Marc Priestley: How I Became a Formula One Mechanic
Note: There is the audio recording of the interview at the bottom of the page.
How did you make it to Formula One?
As a teenager, I grew up living next door to Brands Hatch, which at the time was where the British Grand Prix was being held. This meant that I had Formula One descend on me I guess, more so than me searching it out. That was how I discovered what it was, and how I became hooked into it and from there I just became fascinated by it. I would watch it on TV and basically set my mind on working in it. From my late teenage years, I became pretty single minded about getting involved and was desperate to be part of the pitstop crew.
At this point I was half way through an A-Level course, which I decided to quit after having a rather awkward conversation with my parents about chasing my dream of working in Formula One and ended up switching to a mechanical engineering course. At the same time, I started offering my services for free for very small racing teams. To begin with, I started working for a little Caterham kit-car team, which gave me a bit of valuable experience in the pitlane and in the paddock. I was doing this at weekends, and as work experience in the summer holidays not getting paid initially, just gaining experience. I did a bit of Formula Ford as well, and was literally just sweeping up, making tea, carrying bits around a generally just being a gofer.
Eventually, I realised that I absolutely loved it and that I was in my element, which conformed that that was what I wanted to do. I then made an effort to try and get myself an apprenticeship, which i managed to get with the small Caterham team that I got my initial experience with.
When I was about eighteen years old, I left home and went to live in London where this team was based. I was being paid only about £120 per week and was living on the floor of my brother's student flat in North London, so it was one of those where I would have done anything to just get involved in motorsport. Once I got there (with the apprenticeship), I was setting my sights very quickly on how I could work my way up the ladder. I started to make contacts at every race track that I went to, talking to people and other teams in the paddock and people from other race series that were there and just put my name out there telling people that I wanted to move up.
Eventually, I got the chance to move up to Formula Ford, and I guess over the next three or four years I gradually moved up as quickly as I could through the ranks if you like, through Formula Ford and British Formula Three. After this, I made it to the Italian Formula 3000 Championship, which was, at the time, the equivalent to what Formula Two is today, then next step down from Formula One.
At that point, I was writing letters every month to every single Formula One team, chancing my arm really. Every month I would get a stack of rejection letters back from them all saying that 'thanks very much, we'll keep you on file' blah blah blah. I still have all of those rejection letters to this day, as occasionally I show them to my kids to show them to never give up. It was this sort of relentless persistence that just out of the blue I got a positive response back from McLaren. Every time had gained more experience, moved up the ladder or got some other achievement with whatever I was doing in Formula Three, or Formula 3000, I wrote a new letter saying 'look, I've done this now, gained this experience, worked with these drivers' and each time I pestered every Formula One team until one of them caved in.
How long was it before you got the positive reply from McLaren?
I think I was writing letter for around three years, I mean a lot of letters. And back then it was letters, email was rarely a thing, so it was putting letters in the post and then getting them back in the post.
When I got to Formula 3000, I really upped that intensity (of sending letters), being desperate to break up to that next level. I was so close at that point that you could almost feel it, and it became an absolute obsession. It really was just that persistence and constantly being in the background trying to gain more and more experience. All of these letters were coming back saying 'it's great that you got in touch but we are looking for someone with this experience'. I would then get that experience and write back to them, and this is what really got me the opportunity. It was about trying being persistent and trying to achieve what they wanted from a new employee.
What advice would you give to students?
It totally depends on what you want to do because there are two things that you have to remember which are that firstly, Formula One is not the only exceptionally good place to work in motorsport. I know it is what most people see as the pinnacle, but there are actually some fantastic series that could offer you an incredible career.
Secondly, the other thing is that experience accounts for a lot. It depends on what you want to do within a Formula One team. Do you want to be a mechanic, part of the pitstop crew, do you want to be a race engineer, a strategist, or a designer?
There are so many different roles within Formula One, and they all require different things to be able to attain them. The first thing is that you need to decide what area you want to get into, and then work out the best way to achieve that. For me, I was always interested in the mechanical side, the technical side of Formula One and I desperately wanted to be a part of the pitstop crew. This meant that practical experience and experience in a paddock and time around racing cars in general was far more beneficial to me than following a university degree to achieve what I wanted to achieve.
If you do want to be a part of the pitstop crew, then my advice would be that there is no harm in pursuing a degree, having a degree can only help things. However, you have got to weigh up the decision of that if you spend the next few years doing a degree, it becomes more difficult to gain the experience that a team would also want to see in that area. This is not to say that you couldn't (gain the experience), you could always offer your services at weekends to go and help out at a race track or small teams, so I definitely wouldn't say 'don't pursue a degree', but for me I was much more focused on gaining the experience that could then tick the boxes for a Formula One team.
Did you feel any pressure to do A-Levels and go to University?
I think I did feel this pressure, which I think is why I originally went down the route of doing A-Levels, and then probably would have looked at then going onto university. It was only really when I started to offer my services for free in school holidays and things and got a little bit of experience that I knew 100% that that was what I wanted to do and if I was going to go down the route of doing A-Levels and a degree, it would only be putting off the process of going back to start at a small race team and gaining the experience, so I took the decision to go down that route straight away.
I would say that a Formula One team will always want to see experience, very rarely will they take anyone who has never been in a pitlane or never been around a racing car, so you would have to get some experience. However, if you were to go down the route of a mechanical engineering course, then this can only be a good addition to your CV.
Why should people want to be a mechanic, and what did you enjoy most at McLaren?
I loved everything about it. I loved the fact that I was suddenly working at this incredibly famous, historical and incredibly successful team and I felt very lucky that I got my positive response from McLaren. It could have been from a team at the other end of the grid, and whilst it would still have been amazing, it would have been a very different experience. I also loved the fact that I was suddenly involved in what I saw as the pinnacle of motorsport, and probably the pinnacle of Formula One, as McLaren were at the time. I also loved the idea that I was suddenly working with the best technology and the best of innovation at the time.
I was part of this top secret group where I had access, and I had unrestricted access to these incredible innovations and ideas that were top secret outside of our building, but I was now in this inner circle if you like. When a new development went through, we were part of this process of testing it and developing it and the rest of the world didn't know about it. This is a great feeling because you feel like you have been instrumental in creating something that might make a racing car go quicker.
I was also working with some amazing people, Adrian Newey was there at the time at McLaren, and that was obviously an incredible experience. To work with the best engineers and equipment and the best resources, as an engineer you can't ask for more than that. The pinnacle of any engineers career is to be able to work with the best of everything, and that is what we had at McLaren.
Were you a McLaren fan before you got the job?
I guess I was, yes. At the time, they were world champions, it was them and Ferrari who were they two best teams. I think most Formula One fans, certainly most British Formula One fans, tended to follow , as you do at that age being pretty fickle, you follow the best teams. It was a dream come true.
I remember walking through the doors of the McLaren factory for my interview, shaking like a leaf just because I was in those surroundings. It really was a special moment and I loved every single second of it.
They have gone through some very difficult times recently, but one thing that I would say about McLaren would be that once you are inside an organisation like that, they are actually much bigger than just the Formula One team. McLaren is a great example of this, as they make their road cars, and the also have the McLaren Applied Technologies arm of the group which works in all sorts of industry using Formula One technology, understanding and solutions into other areas. Once you're in an organisation like that, the opportunities for moving around within it and moving into other areas are enormous.
I think that despite the fact that they are not doing so well on the race track, as a company, they are still a great place to end up.
How did you decide that you wanted to start working in the media?
Well, the funny thing is, I didn't really. I did almost ten years at McLaren with the race team, and I left after we had won the world championship with Lewis (Hamilton) at the end of 2008. I then went into 2009 knowing that that was a good opportunity if I was going to leave after having spent so much time there, and finishing having won. The travel was becoming a lot for me because I had young family, and so I decided that I was going to make the move to leave, but I didn't really have a plan of what I was going to do afterwards.
When I left, I started writing for my own personal blog. From this, I started doing a few bits for magazines and various Formula One websites, and it was actually the producers of the Radio 5 Live broadcast that picked up on my writing and invited me along to be a pitlane reporter atg the British Grand Prix. Then, suddenly after that day I realised that I absolutely loved it and that was now what I wanted to do for the next phase of my career. It was only from there that, perhaps with the same level of determination I guess as I did all those years before, tried to build a career in that side of things.
I stumbled into it really, as it wasn't something that I left McLaren to try and pursue. I realised that I had a unique set of experiences and a unique understanding of how a Formula One team works behind the scenes, and I thought that could be valuable to share with people. I hope that I can share things that are different to everybody else because I have been in the heart of a team and had success with that team as well. That is what I then started to use as my new selling point if you like, and tried to build on it.
After being a mechanic, do you watch races with a different perspective?
Yeah, I think so. This is more so in terms of the strategy decisions because you have a better understanding of what's going on behind the scenes and why teams are thinking a certain way. You also have an appreciation for what people do, for example the pit stops. The pit stops are just mind-blowingly fast - I know what goes into making that happen and I also know that some of these guys are doing that and performing on a Sunday afternoon after sometimes having very little sleep over the course of the week because they've been working such long hours.
So yes, you do have a different appreciation having been through it, just of what the sacrifice that people make. This is because it is not just a job, if you're going into this as a career you have to accept that this is a life choice that you are making here. It is not just a career, or a 9 to 5, and is not something that you can easily switch off from when you have had enough. You have to go in with a kind of love and passion for racing which is what I did, and when you do that you appreciate that everyone else has that. Up and down the pitlane, they are all the same: they all do it because they love it and because they want to win or have some success.
You definitely have a very different perspective on what has gone into any given result whether it is good or bad. For example at McLaren, they are obviously struggling but what I know is that because they are struggling actually that translates into more hard work from the guys at the team. This is because you are desperately trying to claw back some success. They are working twice as hard as some of the other teams might be and yet still really struggling to get results.
It can be, I know this term is massively overused, an emotional rollercoaster because you put everything into it and yet sometimes you can walk away from a weekend with nothing and be absolutely devastated, but you have to pick yourself up really quickly and go on to the next one. You have to celebrate the small victories and the small successes to be able to build on them because if you never celebrate anything, it can become a very depressing place. Sometimes when you have small wins or small areas of success you really have to make sure that the team celebrates that and make sure that they know they have done a good job because that is what spurs people on to keep that effort coming and striving for the bigger successes down the line.
Finally, a bit off topic, but who do you think is the best driver on the grid?
I get asked this quite a lot, and it's almost an impossible one to answer, so I can only really answer it based off my experience because I've been very lucky over the years to work with some of the best.
When I worked with Kimi (Raikkonen) back in the day when he was in his prime at McLaren, I would say that he was probably the best, or certainly the fastest driver that I've ever worked with. However, he was never, and is never going to be the most complete Formula One driver because he only really loved driving the cars - everything else around that he didn't really enjoy and he didn't really dedicate enough time to them.
I think that the two most complete drivers that I ever worked with, and it is difficult to split them, is Lewis (Hamilton) and Fernando (Alonso). I worked with Lewis in his early years, and of course he has matured a lot since I worked with him, but both of those two are so difficult to split because they put so much into what they do. They have obviously got an incredible talent, but they also work so hard to try and find improvements all of the time. I think that is probably what makes those two probably the best. I am sure that there are others that haven't had the opportunity yet with the best cars, but in my own experience those two are stand-out drivers on the grid.
Alternatively, you can listen to the interview here:
What is your story?
If you have any suggestions of people to talk to for future articles in my 'How I Became' series, I would love to know of anybody who is aspiring to work in Formula One, works in Formula One or even somebody that knows somebody that works in Formula One. If you think a story needs telling, get in touch with me either through the comments section, direct message or my Twitter.
I want to say a huge thank you to Marc Priestley for agreeing to do this interview with me, as it is certainly a huge help for me and hopefully many of you also.
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You can find Marc Priestley here: