Much is made of the ruthless business-like rivalries within the F1 paddock but you should not believe everything you read. The media are often guilty of stirring up trouble in search of a good story. Has every last shred of sportsmanship in F1 really gone ?
What is it like in the paddock behind the scenes and do rival teams ever talk or even help one another? In this post I’ll be talking about the pit lane camaraderie in F1 and some of the ways that the teams help one another get their cars into the grid.
Winning at all cost
The post race television pictures at the 2012 Spanish GP initially showed scenes of celebration and jubilation as Pastor Maldonado and the Williams team had triumphantly scored their first win in almost a decade. Minutes later however we saw just how dramatic and dangerous Grand Prix racing can be. Whether it was a touch too much champagne or a bit of distraction from the job at hand doesn’t matter. A Williams mechanic failed to earth himself when emptying a fuel drum at the back of the garage and the small resulting spark ignited the vapour from the open canister. The fuel drum was tipped over in the ensuing panic and a huge fire engulfed the whole of their pit garage and much of their equipment. Amazingly no one was seriously hurt and the mechanic in question got away with only minor burns. Anyone who saw the TV footage or photographs after the event will know how much of a lucky escape this really was.
What struck me about this event however was not the shock that such a potentially deadly event could strike after the chequered flag has fallen but the response from the F1 personnel from neighbouring teams and their incredible reaction to the initial horror of the events that unfolded. Whilst Williams team sponsor, journalists and other assembled guests understandably fled the scene as fast as they could, mechanics from neighbouring Force India and Sauber and throughout the pitlane can be seen grabbing fire extinguishers and running into the fire. Realising the danger and concerned for the lives of friends and fellow mechanics they put their own safety at great risk by rushing to the scene despite not having any fireproof or additional safety equipment. Photographs published in the media even showed Sky TV cameramen a Williams mechanic out of the acrid smoke and out into the safety of the pit lane.
Relatively little was made of this incident in the media and yet I think it showed not only the incredibly bravery of the team members involved but also the tremendous camaraderie that’s exists at this level between the teams. Remember that these are very ordinary people, they have wives, husbands and children at home and they are not paid multi-million pound salaries for their trouble. Their instinct was simply to help their fellow mechanic who they recognised were in serious trouble. Commercial or business rivalries were of no concern whatsoever, just the safety of another competitor.
A mutual respect
The truth is that relationships and friendships extend along the length of the pitlane. The TV and media led idea that sportsmanship no longer exists in Formula 1 is really total nonsense. Social media is rife with discussion about how the commercial selfishness of each team has ruined the sport and that each one is only there to destroy the other but this is totally untrue. Competition is of course very intense at this level, everybody recognises that, but at the same time we have an eye out for the welfare of others and lend a simple hand where possible. Tools, machinery and materials are often exchanged, borrowed or loaned between neighbouring garages without a hint of malice. Catering crews in particular will lean on friends at rival teams for cooking space, supplies or even manpower in order to meet demands of unexpected guests or sponsors. Spare parts for trucks or equipment with be loaned out without a second thought.
Even back at the factories the same camaraderie exists to help one another get to the races in good shape. Big teams will often charter planes or vans to transport spares or development items to races at the last minute and it is gentlemanly practice to call up the logistics department at other teams to enquire if they can pick up any parts which they need sending at the same time. It is not uncommon for rival trucks to carry spares for neighbouring teams alongside their own cars and there is no hint that any kind of espionage or sabotage would ever take place. A great deal of trust and respect for your fellow competitor exists in F1, a very different picture to that portrayed by the media looking for a story.
My own team were struggling with a particular issue recently and despite weeks of trying we could not find the solution within our own resources. It was costing us huge sums of money to manage it with constant replacement of new parts. A colleague knew that his previous team had suffered exactly the same issues yet had solved them in conjunction with an outside supplier. A quiet phone call and a good deal mutual respect led to the supplier details being shared and our issues being dealt with in a timely manner. Surprised? Well you should not be. We would not have asked if it was not a genuine problem for us and the individuals involved know that the if ever the situation is reversed then a favour is owed and we will be happy to help out. The idea that sportsmanship in F1 is dead is simply untrue.
It should be clear that whilst rivalries on track remain intense, the sport is underpinned by real friendships and relationship behind the scenes and between rival team members. Having worked in the sport for many years now, I and the majority of others in this game know ex-colleagues who work at rival teams or know people who know people etc. Your reputation is no secret within this industry and so when it comes to getting a job in F1 it’s very important to respect your colleagues. You may be relying on them to further that reputation in the future.
If I receive an application from someone I do not know but who claims to have worked at “X” team at some point in the past then it is very easy for me to lift the phone or email a friend at that team to enquire about that person’s ability and attitude. This can be from within F1 or at a team or group from outside. Assuming that I trust my friend’s opinion then I am likely to place a strong importance on their answers. I have even asked someone who I know studied with an applicant at University for their opinion as they were not currently working in racing.
You may think that this means you need to know someone in F1 in order to get a job but that simply isn’t true. My own first job in motorsport was at a company where I knew no-one and got the job on merit. My point here is that your reputation builds from a very early stage, not just in F1, and you should expect that someone is watching you or forming opinions about you that can spread. If you work hard, learn and immerse yourself in your job then that can be a very powerful force to help you work your way up the racing ladder. The cooperation and camaraderie between F1 teams, the racing industry and even university is very strong and it should emphasise for you that you can work your way up to F1 by hard work and reputation. It’s difficult to make the leap to Formula 1 all in one go but good people can help you along the way and open doors for you as you work your way through the industry.
You never know where those opportunities will come from so make make friends with everyone you meet and remember to help your colleagues along the way as you never know when you might need their help in return. Anyone who says sportsmanship in Formula 1 is a thing of the past is a fool.