Fireballs, 22-hour days and divorce: The harsh reality of life on the Formula 1 circuit

By Alex McLeod

Life for pit stop mechanics on the Formula One circuit is very stressful. Photo / AP
Life for pit stop mechanics on the Formula One circuit is very stressful. Photo / AP

While the lifestyle for a member apart the circus that is Formula 1 may seem all glamour and luxury thanks to stars including Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, spare a thought for the mechanics of those two drivers and the other stars littered throughout the F1 series.

While Hamilton, Rosberg and co all live it up with house parties at their homes in Monaco and private jets being second nature to the stars of the F1 show, the lesser-known faces of F1 do it tough for the superstars, with long airport queues and even longer working hours for pit stop workers, who are more likely to live in somewhere like Masterton than Monaco, all part of the job.

With a total of 21 races worldwide on the F1 calendar - not including testing - team personnel can be away from home for up to half the year while keeping the cars of the stars in top condition.

In turn, this makes it difficult to develop and maintain a romantic relationship for mechanics.

This often leads to a majority of mechanics in their thirties moving onto something else that offers a more sustainable work-life balance, while those who stay on for the long haul become accustomed to the idea of divorce.

Kenny Handkammer was a 25-year veteran as a Formula 1 mechanic. He was front jackman for Jos Verstappen when his Benetton burst into a ball of flame in 1994, and was chief mechanic during Sebastian Vettel's title-winning reign.

He knows the struggles surrounding the job and commitment it takes to survive in the field.

"You have to have a very, very understanding partner," he told BBC Sport.

"If you have always done it and then meet someone and they are aware of your travelling it is a bit easier but if you are in a relationship and then decide you want to go off to F1 races it can be tougher.

"A lot of people struggle with it. To do this job you have to be so committed and focused. You can't half do this job. You have a guy's life in your hands and the drain on you means you need to be 100% committed.

"It is a bit better than it used to be. In the old days it was harder. You get back and you are tired and that doesn't help any relationship. You'd also get up and not be in the best of moods, depending on the weekend you'd had."

Although one would imagine the travel aspect of Formula 1 would be a key pull factor for aspiring mechanics in the motorsport industry, with all 21 Grands Prix throughout the calendar being held in 21 different countries across five continents between March and November.

Surely sightseeing would be a must for any crew member of a Formula 1 side travelling to the Grands Prix?

That is not the case for F1 mechanics, as while the stars of the show globe trot in private jets and helicopters, mechanics are confined to airport queues and economy class.

"We see very little of the country we are in," said Handkammer.

"On the first day you might get a little bit of time, but once you start work all you see is the circuit, the route to the circuit, and the hotel. We could be at Silverstone for every race because we pretty much don't see anything but the circuit."

A typical week in the build up to a Grand Prix for a mechanic would begin on Wednesday, with afternoons being spent to get the car and set up equipment.

Thursdays consists of system checks ahead of the race weekend officially beginning on Friday with practice runs.

From that point onwards, workers are on their feet from dusk til dawn for the entirety of the weekend.

Four to five hours of sleep over race weekends are considered a luxury, although it was far worse before a curfew was introduced in 2011, preventing team personnel from being at the circuit for six hours overnight.

"A Friday would normally be a 21-22 hour day," said Handkammer.

"We would do that on the Fridays and the Saturdays in the old days. You really felt it.

"You are on your feet for those 22 hours. You'll maybe stop for 20 minutes if you are lucky. Sometimes, if there is work from the night before, you would skip breakfast and maybe grab a sandwich at lunch and then you might get 20 minutes or so downtime in the evening.

"Every mechanic suffers from sore feet. It doesn't matter how good your trainers are, people are not designed to be on their feet for 22 hours a day. It is pretty brutal."

"If there's two weeks between races then we would get back from one race on the Monday after stripping the car on Sunday," adds Handkammer.

"We'd have a day off on Tuesday and then back in on Wednesday. It would then be a normalish week - hopefully finishing the cars on Friday and then getting the weekend off. We would then fly out to a race on the following Wednesday.

"Back-to-back races are different. You'd strip the car Sunday and pack up 50 tonnes of equipment and then fly out Monday to the next venue and begin work straightaway."

In addition to this, the dangers that exist within the world of F1 is ever present, with fire burns, being hit by cars, electric shock, heat exhaustion, foot blisters and chronic fatigue are all dangers of the job.

Mistakes do happen however, and one of the more frightening and memorable incidents that Handkammer experienced was Jos Verstappen's pit stop fire during the German Grand Prix in 1994.

A spurt of fuel being added to Verstappen's car resulted in a dramatic fireball engulfing both the car and the pit stop crew, including the Dutch driver.

Astonishingly, everyone escaped significant injury.

"Jos was good about it," remembered Handkammer.

"He had a bit of a burnt face but he was great. He was laughing in the end.

"What was tough, though, was the fact Michael Schumacher [Verstappen's team-mate] was due a stop soon after.

"Some of the guys had gone off to hospital already and I needed to find people, but some were saying they didn't know if they could do it.

"It was not needed in the end because Michael's car stopped with a fuel problem but in a way that was worse. It meant we had two weeks of downtime going through what happened, you were just asking: 'Do I really want to be stood in front of a car? Do I really want to be putting fuel in it?'

"If we had done that second pit stop straight away, it would have got it out of the system a bit."

It is rare to see a mechanic getting a share of the limelight, with next to all of the attention being placed on the drivers.

Usually the only time in which mechanics may garner attention would be if they made a mistake or were the centre of some kind of misfortune.

Although mechanics are largely anonymous to the world, those who are global superstars are quick to praise their team after victory, with Lewis Hamilton being a good example.

Not all drivers are the same, however.

"They are a bit of a mixed bunch to be quite honest," revealed Handkammer.

"You do get some drivers who won't even come and talk to mechanics. These mechanics work with them 24/7 but these drivers won't communicate with them.

"You have to be selfish and have a bit of an ego to be successful, but for some to not even communicate is a shame.

"I am lucky that I worked with some fantastic people, though.

"Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel would come to talk about their private lives and they would also show an interest in you - ask about your family.

"Nelson Piquet was great for practical jokes. He was always trying to wind up Alessandro Nannini, while Jean Alesi was also a fantastic guy. At the end of one year he flew a whole crew out to Avignon and put them up, organising events like karting and stuff, and that was two weeks before his wife was due to give birth."

With all of these hardships commonplace in the world of an F1 mechanic, many would ask why do it?

Many find it an incredibly rewarding experience, with hours upon hours of time and commitment put into the team to watch a driver win, or even finish a race with n mechanical faults, can draw a great sense of pride and achievement for F1 mechanics.

Being in the perfect pit stop team is possibly the most rewarding aspect for an F1 driver, however.

"We were in the Guinness Book of Records with the first sub-two-second pit stop," said Handkammer.

"When two cars come in and you beat the other out of the pit stop then that is a real proud moment for the team.

"It almost feels as satisfying as a win. In fact we have won races for the drivers, when they were not going to get past a rival on the track.

"It is a pretty stressful career, but when it all comes together it is unbelievable."

- NZ Herald

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