Ahead of Marc Priestley’s return to the Formula E paddock this weekend, I sat down with him at the AUTOSPORT show to chat all things motor sport from his technical background, through to his media activities in the past few years. We started the chat by talking about his early motor sport career.
MP: My fascination with motor sport like most people started by watching it on telly, I was always interested in Formula 1. I grew up living next door to Brands Hatch, which at the time was the venue for the British Grand Prix every other year. In our little village, the whole world used to descend on the place, and it drew me in. I couldn’t avoid it; you could hear the noise of the cars from where I lived. I guess it was inevitable looking back that I was going to be drawn towards motor sport.
I was doing a creative and artistic A Level course, nothing to do with engineering. At that point, it clicked in my head, I’m going down this route of education that I don’t really want to do. Motor sport is my ultimate fascination, so why not work in it. I went home; I remember having a discussion with the parents saying that I want to ditch my A Levels. They thought I was crazy!
I switched onto an engineering course at the same college. In the meantime, I started making as many contacts through the people in the village that I knew that were involved loosely. I did a number of work experience opportunities, with different teams in the lower categories. I absolutely loved it.
My friends always dreamt of being racing drivers, which was the natural thing to do, but something in my mind wanted to be part of a pit stop crew. It was the teamwork, and the engineering that I became obsessed with, so that’s why I ended up on this route towards Formula 1. I went through the various rungs on the ladder, Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula 3000 and then eventually onto Formula 1. It was a dream come true.
F1B: As you stepped the ladder, the pressure grows a bit, the paddock changes slightly. How did you adjust from going to a paddock of 50 people to say a paddock of 500, did it feel like there was more pressure?
MP: The step up to Formula 1 is a big, big step. Each step towards that is a relatively minor step. The step, even from Formula 3000 is a big step up just because the teams in Formula 1 are so enormous. I was suddenly in the McLaren garage that I had been watching on telly in awe of just two weeks before. Now I was dressed in the same gear, and I was with these guys. I knew there were millions of people watching these pit stops.
The pressure is the single biggest thing you have to find a way to deal with. There’s no training for it, the teams don’t have a mechanism to ease you into the pressure, you’re kind of thrown in. Some people deal with it and I have seen people who can’t. You have to be the right type of person to be able to handle that sort of situation. Strangely, I thrived on it, every time we had a pit stop, even in my final year after being in Formula 1 for ten years; the adrenaline rush of a pit stop was just amazing.
F1B: McLaren was your only Formula 1 team, but were you tempted by any switches along the way?
MP: I very nearly went to Ferrari in 2007. When Kimi [Raikkonen] left to go to Ferrari, I’d been working with him for many years. My very good friend and his personal trainer Mark Arnall went with him to Ferrari, and a few of us had discussions with Kimi and talked about going over as well. It was something that I toyed with. I was on the verge of going out there for a meeting, to have a look around and talk about it further, but in the end I decided not to, mostly for personal reasons. It would have been a huge adventure, but I was probably less risk adverse at that time than I would have been 15 years earlier.
F1B: At McLaren you worked with various different drivers, Raikkonen, David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinen, so on and so forth. How did you manage to control the media element, with a lot of high-profile drivers comes, not necessarily ego, but a bit of ‘baggage’ along the way?
MP: It does, with some much more than others. The media department within McLaren deals with it, so there is a team of people to handle that. The drivers handle it all very differently. Someone like Kimi is incredibly low maintenance he has no ego. I know the media have a love-hate relationship with him, but when you’re working with that in a team, you love that because you know he’s not playing up to the camera, he’s not giving off any false persona when he’s doing an interview. He’s the same guy in front of the camera as he is in the garage, or when he’s having a beer away from the track, and I love that.
Others feel like they have to give off a certain image, and that’s the more common trait amongst Formula 1 drivers and I think Formula 1 does that a little bit to people. It’s a very corporate world, more so at McLaren, you always feel like you have to give off the right image, even if that’s not your natural image. That’s sometimes quite hard to curb. I used to push the boundaries; Ron Dennis hated that because if the media saw it then it would ruin the team’s reputation. You have to be slightly careful; I came close a few times! In terms of working with drivers, it utterly depends on whom you have and whom you’re working with at any given time.
F1B: Did you find that if there was media attention for a certain driver that you would just have to try to block it out?
MP: Yeah, absolutely. When I was a mechanic, I had a lot of friends in the media. When there’s a story breaking, you can sense that these people, who are your friends, but work in the media, they want a story. At that point, the friendship has to change because you have to be slightly guarded in what you give off, you can’t give out too many secrets and also they’re just your friends. There is a fine balance, and particularly when I left the team and moved into the media myself, I noticed that from my [McLaren] friends and former colleagues. It’s a shame that happens slightly, you go back to square one having to build up the trust with your friends again, knowing that you’re not going to betray their confidence if they tell you something.
F1B: How was 2007 from the media point of view?
MP: It was horrible, a negative year other than the fact that we had a very quick car and two quick drivers, those were the positives. Everything else was negative. The drivers were fighting, the team was fighting and we had the spygate case going on in the background, which was a global news story. We were found guilty and thrown out the championship. There was negativity everywhere. As a mechanic, being part of that team, you feel like that takes you and your reputation down. I had nothing to do with any of that stuff, the spygate stuff was nothing to do with any of us in the garage, but you can’t help feel like that the media or people watching on associate anyone wearing a McLaren shirt with the bad press and cheating. It was my most difficult year in motor sport. We should have walked away with both championships. The media love a story like that, so when you’re in the middle of it, it’s very difficult to try to park that to one side and to get on with the job. It’s difficult anyway with people trying to take the whole team down at times.
F1B: In hindsight, is it just one of those things that you have to accept “it will happen” with two fast drivers, or is there anything you can do to stop it?
MP: It’s very difficult to avoid, and to a degree, you want to a bit of it. When your biggest competitor is the other side of the garage, you have to fight against him. I think one of the interesting things will be is if we get the likes of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo fighting for the championship, the media will try to stir it up. So far, they’ve been great mates and have got on very, very well, have bounced off each other nicely yet pushed each other hard and fairly.
Each one of these situations, which doesn’t come around that often, is a case study. Lewis and Nico will have undoubtedly learnt from Lewis and Fernando with us. And if it turns out to be Red Bull’s turn next, they will learn from what the guys have done before them. I don’t think there’s any real magic answer as to how to deal with it, I thought Mercedes actually did a good job over handling what can be a very difficult situation to be in. They’ve been pretty open and honest about their drivers, with their drivers and with the public about what was going on. I think that’s all you can do.
F1B: After McLaren, you moved into the media spotlight, and you’ve been there since.
MP: Yeah, I’ve absolutely loved it. When it came to the point that we had won the championship with Lewis Hamilton in 2008, in 2009 I had started to think about what I would do after leaving the team. I realised that I had all of these stories, all of this knowledge and experience from my many years in the team that fans love to hear about it. It started by writing a blog at first, that’s how it really got going. It was the fans reaction to the stuff that I was writing, and the rest of the media’s reaction, that spurred me on. I realised how much insight I had that people wanted to hear about.
It was the producers of the BBC 5 Live Formula 1 radio show that noticed my writing and took me in as a pit lane reporter back in 2012. I was alongside Jennie Gow, absolutely loved it, realised that was where I wanted to go with my career next, so set about really trying to get to where I am now. I love Formula 1, I’ve always loved motor sport in general and I love being able to try to explain to people what’s going on, why things are going on, how things work. I think I have a technical understanding from an engineering background, so to be able to try to translate that into perhaps more simple terms for some people and keep it intricate for others is quite a fine balance and a difficult thing to do. I like to think it’s something I’m reasonably good at!
F1B: You should be in hot demand this year, considering the amount of changes that we have. Viewers will turn on in Australia and think, “Those cars are different”, but quite a few will want to know why.
MP: Absolutely, I hope so. Times like this are exciting for me because of the big technical changes in the sport. Things like Formula E, which is brand new and need total explanation, because they’re completely different from what everybody understands as a racing car, I love that. I love innovation, and trying to explain innovation and both Formula 1 and Formula E are at the forefront of that, so to be involved in both is a dream come true.
F1B: How have you found the Formula E journey so far, this year is its third year.
MP: I’m a massive fan. I understand from a traditionalist point of view, the fans that say they want screaming engines, burning rubber and noise, but I’m more of the view that we need to move forward. Let’s embrace something that is futuristic with technology that no one has seen before, that no one has pushed to the limits before. We’re sat here in front of a line-up on 1970s [Lotus] Formula 1 cars, these things made incredible noise, but you can’t cling onto that forever.
You’ve got to move forward, so I absolutely applaud Formula E for taking the plunge. You could argue that they went in early; maybe the technology and fans weren’t quite ready. They’ve continued with it and I think they’ve done an incredible job of making a great show, taking it to some amazing places. I’m fascinated to see where it goes from here, they’ve got a blank canvas to do anything and that’s something Formula 1 doesn’t necessarily have. Formula 1 can’t take a giant leap in the opposite direction, it’s like an enormous container ship trying to change direction, it has to do it slowly. It has so many fans that they need to be edged into new technology and change. Formula E doesn’t have that, they can do whatever they want and I think these are really exciting times.
F1B: How long do you think it will take Formula E, both in terms of the championship, but also the media and the audience perspective to mature? At the moment, it’s still a very immature product.
MP: It is. But you can see from the number of major auto manufactures that are now getting on-board, a number that’s increasing all the time over the last six months. We have some major players coming on-board. That tells you the level of potential that this series has got. Big names like BMW, Audi, Renault, DS Citroen and Jaguar. Those big names are the names that people out there watching, flicking through the channels, they recognise those names. The names being associated with Formula E gives the championship extra credence, and people will begin to believe in it even more. That’s where Formula E needed to get to, and it’s promising that is genuinely now starting to happen.
F1B: Lastly, what are your plans for 2017, what do you have lined up?
MP: Well I sat at home just last week, having had a month’s rest, looking at my schedule for 2017 and it’s crazy. I’m doing most Formula 1 races with Sky, I’m doing every Formula E race now with Formula E itself, and a load of other things in between, some of which I can’t say at the moment! 2017 is looking like a really exciting year for me, a very busy one. I’m really excited for it.
My thanks go to Marc Priestley for spending the time with me on the above interview.