When Marc Priestley was a teenager all he wanted was a way into the world of Formula One. Building experience in the lower formulas he got his break joining the McLaren Formula One team. With ten years of experience he then transitioned to media and recently published author of his first book, The Mechanic. The secret to his success, hard work and always pushing to do the job the right way, no matter what that job is.
Mecca of Speed: You worked in various lower formulas of motorsport, how did you secure a position with McLaren Formula One?
Marc Priestley: I wasn’t specifically targeting McLaren. Ever since I was a teenager I have been obsessed with Formula One and was desperate to get into it. I was writing letters almost ever week to every Formula One team for about three years. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters at home.
I never gave up. It was when I managed to get enough experience and the letters started to reflect this experience in the lower categories that luckily got me a positive response. Perhaps they were just fed up with sending me rejection letters and caved in asking me in for an interview.
That is how I got in and it was a genuine dream come true.
Mecca of Speed: You started as a mechanic, what was your path through the team that lead to higher positions of greater responsibilities?
Marc Priestley: Back when I started every Formula One team had their own test team. It was an independently run time still within the same faction. They had their own cars, mechanics, engineers, everything. We would go to the circuits weeks before the races to test new parts and work to get the car set up correctly. We did primarily research and development work. I was a number two mechanic on the test team.
I did that for a year and then got promoted onto the race team. They saw something in me they liked, which was why I was quickly promoted. I was a number two mechanic there, which means you are working on a certain part of the car. For me it was the front end of Kimi Raikkonen’s car.
After two years I was moved up to a number one mechanic. In that position I was responsible for one of the cars, looking after all the number two mechanics and everything mechanically on that race car. It was a natural progression and I did it reasonably quickly. I can only assume that I convinced the people in the management of McLaren that I was passionately committed to what I was doing and good at my job.
Mecca of Speed: When working on car setup does the driver work strictly with the engineers or do they also work directly with the mechanics?
Marc Priestley: Some driver’s work more closely with their mechanics and engineers than others. Our crew had a particularly good relationship with Kimi, we were a very close knit crew. We worked very well together and when Kimi was at his peak we had great success. Twice we came close to winning the world title.
Some drivers work very well with their team, others much less. Each driver is an individual situation and you have to find what works for your driver and your crew. Sometimes it’s very integrated with in depth meetings and with others it might be much less. It comes down to the individuals involved and how to get the best out of each of them.
Mecca of Speed: In the Formula One team structure is it correct that each car has their own set of mechanics?
Marc Priestley: That’s right, each car has around six mechanics and an engineering team dedicated to that driver and car. You have a team on each side of the garage. Then there is a management structure that coordinates the two teams and makes sure that both sides are talking to each other and sharing information.
Mecca of Speed: Do both crews then come together to form the pit crew?
Marc Priestley: Yes, and back then there were a few more, 24 or 25 people involved in a pit stop. Bottom line there was simply not enough people for each driver to have their own individual pit crew.
It worked far better to have a dedicated crew that did every single pit stop. They could be honed and trained to be the best. That is how we managed to get very fast stops. Have the same people do the same job on every single stop.
Mecca of Speed: What was your roll when you were promoted onto the pit stop crew?
Marc Priestley: Over the years I’ve done a number of different things. In my very first pit stop I was the front wingman. When a driver had an accident and lopped off his front wing I was the guy that put on the new one.
Over the years I have done all sorts of things. Taking a wheel off, putting a wheel on, for a majority of the time I was operating the wheel gun on the right rear. I also did refueling in the qualifying pit stops. I did a bit of all sorts over the ten years I was there.
The majority of the time I was one the right rear wheel gun.
Mecca of Speed: Any pit stops stand out over those ten years?
Marc Priestley: It’s one of the best feels when the driver brings the car in the pits behind your main rival and they leave the pits in front. That means the pit crew did an excellent job. Those moments were amazing.
Some of the pits stops that stand out for me are not always for the best reasons. In particular, Formula One fans will remember in 2007 when Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were at war with each other. We had a pit stop in the Hungarian Grand Prix in qualifying where Fernando Alonso intentionally held his car stationary for 15-20 seconds longer then he should have. That was to hold Lewis up so he would not make it around and make a final qualifying lap. That made a lot of headlines, it was very controversial. It kick started a real horrible year for us with those two drivers fighting amongst each other and a consequence of that is the two sides of the garage were fighting amongst each other.
Another one that stands out was when David Coulthard came in hot, all crossed up, got out of shape and knocked us all over on the right rear. Luckily everybody was ok.
Those stops are such an adrenaline rush that you never forget.
Mecca of Speed: When you were doing pit stops, a six second stop was a competitive stop. The times have consistently been reduced to where two seconds is now a competitive stop. From a mechanics view, what have been the factors to bring these times down?
Marc Priestley: I think it’s a number of things, one of the key factors is they banned refueling and that put all the emphasis on changing tiers. That kick started a change in thinking about improving every single tiny part of that process. I remember going through the pit stop process in such detail, which was only a hand full of seconds to begin with. We worked to find advantages that might give you hundredths of a second, adding them up around the whole process, giving us a fairly significant chunk of time.
Now stops are down to two second and that comes from a different way of thinking. Once you get into thinking and look at the technology you see all the details. We now have incredible front jacks that are much more complex compared to when I first started. There are all sorts of equipment that are focused on getting a job done as quickly as possible.
The car has also changed to complement the equipment that we can use to change the wheels. The wheel guns are just one example.
Mecca of Speed: How would you describe Ron Dennis.
Marc Priestley: He was unique, that is the first word that comes to mind. I’ve never met anyone like him. I think when I first started there was a definite fear of Ron Dennis because he was such a monumental leader and ran McLaren with an iron fist. Over the years that fear tuned into respect, and now I look back on those year and have the utmost respect for him.
He was a very difficulty guy to work with at times, but he did all those things for very good reasons, to be a successful Formula One team and many other companies. McLaren has several technology companies and most of those stem from Ron Dennis and his vision.
I have to have nothing but respect for him.
Mecca of Speed: What are your thoughts on the current power unit and what direction should Formula One consider in the future.
Marc Priestley: At the moment with the new owners of Formula One Liberty Media and the Concord Agreement coming to an end it feels like a great time to make a change and really shake it up. I think the fans of the sport really want to see things going back to something similar to what we had in the past.
Road car technology has moved on and most of the manufactures are targeting Formula E because that is where their future definitly lays. Formula One cars are not going fully electric so there is no point in pursuing this hybrid era into the foreseeable future.
Should we go back to making it an entertainment sport with a gas guzzling V-8 or V-10 engine that scream at 20,000 rpm. The fans want to hear that and the drivers want it as well.
That’s my feeling, but it’s not the direction things are going to go. It looks like we are staying with hybrids or a similar variant to what we have now. It’s an incredible set of technology and has a lot to offer, but we need a halfway between what we have now and what people in Formula One and fans would like to see.
Mecca of Speed: The halo is coming for 2018 that is going to create more weight higher up on the car, what are your thoughts?
Marc Priestley: The fact that it puts weight up high is unfortunate; no team wants that issue with their car. I think the issue with the halo is what we have told the world about. The moment the FIA tells the world they have a safety device that could save lives, than the FIA’s hands are tied to introduce it
Once you disclose that technology you have to put it on Formula One cars. I’ve got mixed feelings. I totally understand the people that want things open wheel and open cockpit, the danger aspect and I agree with that. The problem is we now live in a world if the FIA didn’t introduce the halo and next year a driver is killed in a way that could have been prevented by the halo they open themselves up to all sorts of legal situations.
I think it’s an unfortunate and an amiable situation and the best solution is that over time it can become a more pleasing design. Perhaps more integrated with the design of the car. I’m sure people will become more accustom to it very quickly.
Mecca of Speed: Looking to the 2018 season and teams like Renault and Force India showing strong mid-pack performances, what teams do you see climbing up the ranks?
Marc Priestley: I like to think the team with the biggest opportunity to move up the grid is McLaren. They have had a few disastrous few years and dire results. They are putting a Renault engine in the car, the same engine that has won races with Red Bull this year. The McLaren chassis this year looked very good so I can’t wait to see what it can do with a Renault engine.
They are probably going to be the biggest move, I hope. The Renault factory team is also starting to look very good with their drivers. They need to get better reliability. It’s going to be their third year together as a full blown works outfit and the excuses at that point start to disappear and the team should start turning results in. I have higher hopes for them.
The top three times will be much of the same again, probably very close with Mercedes still being the team to beat.
I think Force India is stuck where they are at the moment. They are getting great results for the budget they got and they are not significantly increasing their budget for next year so they are likely going to end up about where they are now.
Mecca of Speed: Your book out now is titled The Mechanic, what inspired you to write a book and what will we find inside?
Marc Priestley: I always thought I had some good stories and background information that Formula One fans would like to hear about. There has only been one other guy, Steve Matchett who has made the transition from the technical side of the sport over to the media side. Steve wrote his first book 20 years ago.
I’ve been tinkering around on my time in the sport for a long time, then a company asked if I would like to do a book about this time last year. That was the kick in the backside I needed to swing into action and said yes without thinking. Some how I found the time to do it, lots of sitting at the laptop between 11:00 PM and 3:00 AM trying to get the book turned out.
Over the course of 6-8 month it was a really enjoyable trip down memory lane. I got to relive some great times in Formula One. I was lucky to have those opportunities and I though Formula One fans would also enjoy them.
Mecca of Speed: Working to cover Formula One with Sky do you travel to each of the circuits?
Marc Priestley: I go to most of the races, I average about 12-14.
Mecca of Speed: Which events do you look forward to each year?
Marc Priestley: I love Austin; it’s a great event. As well as being a great track the city puts on a great event, they embrace the party atmosphere when Formula One is in town. I love Monaco because it’s Monaco and I love Singapore for similar reasons. It’s a night race and they put on a big event. These events really embrace Formula One.
Mecca of Speed: How has Liberty Media’s efforts been with revitalizing the sport and giving fans more access to Formula One in relation to the different venues and cultures?
Marc Priestley: It’s an experiment by them; they have been trying different things and some have worked better than others. Formula One can be quite set in it’s ways and it has been over time. Liberty has come in and tried some different things and I hope that fans have enjoyed what they have done. Who knows what more they have up their sleeve.
I think Formula One needs a freshening up every now and again. They need to try and attract more fans and younger fans, which is what I think Liberty Media is trying to do.
Mecca of Speed: Are you covering Formula E again this season?
Marc Priestley: Yes that is something I really enjoy as well. I’m a big fan of what they are doing. Being someone with a technical background, they are working with fascinating technology. Things are being developed at an incredible rate. There are lots of opportunities because it’s so new.
To be at the forefront of that is a great opportunity and I feel very lucky to be a part of it.
I was on the front straight in Beijing in 2014 and to see how it’s developed and come on over three seasons is so impressive. There are more and more manufactures joining the series and it seems to be on a trajectory to being almost unstoppable.
Mecca of Speed: The series has really open up the rules after the first season, like old Formula One allowing teams to find out what really works.
Marc Priestley: That’s one of the reasons I like it. Unlike Formula One where we are looking for tiny margins at the very peak of everything that has already been developed over many years, the things being developed in Formula E have huge opportunities for finding improvements.
You can have a light bulb moment as an engineer and develop something that makes a dramatic change to how your car performs.
Mecca of Speed: All the best on The Mechanic and the new Formula E season.
Marc Priestley: Thank you.
Content credit Marc Priestley and John Vatne. Special thanks to Jason Bartanen and Josh McFarlin.