Features - News Feature
SEPTEMBER 1, 1990
Life as a Formula 1 mechanic
BY JOE SAWARD
Formula 1 is a circus which travels round the world. It includes the top performers in many fields: there are the world's best drivers; brilliant technical brains; high-flying marketing men. And then there are the mechanics.
Mechanics do not come to F1 looking for fame and fortune. And, looking from the inside, many people ask where they get their satisfaction. They work all hours of the day and night and get little recognition.
"Lots of people envy us," says Christian Blum an engine mechanic who travels around the world with Renault Sport. "All they see is the travel, the close contact we enjoy with the drivers. They don't see the fatigue, the extra hours we work, the disruption of our home lives and how frustrating it is when all you ever see of a country is the route from airport to circuit via the hotel.
"Not that I'm complaining," he adds. "It's a wonderful job -- but it has its limitations. Having said all that in the winter I miss that Grand Prix fever."
Therein lies the secret of a racing mechanic's motivation. At heart you have to be an enthusiast to put up with the hard work. The money is not motivation enough.
But how does one become a Grand Prix mechanic? As with everyone else in F1 the stories are rich and varied. Some set out to achieve that goal others seem to have happened on Grand Prix racing by chance.
"There's not really a set path to follow," says Blum. "If a young lad asked my advice, I'd tell him first to take a technical course."
Blum is French but he feels it is important that a mechanic can speak English. There are very few multi-lingual English mechanics.
With a basic technical grounding, the best way to progress is to start working in junior formulae, to gain experience.
Blum himself never thought of becoming an F1 mechanic. His grandfather was a great fan of do-it-yourself and Christian reckons he inherited that joy of working with his hands. At 20 he went to work in a garage in the suburbs of Paris.
"I stayed there for five years," he remembers. "A friend of mine was rallying at the time, I gave him the odd helping hand and, bit by bit, I got a taste for motor sport."
The day he went to Viry-Chatillon to be interviewed, Christian remembers passing the Renault race team heading off for the 1985 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Twelve months later he would be one of that number travelling to South America.
"I spent a year training at Renault Sport's headquarters at Viry-Chatillon," he remembers. "In the summer of 1985 I started going to the private tests with teams using Renault engines: Tyrrell, Lotus and Ligier. At the end of the year I was seconded to Lotus and in March 1986 I flew to Rio. It was like a dream come true. But in our job you have to keep your feet on the ground."
Blum's feet do seem to be firmly anchored.
"You mustn't think that an F1 mechanic is the top rung of the ladder," he says. "A good garage mechanic -- provided he accepts the constraints of racing -- will make a good race mechanic. The aim is the same. When we rebuild an engine it has to work -- whether it's in a Grand Prix car or a Renault 5."
The life does provide some priveleged moments. "I have an especially happy memory of Ayrton Senna when he was racing for Lotus-Renault," recalls Blum. "Every time he took pole position -- which happened pretty often -- he would get out of the car and shake each one of us by the hand before going to talk to the press. That's the sort of gesture you don't forget."
Usually, however, the work at a Grand Prix is hard with little obvious reward. Work begins at the track 0800 on the Thursday before a race. For the rest of the weekend it is up at 0600 and back to the hotel by 2100.
There are 12 engine mechanics working at Viry-Chatillon, but only three go to each Grand Prix. They are accompanied by a truckie/mechanic, an electronics specialist, two engineers and Renault Sport's technical director Bernard Dudot. The Renault transporter takes 10 engines to each race.
"Apart from engine changes and the modifications asked for by the engineers and drivers, our main task is to check the engines each time they stop," says Blum. "We make sure none of the parts show signs of abnormal wear."
For this the mechanics use an endoscope, a long slim instrument fed through the engine sleeves and spark plug chambers. This allows the technicians to examine the engine without taking it apart.
In an emergency, however, the Renault mechanics can change an engine within half an hour.
Despite this, much of the most important work is done back at the Renault Sport factory.
"Races are won and lost in the factory," says Blum. "At a Grand Prix what we do is maintenance. We have to react to every problem as it crops up, but, most importantly, we have to work fast, make no mistakes and be constantly on the alert to prevent any breakdown that might happen.
"The mechanic's nightmare is letting a breakdown happen that he could have seen coming."
"For engine mechanics a Grand Prix stops at the moment it begins for the drivers.
"For us the worst moment at any Grand Prix is the start," says Blum. "Your heart always beats that little bit faster. We live in dread of an accident which would waste hours and hours of work in a tenth of a second.
"A retirement is always annoying and frustrating, but a win like the one in Canada last year is a moment of intense happiness.
"I'm well aware that there are very few jobs that can offer such happy moments and such keen emotions.
"The average age of F1 mechanics is 30," he continues. "There are only a very few over 40 because there comes a time when the desire for a balanced family life outweighs the love of racing.
"Being a race mechanic means choosing a way of life.
"This life suits me very well."