Marc Priestley Q&A: Former F1 mechanic lifts the lid on life with McLaren
For ten years Marc Priestley lived the life many of us dream of: as a mechanic for McLaren he was at the heart of one of Formula 1’s most storied teams in the sport and had a front row seat as some of the greatest Grand Prix battles played out on the track.
He got to work alongside some of the best drivers of the era like Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton - and see how titans of the sport like Ron Dennis and Adrian Newey brought success to the team.
Now an F1 and Formula E pundit, Marc has written a book about his time working for team Macca - so we spoke to him to get a flavour of what life was like on the F1 road show.
What was it really like working with Raikkonen? How did he cope with being in the middle of the Lewis Hamilton vs Fernando Alonso war? And was it really true that Ron Dennis used to have his gravel cleaned?
How did you get into F1?
From a young age I absolutely knew that working in Formula 1 was what I wanted to do. I was fascinated by watching it on telly, but as much by the cars and by the pitstops and all the technology as I was the drivers.
I knew I really needed to be part of this somehow so I did a motor vehicle engineering course at college, then got a job as an apprentice, working at a very small race team in north London - it was a dream come true. I was doing very little - not much more than making the tea and sweeping the floor, loading the truck and very occasionally getting to work on the cars but that was enough to get me hooked.
I was constantly looking for other opportunities, going to racetracks and making sure that I made contact with people in other categories of racing. I just chased the dream - I always had getting to Formula 1 in the back of my mind.
What really got me into F1 was absolute sheer persistence, because all the way through this process I was constantly writing to every Formula 1 team, almost weekly and I’ve still got a stack of rejection letters at home. Eventually I just made myself such a pain in the arse that McLaren eventually caved in and gave me an opportunity.
What surprised you most when you first joined McLaren?
When I first joined McLaren I was on the test team, and I definitely wasn’t prepared for just how brutal the hours were back in those days. I was shocked.
You’d go into work on a test at 7am and if we made it home before kind of 2am the following morning that was not a bad day.
Nowadays of course they have night shifts and there are curfews and things like that so it’s not quite the same. It was pretty extreme but to be honest I didn’t really care because it was a dream come true and I was so happy to be there, I’d have done anything.
It also really surprised me that they - not just McLaren but Formula 1 in general - were asking us to perform pitstops and things that could genuinely affect the outcome of a race, and put these cars together that were going 200mph with the driver strapped in, and we were having to do that on what could actually be by race day, not much more than a handful of hours worth of sleep all week.
Was it all work?
No - it was very work hard, play hard. In the early days, even if we didn’t finish work till 2am, incredibly we’d still somehow find time to go out and have a few drinks.
At the time there was so much money being pumped into Formula 1 through these huge tobacco companies that the teams would spend an inordinate amount of money on parties and extravagance.
As a 22-year-old man having just dropped into the sport it was an incredible time. We were travelling the world, going to amazing places, teams were putting on immensely ridiculous parties in amazing locations - that was how we used to spend our weekends.
What do you remember about your first pitstop?
When I first joined the pit stop crew, because I was so new and inexperienced, the team manager gave me a job that is hardly ever required: putting on a new nosecone and front wing.
Pitstops were very different back then. The preparation wasn’t anywhere near as meticulous as it is today, and so I felt hugely under-prepared. We’d had maybe one or two practices in the week building up to it, whereas now, they practice every single day.
I remember being happy that a front wing change was quite rare because I was terrified going into that first race. It was the Australian Grand Prix in 2002 and Kimi Raikkonen was in his first race for McLaren. And of course he had a collision at turn one, knocked his nose off and so I was called straight into action. Still to this day it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
As it turned out, my bit of it went really well, but the actual pitstop was one of McLaren’s worst ever. Kimi had got a little piece of gravel stuck down between his back and the seat of the car, and you are so tightly strapped in to an F1 car that that was incredibly painful.
There was about 15 people clambering all over this stationary car with the engine bouncing off the rev limiter, desperately trying to fish out this one little stone.
Still, it was an incredible adrenaline rush. Terrifying in the moment, but the feeling when you’ve done it is just amazing and it’s still the thing that I miss most today about not being involved with the team is the pitstop.
The experience is incredible because the noise of a Formula 1 car was deafening - I mean bone-shakingly loud, much more so than it is today, and when you’re knelt with a wheel gun a foot away from that, when the engine’s bouncing off its limiter, it just shakes your bones to bits. The heat coming off the brakes is overwhelming, the speed at which they approach you is terrifying.
To be there in that moment… there just aren’t many things that can replicate that.
What was it really like working for Ron Dennis?
Working for Ron Dennis was both amazing and a pain in the arse.
You really had to be a certain type of person to be able to do it.
Attention to detail is very high in F1 in general, but at McLaren it’s way above and beyond what everyone else is doing. It’s quite easy when you’re working for him to think ‘oh this is ridiculous - I’m spending more time cleaning my desk than actually doing any work on the car’, but actually when you step back and look at what Ron’s achieved and why he’s achieved it, it’s the attention to detail that has set McLaren apart.
For example, after a race weekend, we’d strip the car into pieces in the race bay at the factory, clean all the bits and then you’d start working on preparing it for the next race.
I remember Ron coming round one day and seeing all these bits that we’d taken off the car that were dirty on the bench where we were cleaning them. Less than a week later we had a new room constructed in another part of the factory where we had to take all the bits to go and clean them because he didn’t want any dirty bits in his pristine race bays.
Things like that that made our life a lot harder, but he was showing guests around our factory and he wanted it spotless.
He would never let me have a radio out on the workbenches. He just hated the fact that the radio wasn’t a McLaren piece of kit, it was unordered, and it wasn’t something that he’d designated should be there, so they all got banned.
There was a rumour that went round the factory that Ron used to get the gravel on his driveway taken away and cleaned. It’s one of those urban legends in F1 - but it’s absolutely true.
So he could be a pain in the arse to work for, but I’ve come away from my ten years with McLaren with the utmost respect for him and I’m really honoured to have worked for him.
...And Adrian Newey?
He joined McLaren a couple of years before I did. He was already a legend of the sport.
He’d had success at Williams and then come to McLaren and won the championship immediately in '98 and '99.
He fitted in with Ron quite well to some extent in that his attention to detail was also ridiculous at some levels.
He was a stubborn man in that, if he had an idea, he wouldn’t just let it go, he would persist with it, even if it didn’t work in the beginning, which could be really frustrating for us as a team of engineers when we were given parts or a car that didn’t really work or perform as they should of done.
But he absolutely believed in what he did and so instead of just scrapping it and going back to the drawing board, he would continue with it until he made it work, which could be a difficult set of circumstances to work under - but in the end almost always give us results.
It was fascinating to watch him work. I remember being in the garage one day when we had a new car and were struggling to fit this particular item, a brake duct or something, and I spent ages trying to get this thing to fit the car and it wasn’t working. I remember saying to him, “Adrian, when you’re designing these cars, just roughly as a percentage, how much of the design process goes into making the parts easy to change as opposed to performance?”
“Oh,” he said, “Absolutely none. It’s ALL about performance.”
So I rolled my eyes, like, “Ok, thanks very much.”
Was the McLaren Technology Centre an easy place to work?
The short answer is ‘no’.
It is an amazing building in a stunning location, green belt land all around it and a lake outside, and inside it had the most amazing facilities, everything you could wish for as an engineer. But when we got in there it quite quickly became clear that this was a giant showroom and a showpiece for McLaren as much as it was any sort of practical place to work.
It was Ron’s personality that had gone into this - it was spotless at all times, everything looked amazing.
But practically it was sometimes difficult. The trucks parked at the furthest possible point from where the race bays were where the cars were being built, so you’d have to push the cars on these little wheelie trolleys though the factory round right angles and down narrow walkways to get them out of the building right over the other side to load them in the trucks, and this was an operation we were doing all the time.
And often the departments we had to go and see most were on the other side of this enormous building. Let’s just say when you’re working to tight deadlines it could be frustrating.
Also, you were not allowed a cup of coffee on your desk. There was this complete ‘clear bench’ policy where at the end of every day you’d have to clear everything away from your benches and your desks to make sure it was spotless before you went home, and that was even if you were half way through a big job, so you’d have to get it all back out again in the morning.
You worked closely with Kimi Raikkonen. Is he really as quiet as he seems?
For the majority of my time I was working on Kimi Riakkonen’s race car. We had a really really strong, tight-knit crew of people during that era - a really tight bond between all the mechanics, engineers and Kimi himself.
He’s an odd character in that the person that you see on TV or in interviews is a strange, monosyllabic, Finnish, almost robotic type. When you get him away from the race track and out of the glaring eye of the media he’s a completely different person, and we were lucky enough to see that. We spent a lot of time with him, socially as well as professionally. And we got on so well that I still call him a friend today.
Because of that we ended up working just that little bit harder and giving each other that little bit more and in 2003 and 2005 we came tantalisingly close to winning the title.
I think it went down to the final day in 2003 and we lost out to Michael Schumacher, which was heartbreaking.
Kimi was the perfect example of a driver that you would go the extra mile for. You don’t mind putting in the extra effort or staying that little bit later in the evening because you think you might be able to come up with a tiny advantage, because you know that the driver will pull something out of the bag. If you give him the tools, he’ll deliver.
Kimi was one of those. He had an incredible knack, when he was in his prime with us at McLaren for really dragging a car, an average car sometimes, round a race track with a lap time that it probably didn’t deserve to achieve, and you knew he would do that every time.
One of the things he didn’t have in his armoury was the ability to nurse the car home if he needed to - he was flat out or nothing. But that’s what we wanted from a driver.
If we could deliver a car that would stay together, we knew we’d get a result.
Which other drivers did you work with?
Mika Hakkinen was the current world champion when I arrived. It was him and David Coulthard - a hugely successful driver pairing.
Mika in particular was like a machine. This Finnish, robotic machine, who just delivered when he got into a race car.
We all thought Juan Pablo Montoya was a bit of an un-McLaren like driver and ultimately that was the reason he didn’t stick around for very long, because he didn’t get on with Ron and he ended up leaving way before his contract was up.
They clashed on a number of different levels. He’s a great driver, but he wasn’t the McLaren machine that Ron liked from his drivers, like a Hakkinen.
What was the Lewis vs Fernando battle like in 2007?
I was in the middle of it. It’s fair to say that they hated each other by the end of that season.
They weren’t working together at all. And when that happened, the two car crews that were around those drivers naturally gravitated towards their own driver and closed ranks around their man so it ended up creating this huge divide down the middle of the garage.
It split the team which ultimately was the reason we didn’t win the championship that year because we were so busy squabbling with each other that we took our eyes completely off what Ferrari were doing and ironically it was Kimi who ended up coming through and taking the title at the last race.
We had the best car by the end of that year, we had the two best drivers on the grid I’m sure, and yet we came away with nothing.
I think both drivers would see that year as being very different.
Lewis at the time was a McLaren and a Ron Dennis protege, he knew he had the backing of Ron, and he had the whole British media behind him.
Whereas Fernando, who was the current world champion and widely regarded in the sport as being the best driver at the time, was coming into a British team with a British driver - and he was utterly convinced that the team and Ron were all backing Lewis. Which, in the beginning, certainly wasn’t the case.
Eventually we all knew the relationship had absolutely broken down between the team and Fernando and at that point I think Ron did genuinely want Lewis to win the title in the second half of that season and so Fernando was ultimately proved right, at least in his own mind.
That was the same season that the ‘Spygate’ scandal broke. How did that affect the team
It was devastating.
As a team of mechanics and engineers in the garage, we felt like we were being branded as cheats in the wider world.
But of course the whole Spygate incident was actually limited to a very small number of people within the organisation. It was nothing at all to do with us, we were just getting on with our job, desperately trying to win the title.
For most of the F1 teams, the Constructors’ title is the one that really means the most - and we had that in the bag by a mile. We were going to walk it that year and because of the actions of a small number of people we had that taken away from us.
That was really heartbreaking because those opportunities are so rare.
To win a world title in F1 is so difficult, it’s almost indescribably difficult. That year we had all the elements and yet the actions of those two people caused it to be taken from us and handed, virtually on a plate, to Ferrari.
It’s something that I never really got over because we never won the Constructors’ Championship in all the other years that I was there.
But you won the drivers’ title in 2008 in dramatic circumstances. What do you remember of that day?
As Lewis Hamilton started the last lap of the 2008 season, we’d lost the title.
The Ferrari team were celebrating. It felt in that moment that a whole season’s work - and more than that - had just gone down the drain and we were going to come away with nothing.
The whole garage went into doom and gloom for a moment and then at that final corner Lewis overtook Timo Glock, and for a few moments no one was quite sure what had happened. Then it dawned on us that we were now going to be champions and we all went right back up to the top of the world. It was absolutely the highlight of my career.
I remember Nicole Scherzinger who was going out with Lewis at the time, just screaming at the top of her voice so much that it just deafened me through my ear defenders and everybody just leapt around in this incredible state of euphoria, so it was an amazing day.
Remind yourself of that race - and Nicole Scherzinger's reaction here.
If you want to read more about Marc's life in F1, you can buy his book 'The Mechanic: The Secret World of the F1 Pitlane' here.