Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Different Mechanic’s Tale


As you may be aware of, ex-Formula One Mechanic and current SPEED TV Commentator Steve Matchett has previously penned a book titled: The Mechanic’s Tale. After having been contacted by an ex-Formula 1 and Indy Car Mechanic in regards to a previous story I’d written, he’s graciously agreed to give me a chance to interview him about his life in the Pit lane and whatever else I can think of asking him…

Steve Roby:I worked on open wheel racing cars non-professionally (when I was still a student) and professionally in Australia from about 1967 or ‘68 beginning with Repco Brabham V8’s and Ferrari Formula Two (F2) 2.4 liter V6’s, then on McLaren M10A’s and M10B’s in the Tasman Series.

I guess the only car I ever worked on with fenders was a Lotus Super 7 which was where I started as a “Grunt” in about 1966. I remember that well as it was the first race I ever went to. Jack Brabham did a few show laps with the (Brabham) BT19 with which he was leading the championship and that was 1966…
(Rolf Stommelen)
I worked in Formula 1 for Surtees, Brabham, a little with Ensign over a winter break and then with Graham Hill.

I was in Australia on vacation when Graham Hill was killed along with the remainder of the team but for the “Truckie”, another Mechanic and Allan Jones, before I retired from F1; then I came to the United States where I built a car for Bill Simpson. Then was Chief Mechanic at McLaren, Chaparral, IAM and Mayer Racing, before Retiring from Indy car racing.

Afterwards I got a “real” job in industry at LABECO, along with becoming the Louis Schwitzer Award Chairman for ten years. (Schwitzer and BorgWarner Trophy) before retiring…
)Tomaso I am not sure what you mean here The Louis Schwitzer award had nothing to do with Borg Warner only that they bought Schwitzer and thus I worked for Borg Warner. The award is still the Louis Schwitzer Award)


Tomaso) Speaking of Steve Matchett; during the just completed Brazilian Grand Prix, I heard David Hobbs mention your name in reference to a lightning strike at the Interlagos circuit as you were apparently a guest in the SPEED studios… What’s it like watching the Broadcast and do you know ‘Hobbo (David Hobbs) from your Surtees days?


Steve Roby: It is fun to see how the On-air talent responds to what they see on the screen in conjunction with the Timing & Scoring screen and some communication with Peter Windsor on the ground at the track in question. It sounds like a cheap version of the real thing (coming from Charlotte instead of on-site) but in fact when I was in the live broadcast booth in past years (I did some work on CART and F1 races for NBC) the predominant feel is the broadcasters there also match their output to what is on a tube in front of them; not the action on the track.

A big difference is that when the broadcast is done live from the track (like CART IRL or F1 in the 80s) the broadcast team is responsible for both the commentary and the video.

When the Speed TV team do the commentary from Charlotte they do the commentary and some video content but the live video feed is the video feed from FOM. They are in a more relaxed studio, definitely a lot larger room and they have more data at their fingertips; it is pretty impressive that there is basically no time lag between the action at the locale and the commentary that we hear at home so the race content is pretty much real time live.

I knew David (Hobbs) from the Tasman Series where he drove a McLaren M22, then when Tom Anderson ran him in F5000 for Carl Hogan. I had been to his house in Upper Boddington (near Silverstone) and then he drove for us in the BMW so we had crossed paths a lot before his Speed TV gig.

T) Well you’ve certainly had an impressive career as a Mechanic and I’m really not sure where to begin? So I guess at the beginning, eh? Did you apprentice as a Mechanic in school before going to work on Racing Cars?

SR: No I trained in Automotive Engineering at British Leyland in Sydney. That training was part hands-on and part academic. We did apprentice type training in tool making etc. for a few years and then branched out into “engineering” tasks as we worked further into our degrees.

By the time I was at British Leyland I was working as a Gofer on the Lotus Super 7 so I leveraged that experience into two separate terms in the British Leyland Competitions Department which progressed into another period on a service vehicle on the London to Sydney Marathon, which was fun. At that time British Leyland successfully ran “Works” Mini’s all over the world in racing and rallying. For the London to Sydney Marathon we ran Austin 1800’s so I guess I did work on cars with fenders.

T) So you worked on a “Fenders” car early on in your career, which apparently served as your springboard into “Mechanicing” Professionally. Did you enjoy working on the Lotus Super 7 and do you recall who the team and driver were?

SR: I was just a kid who watched the owner/driver/mechanic work on his car. At that time we lived in Queensland and had a small beach house at Miami Beach (on the Gold Coast in Queensland) and while there on holidays I would surf in the mornings then watch Bill Page in the afternoons when he was working on his car. That grew into cleaning and polishing and that then advanced to more esoteric functions like rebuilding parts.

The first proper motor racing event (other than Speedway quarter mile) I ever saw was at Surfers Paradise where I was a team member (the team member) with Bill on his Super 7.

T) Then you worked on Repco-Brabham’s and Ferrari F2’s. Were the Repco-Brabham’s for a “Privateer” outfit and what series were they being campaigned in?

SR: Actually at that same race Bill’s Brother Brian had a twin cam F2 style Brabham or Renmax open wheeler. When we moved to Sydney I hooked up with Brian, who by then had purchased an ex Scuderia Veloce (ex Brabham) Repco Brabham V8 BT23A-1. I helped on that car for a few races till he crashed it at Warwick Farm in Sydney and then I helped Brian build a new space frame for the car and helped put it back together.

T) What was it like working on the Ferrari’s (F2) and the McLaren’s in the Tasman series? Which did you enjoy more?

SR: I had become friendly with a lot of the crews in the premier form of Australian racing and when the opportunity arose to work with Jimmy Stone on Graeme Lawrence’s Ferrari (The ex Chris Amon Tasman car) for the Tasman Series I jumped at it. Then I did more Tasman Series races with Ian Gordon on Kevin Bartlett’s McLaren M’10A’s and B’s and really learned the craft from Ian.

Ian had been around forever and at one time worked for Ron Harris Racing in England where his drivers were Peter Revson, Pedro Rodriguez and sometimes Jim Clark; he worked some with Frank Gardner also.

The Tasman may have been fun for the drivers but for the crew on an F5000 car it was a hard slog. Eight races, in two countries, in 8 weeks. Every Saturday night the base work load was a new gearbox crown wheel and pinion and two new cylinder heads for the engine, plus whatever other prep work needed to be done. This usually went into the early (sometimes late) morning; we did the race on Sunday afternoon, then loaded up and drove to the next site. The drive was often 500 miles or so. I learned a lot about the cars but also about nutrition as you had to eat to keep your energy at an acceptable level.

T) What was ‘Ol “Black Jack” (Sir Jack Brabham) like back in those days? Was he keen to have “Aussie’s” in his team and what did you do/work on the Repco Brabham (F1) cars?

SR: I did not have much contact with him but ironically we became good friends with his son Geoffrey and his wife in Indianapolis. By the time I was at Brabham in F1 it was owned by Bernie. (Ecclestone)

T) Somehow I found your name associated with Elf Team Tyrrell, but you apparently never worked there. Did you have any associations with “Uncle Chopper?” (Ken Tyrrell)

SR: I never worked with Tyrrell; my only deal with Ken (Tyrrell) was for the cricket scores. But there were lots of Aussies and Kiwis in Formula 1 in that period, in fact at least one in each team, even that most British of teams BRM (British Racing Motors) had Vern Schuppan, so the cricket scores were all-important and Ken always knew what was happening and usually his runner was Rob Walker who, despite being the epitome of the English Gentleman was pretty close to being an “Aussie.”

Rob would go from team to team telling the colonials the scores during practice or the race. When I worked for NBC on Indy Car racing, the director was always passing the college basketball scores to his broadcast team through the headsets.

T) So you were friends with Ken; what was he like in those days and any stories you’d like to share about him?

SR: I just knew who he was. I would say I was friends with Jackie (Stewart) but not Ken other than to say Hi or rib each other about cricket.

T) You worked for Surtees, Brabham, Ensign and Graham Hill in F1. Can you briefly describe some of your duties with these teams?

SR: I was always the lead guy on the car. That meant my responsibility was to build the car, prepare it, run it at the track. In those days there were two mechanics per car. The lead guy had the basic responsibility and always did the rebuilds on the back of the car (gearbox and engine) and the second guy did the front. During practice the lead guy would time and do tactics on the pit wall and the second guy hung out the board.

We made all the changes to the car sometimes engineering the change and sometimes just doing it, depending on the team. At Surtees John (Surtees) would tell us what to change; at Brabham Gordon Murray would do the engineering, but at Graham Hill I would discuss with Graham (Hill), or whoever was driving and work out set up changes. During the race we kept our own lap chart and timing and did the tactics (what tactics there were) while usually the driver’s wife would do a more comprehensive full lap chart.

When there were decisions on when to pit during a wet to dry, or dry to wet race they would come from me on the pit wall. We had no radios back then so when the driver came in the pit it was always a negative surprise and it was difficult to hear what an excited driver was yelling at you over the sound of the engine!

T) Were you in the Pit lane changing tyres during the heat of the battle in those days? Or did the cars primarily run from start to finish without pitting except for emergency repairs?

SR: In those days if you pitted you were done. I shudder to think about it now but usually we did not even have pneumatic guns but those nasty wheel hammers. If it rained it was chaotic as you had two guys changing 4 wheels and making wing and damper changes. Adding fuel was somewhat dangerous – pouring fuel from a churn into a funnel with the car hot! Sometimes it was funny to watch…

I remember one time at Silverstone with Alan Jones in the car, I waited a lap too late (in retrospect) to bring him in when it started to rain as there was trouble in the adjacent pit box. Ferrari in the next pit with all their Sports Car expertise had pneumatic guns with those long yellow curly plastic hoses. Clay Reggazoni came in and the team manager sent him off before the Left Front guy had his hose back from the car, so this curly yellow hose was wrapped around the Airbox getting longer by the moment… We all hit the deck to miss the caroming Airgun!

The Left Front guy was in shock when Niki Lauda came in and once again there was chaos, as the team manager sent Lauda on his way as the Left Front guy turned to pick up his gun to do up the nut. The Left Front wheel wobbled, Niki put the car in reverse and the nut came off and rolled to my feet! I picked it up and put it on the wheel and could see the universal “wanker” look in his eyes, expressed by his hand motion…

The unfortunate thing about this incident was that we should have been on the podium but the Red flag went out and the results went back a lap, to the lap we were in the pits!

T) And I’m assuming there was a lot less staff in those days? None of the 500+ “Mega” Organisations of today, so the Mechanics had a lot more work/job responsibilities?

SR: Oh yes. At Brabham, for three cars, the F1 team was Bernie, Gordon Murray and his assistant Geoff Ferris (who also did the F2 car), Herbie Blash, the Team Manager Keith Greene, Bob Dance the Chief Mechanic and two guys per car. There were 3 fabricators who built the tubs, for all of Brabham’s F1 and F2 Teams, a bodywork guy, and the truckie. (16 in all)

T) And did you work with the Driver’s of these various Teams? (I.e.; strapping them in, arranging their pedals, etc.) If so, which Driver’s were they?

SR: My responsibilities were everything to do with the car, sometimes even driving it to the track on a trailer if we missed the truck, or were at a test and the others came from the factory. We built up the car from the tub and suspension and a pile of parts, rebuilt the gearboxes, made a lot of parts like water pipes, brackets and hoses, made the seats for drivers, fitted the drivers, drove the cars from garages to pits and back.

I had many drivers: John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Tim Schenken, Sam Posey and Andrea De Adamich at Surtees; De Adamich, Rolf Stommelen and John Watson at Brabham; Graham Hill, Stommelen, Vern Schuppan, Tony Brise and Alan Jones at Graham Hills Team.

T) Did you work with Sam Posey or Derek Bell at Surtees?

SR: Just Sam at Watkins Glen. (At Surtees) We have stayed friends for a long time. Their effort was hopeless as each year we wasted the first day trying to make a Firestone car run on Goodyear tyres.

T) And what was it like working for John Surtees?

SR: He was cheap and tough. He did not let the drivers get what they wanted technically; it was always his way whether it suited the driver or not. For Mike (Hailwood) this did not matter as he was disinterested in the technical side but Tim (Schenken) could not get along with this mode of running a team. I did learn a lot though; we tested at Goodwood at least once a week a lot so I learned a lot there.

T) And I’m assuming Ensign was just in its beginning stages when you went there?

SR: In Formula 1 that was correct but the team had been around in F3 for a period. My time with ‘Mo was just for a winter after a deal Bernie did in Italy to run two Brabhams fell apart. The team was built on Rikky Von Opel’s money but he did not like the basic work part of the deal. The car was actually quite good, and Ricky could be fast at times but lacked discipline and work ethic.

T) What was Maurice (“Mo”) Nunn like back then?

SR: ‘Mo was time disorganized. I remember once going down the M1 to catch a plane from Heathrow and he insisted that we were not late until the plane took off. We were still on the M1 when it took off and only then would he accept that we were late.

T) And you were at Graham Hill’s Team when he died. I’m guessing you were working for him prior to this? Did you work on the Customer Lola Chassis or the Hill GH1’s?

SR: I worked on the Lola’s, which used to break with regularity, then we built the GH1 which was really just a Lola built correctly by my buddy John Thompson with a stiff tub. It was really a mechanic’s car; simple, light and neat, and it went very well. Then Andy Smallman came on board and cleaned it up, started some real development and it went much better.

That was hard work. We crashed an absolutely brand new car at Barcelona so Allan Howell and I then had to start to build another new car from nothing, while preparing one of the old Lola’s for Graham to run at Monaco. We finished the car the Thursday night of Zolder (I think, maybe 4 weeks after Barcelona) and then trailered it to Zolder after a few all nighters on the trot. We were so tired that we were afraid to kip on the ferry for fear that we would not wake up at Zeebrugge in time to disembark. We made it to the track but slept in till about 9:00 AM and still only missed the first practice.

T) Was Hill’s Team on the upswing when his death occurred? As he did have future World Champion Alan Jones as one of his (part time) drivers, along with Tony Brise; how far do you think the Team could have gone?

SR: I think the drivers were excellent. Rolf (Stommelen) was leading in Barcelona when the car broke; once we got Alan (Jones) in the seat that car went very well and he put in some really strong drives. Tony (Brise) was every bit as strong as Alan, perhaps even faster so he would have become a top line driver. Alan and Tony were always on for a top five finish.

I am not sure the team had the leadership or funds to beat the top teams though; we used McLaren-built customer engines and would have needed control of that aspect if we were to get to the top.

T) So you worked on three World Champions Teams, how do they stack up against each other as Constructors? And did you have a favourite amongst these three?

SR: Brabham was easily the technical class of the trio. We had good cars, Gordon Murray was brilliant while still learning the business, Carlos Reutemann was very good, and Wilson Fittipaldi was replaced by Carlos Pace who also was very good so they had the best drivers of the three.

I think it’s a misnomer to say that they were three World Champions Teams at that stage as Surtees was Champion at Ferrari and walked out on that deal. The old Brabham group was gone and Bernie (Ecclestone) was just placing his mark on the Team and Graham Hill was long out of Lotus and BRM.

T) What was your favourite Formula 1 chassis to work on?

SR: During that period the Brabham was the neatest and best designed although I had more input into the GH1. Gordon (Murray) would hang around at night watching us work on the car and if something was difficult he would change the design to make it better. He was very open minded. The nose of the BT42 was designed on a napkin at the White Hart pub over lunch by a group of us.

T) Any favourite Drivers you worked with? And how do they compare with the drivers of today?

SR: For Formula One that is a tough question. For the greatest gentlemanly aspect that was definitely Rolf. He was the kind of guy who would sneak out of dinner, saying he was going to bed and you would find that the bill was paid; a really nice guy…

Hailwood was a mechanic’s driver. He would rather have a beer with the guys than dinner with the boss. Not at all interested in the technical aspect but a hell of a racer... It was an absolute shame that he died in such a stupid accident after such a wonderful (and dangerous) career. Real bike racers always say there was Mike Hailwood and then the rest.

Alan Jones was just a young guy when I got him, but he went pretty hard and then became so self-centered. Tony was so grateful for the drive he had, but I did not know him that well as I was on the other car. I liked Carlos Reutemann but he was a bit of a strange duck, really switched on in some aspects of life but completely out to lunch in others. It staggers me that he has become a successful politician. Before a race he would give me £5 and say he would finish in such and such a position. If he did finish in that position then I kept the money. If he did not then I would give it back to him. Such a deal!

T) How do you like the Formula 1 racing today?

SR: You cannot really compare one period to another. One thing which has never changed is that a great driver cannot make a bad car go fast. (Look at Chris Amon) when you see the grid, lined up row by row with team cars it is difficult to believe that the car is less important than the driver, but the press would have you believe that it is all drivers. In my day the drivers worked hard to not hit each other as they unfortunately died with great regularity. There were unwritten ethics of battle that were never broken, like giving each other room. That is not the case today and I think both Senna and Schumacher have some responsibility to motor racing in that aspect…

To continue reading, see:  A Different Mechanic’s Tale - Part II

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