops had definitely become part of that game over the years. There was pride at stake, as much as it affected the race result, and people looked for any and every advantage. They were spending millions of pounds on technology in order to shave tenths of seconds off a lap time when the same, and much more, could often be achieved from within the pitlane. McLaren explored new ways to cover every possible eventuality and scenario, and whenever we found a potential advantage, it had to be shrouded in secrecy and kept away from the prying eyes of other teams for as long as possible.

“The Mechanic: The Secret World of the F1 Pit Lane” is published by Penguin Random House UK on November 2nd.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 11 comments on “‘An F1 driver was dangled from a car for spilling cocaine’: Exclusive extract from “The Mechanic””

    1. That’s a great deal of insight from the wise man. Especially that ‘stethoscope’ solution sounds pretty innovative.

    2. “I’ve heard of at least one F1 driver who was caught drink-driving in Monaco, but was let off because the officer who’d caught him was later very well ‘looked after’ at the next Grand Prix as a special guest, and the incident went undocumented”

      I had the privilege of visiting Zimbabwe once with one of my best mates from Uni (he’s from there). That sort of thing is rampant and actually the norm there- because obviously the Police make more money from corruption than their salaries. This sort of thing is quite rare in the West but this is quite an interesting example of how it still happens in Europe.

      1. As a matter of fact I think Keith shared a story in one of the round ups after the Singapore GP on how a track official was bribed and allowed a fan in. Might be a thing in that part of the world too.

    3. “Friday was normally a traditional night off from the booze”

      Love how this is the complete opposite of most people doing a ‘normal’ job.

    4. Bet was either Coulthard or Raikkonen

    5. With all of this, no wonder McLaren had the worst reliability in the first half of the 2000s.
      Bunch of wasted, hungover mechanics aiming for perfection, while being unable to even aim for the urinal at best.

    6. I knew an ex-F1 mechanic. You could see in his eyes and grin he’d had a good time and knew some stuff.

    7. Great stuff from an insider. The tech info (like the stethoscope) is a fantastic reminder why I love F1. As for the drinking & drug taking, well almost every corporation in any industry that travels in large groups away from home go through this. It’s not just McLaren, every team would have behaved similarly and it’s what makes them human and coincidentally, probably the most exciting times in F1. I was briefly in F1 in the ‘60’s and worked for ‘Gentleman John’ Surtees. Nothing like this happened around John, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to recount that several well known F1 drivers of the day had a stiff drink before racing. It doesn’t make it right but it makes it human. So meh to the gloom merchants, and Rock-on! to the F1 circus..

    8. I’d like to add my thanks to @keithcollantine for previewing this book here because otherwise I’m not sure I’d have known about it..

      1. +1 Exactly! Thank you Keith, and for me for sure it is a must-read thing.

    9. Here’s another story about mechanics that is less inspiring.

      Back when F1 ran at Long Beach in California, I was doing photography and got to know the crew of one team, which I won’t name. Here’s a hint though, … one of their drivers became world champion once. Most of the team was British or Irish, and the team ran on a shoestring budget. They were given a few dollars per diem for food, and it was never enough for decent meals, let alone a few beers.

      When shooting night-time pit work, I would stop-by a fast food place and a liquor store and buy them burgers, fries and beer, and when I showed up while they were doing all-nighters working on the cars it was like I was feeding a village of starving kids. Many of them were working just for room, board and travel money, just to gain experience.

      So, F1 isn’t always fast times and glamour.

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