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…& So It All Comes Down To This

November 21, 2014

I count myself incredibly lucky to have worked for a Formula One team and gone into the last day of a season with the chance of my driver emerging as World Champion, on three separate occasions.

On one of those memorable days, with Kimi in 2003, we went in as underdogs with only a slim chance of the outcome we so desperately wanted, similar to Nico Rosberg and his Mercedes crew in Abu Dhabi.
We needed, on that occasion, for our rivals to slip up, together with a great result for us, but sadly it wasn’t to be and Michael Schumacher, took the coveted crown.

In 2007, as a team we found ourselves in the rare but currently familiar situation of going into the last day of the campaign knowing either of our two drivers, Alonso and Hamilton, could be victorious with the right results. On that day however, a third man, the underdog in Kimi Raikkonen and his shiny new red Ferrari, would emerge as the new champion and we painfully missed out again.

2008 saw one of the sports most memorable finishes in Brazil and as a team, we once more walked into the circuit that day knowing we had an amazing opportunity, but once more felt the weight of expectation of millions of fans around the world, the heavy British Media presence and not least, the pressure we piled onto ourselves.

The reason for recalling these very special occasions is to try and describe my feelings on the day and in the days building up. To give some insight into the way the guys and girls at Mercedes might be feeling this weekend as they approach, what will be for many, the biggest day of their professional careers.

The thing to note about these situations is that it’s like the holy grail for a Formula One team. Just as a driver has dreamt of becoming World Champion since the first day he jumped into a junior racing car, the mechanics, engineers, designers, support crew and everyone inside the team are equally as passionate and dedicated about what they do and that title means just as much to them.

For me, that weekend in 2003 meant everything. We were a close-knit crew on Kimi’s car, had shared wonderful highs like our first win together in the Malaysian Grand Prix and suffered heart breaking lows like engine failure whilst comfortably leading the European GP.
Our chances on the day were statistically slim to say the least, but that didn’t matter to me, we had a chance and I was incredibly proud of that alone.
As it turned out, we did all we could, but the results will forever show that Michael scored two more points than we did and was Formula One World Champion. I was heartbroken.

Most people would say that Schumacher and Ferrari deserved the title that year, he had after all won six races to our one, just as Lewis has ten victories to Nico’s five today.
But to me eleven years ago, just as it’ll feel to the crew on Nico’s side of the garage in Abu Dhabi, it’s just the guy with most points at the end that deserves the title, not the manner in which they collected them.
The opportunity to even fight for a world championship is incredibly hard to achieve, so if and when that chance comes around, it means the world to those involved.

2007 was different. As a team we hadn’t won a championship since 1999 with Mika and if I’m honest it showed.
The internal fighting between teammates is well documented, but from a team point of view we allowed our focus to stray from the big picture of team success to concentrating too much on beating the other side of our own garage and not giving anything away to the ‘enemy’.
There was an odd atmosphere inside the team, a feeling of paranoia wherever you looked, both in terms of second guessing what the other half might do, but also that on this most important of days, the slightest mistake by any member of the team could swing the title either way.
We had the current World Champion in Fernando, who’s entire nation already hated the brits and blamed the team for his political difficulties that year, on one side.
On the other, Ron’s prodigy, the new poster boy of British sport with the my own nation willing him to win, in Lewis.

The individual pressure to succeed as a mechanic on days like this is big, but the pressure not to fail is far, far greater.
I remember feeling terrified that we’d missed something all the way through Sunday morning, something I’d never normally feel, as I was experienced, confident in my own ability. I’d prepared cars and guided young teams of mechanics through countless high pressure race days before, yet this one felt different.
We should’ve had a feeling of pride amongst the whole team, a morning of both sides of the garage wishing the other luck with team management doing the same.
Instead, when management did give their Sunday morning speech to the assembled crews, it had a feeling of the referee calling two fighters into the middle of a boxing ring to lay down the laws of the bout, before both sides retreated to their corners for a team huddle.
Of course that’s an exaggeration, but the sentiment’s the same. Instead of approaching the race weekend as we should, like any other, we raised the tension ourselves, led by our own two feuding drivers.

It’s when you begin to do anything differently to normal, that mistakes can creep in. We were all highly skilled, more than capable of doing our jobs, of preparing the cars, working with the drivers and engineers, delivering perfect pitstops and race strategy.

On a normal Sunday morning there would’ve been no doubt, we’d be relaxed, the car would be ready and we’d be watching the GP2 race on the garage screens ahead of the Grand Prix.
On this day however, there was fear throughout the team, I could see it on the faces of my team mates, I could see it in their behaviour, I could feel it myself.

When you get your car onto the grid on days like this, the job should be all but done. But as a mechanic, you look around the car, sat there with cooling fans in and tyre blankets on, computers plugged in etc and desperately look for a missing bolt or loose nut that you might have forgotten. If anything does go wrong today, more than anything you don’t want it to be your fault.

Experience gets you through these things, but for the younger guys at Mercedes, who’ve perhaps never been in this situation, it’s incredibly daunting.

Despite my extensive experience in 2008, by which time I was no longer working on the cars, but overseeing the guys who were, the pressure again was formidable.
We had only one driver to focus on this time around, but again we made strategic mistakes by approaching the race looking for the fifth place we needed for the title, rather than going out to win as we normally would.
As a result we came perilously close to letting it slip away and the emotional roller coaster we all went on that day I will never forget.

I’ve no doubt they will be trying to do just this, but Mercedes need to go into Abu Dhabi like they’ve gone into every other weekend of the year.
Focussing too much on each other, or on desperately making sure both get the same equal treatment, could mean the things they can normally do with their eyes closed, get overlooked.

Whatever happens may the best man, and his crew, win the title on Sunday, but the whole team should all be incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved.

Marc Priestley

@f1elvis

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From → Formula One

2 Comments
  1. Joffrey permalink

    Honestly, someone like you with modern F1 experience should write a book. It’s silly we only have Steve Matchett’s (great) books to rely on

    • Thanks Joffrey, it’s in the pipeline actually, just need some spare time to finish it.

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