The brutal reality for mechanics as F1's calendar expands

Grand prix racing’s chiefs have always tried to give the impression that they are doing their best to manage the difficulties those that working in the pitlane face.

However, as F1’s calendar looks set to explode even more in the future, and triple-headers are now the norm, many within the paddock have expressed some private concerns that they are not being listened to, as things look set to get even worse for them in the future.

While some team bosses have cruelly suggested that anyone who doesn’t like the gruelling work demands can simply go and find another job outside F1, losing a bunch of staff needlessly through burnout is not a solution that suits the series best for the long term.

Autosport has heard the story of what life is really like on the road for a mechanic right now, and just why things are close to a breaking point.

Speaking anonymously to a team member who travels with the F1 circus, he reveals how life has changed for mechanics in recent years, what impact the bigger calendar is having for those in the garages, and just what F1 can do to help make a better future for all those involved.

Here are his words…

The mechanic’s viewpoint

There is no hiding from the fact that life on the road as a Formula 1 mechanic is tough. It has always been that way, and none of us do it because we are after an easy time.

We all love F1, and know that being a part of grand prix racing is something that requires you to dig deep.

But, as the Formula 1 calendar has expanded and the triple-headers become a norm, things have hit a breaking point for a lot of people who work in the garages.

The working hours are a lot. From the Wednesday before a race until the Sunday night afterwards, it’s a minimum of 12-hour days every day. You don’t realise what that takes out of you until you go back to work in the factory and a normal eight-hour day is almost comical because it feels so short!

In fact, you don’t realise what an abnormal life it is on the road until you actually come back home.

What makes it especially tough is the fact that it is so relentless, with no recovery time. You work from the moment you get off the plane, and that can be after a really crappy flight where you have been crammed in economy class and got little to no sleep.

After the end-of-season triple-header in Mexico, Brazil, and Qatar, the combination of punishing economy flights, late timetables and time zone changes meant everyone was absolutely shattered, and that is when I think I saw people struggling the most.

The peak tiredness when it hits is a horrible, horrible thing. When you are away from your loved ones and on the road, you can feel so alone.

Then, when you are coming home on a Monday morning or Monday evening, and you haven’t slept properly in days, that then affects how you feel in your personal time. It means your relationships can suffer – either because you are agitated with your partners or you’ve got other things on your mind. And that’s not fair on you nor them.

You are not just mentally fatigued, you are physically drained as well. As the season wears on, there are a hell of lot of injuries happening. The teams do have doctors and physios to help look after you, but the easiest solution is to pump you with painkillers to just keep you going. There is no way in a million years that a regular doctor would give you what we are given to keep us going.

For those that don’t want to go down the painkiller route, they turn to alcohol, and that’s not especially good either.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, arrives on the busy pre-race grid

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, arrives on the busy pre-race grid

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

On top of all this, the COVID rules have added another stress point, especially as teams like to manage the timing of the tests in terms of what is best for them rather than what is best for the individual.

Some teams don’t want you to test too early in case that puts you out for qualifying or the race. Instead they prefer for you to wait until as late as you can for your pre-return PCR.

But if there is a problem and the test result doesn’t come back for any reason, then it’s the mechanic who suffers as he has to stay away from home for yet another day to go and get retested.

One day extra doesn’t seem a lot, but it all adds up when everyone is so tired and just wants to be home with their loved ones. It is typical of a lack of empathy from the teams about what they are putting people through.

Between the stress of test results being processed in time so we can all go home, the requirement to self-isolate in the UK, and the calendar changes on short notice, we have had to give up so much of our lives to F1 so that people at the top can make more money while we get nothing in return.

On top of the sheer tiredness and being away from home so much, it is difficult to balance the relentlessness of it with the really high expectations that is placed upon everyone in the garage to work at their highest level. Nobody wants to make a car in which a driver retires or crashes, so everyone is absolutely wired into it.

And that just adds to the stress. The drivers, and all the factory personnel, are relying on you to perform at 100% and not to make any errors. But anyone can make mistakes. We’re only human, and I’ve made plenty in my time.

When you do, there is just this silent disappointment from others. You get asked about why you let it happen, why you weren’t more aware of things, and it’s difficult to take that in on top of everything else.

Then you start doubting yourself. It throws you, and makes you risk even more mistakes because you start getting more stressed about it. It’s mentally fatiguing.

The pressures of all that, plus the tiredness triggered by the number of races and the triple-headers, has got to a point where the atmosphere in the garages can be very toxic at times.

And that toxicity comes from being in a competitive arena. It’s almost like a corporate environment where you’re trying to climb the ladder but people aren’t getting anywhere so they end up being horrible to others.

There is a lot of banter but it can get nasty very quickly. I’ve seen it a lot of times where it’s been funny but has then crossed the line a bit too much, and the humour has become too dark.

It can have a negative impact on some members within the team who have insecurities regarding their appearance, sexuality, or work status. Exacerbating those insecurities can lead to depression and everything that comes with it like social isolation and an unhealthy lifestyle.

It’s a toxicity caused because everyone is on top of each other all the time: there is no getting away to have a little bit of a breather.

The guys are having to build the car, then straight after they might have to go and build the gearbox and then they might have to go and do the suspension. There isn’t even half an hour for some lunch sometimes, as you feel you need to wolf your food down to get back to work.

The standard night-time curfew sign outside the paddock entrance swipe gates

The standard night-time curfew sign outside the paddock entrance swipe gates

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Teams have tried to do their bit to improve things, and there are things that are better now than a few years ago.

The curfew has helped a bit, and of course we don’t have to do a whole bunch of testing between races like there was a few decades ago.

On hotel rooms, we did used to have to share rooms, but now a lot of teams have realised that giving everyone single rooms doesn’t really affect their budget too much. And the positive reaction they’re getting from the people due to that is very beneficial for the teams.

However, the mental health awareness on teams’ social media is often about the drivers, but not the rest of their workforce.

You get the impression that the top management don’t want to assess their mechanics and technicians as they’ll be scared of the results. If they know the results, they know that they have to act upon them, and ultimately a mechanic isn’t important enough to worry about nor spend extra money on.

That just then leaves some of us feeling that if you do mentally breakdown – and I know some colleagues who have – there is no extra support for us. No one is going to come and catch us.

Often when people talk about the stresses and strains of the mammoth F1 calendar, they say that if you don’t like it then you can leave. Some team bosses have even said as much.

But that attitude just shows how out of touch some are with the reality of what is needed in F1, and this belief that you can simply slot in replacement staff like fresh light bulbs.

All that will be left, if you push everyone over the edge, is having kids doing the job. You won’t find great mechanics, you won’t find great technicians, and the sport as a whole will fail because it is no longer about the best staff working for the best teams who attract the best drivers.

If any teams think they can promote someone fresh and young from a junior category with no experience, and expect them to win championships in the future, then they’re not understanding the reality of the sport.

Just like any master craftsmen, you need the experienced person to pass on their knowledge to create the best product. F1 isn’t too far from that, and you need the previous generation to teach the new generation. Without that, a team won’t succeed in being the best.

I feel that F1 is close to a tipping point, with the calendar getting longer and the sport’s bosses thinking they can keep rolling out the triple-headers.

So many people have talked about quitting this year and that hasn’t happened any other years that I’ve been involved in the sport.

Normally at the end of the season there are two or three team members who decide they don’t want to keep going to the races. But this year there have been so many more people talking about the need to get out. I think with COVID, people are realising that there is a life outside of F1.

An F1 team practices a pitstop

An F1 team practices a pitstop

Photo by: Alfa Romeo

I worry about the long-term future too because on top of all the stress and strain caused by the schedule, the mechanics are also paying a big price for the cost cap.

The wages of a mechanic have pretty much flatlined over the past 20 years – and what motivation does that give you for the amount of time, mental and physical effort that you are putting in over your years in the sport?

In addition, because teams are trying to keep a lid on spending due to the cost cap, they simply cannot afford to hand out pay rises that keep up with inflation. So it’s going to stall wages, and kill the job market in F1 as it will fall behind other series.

There is a weird scenario where we are almost better off going to work in Formula 2, Formula E or WEC for slightly less money, but do almost half the races and not have to put up with all the hassles of a 23-race schedule. It should not be like that.

It also means for those who love F1, and who can put up with the stresses, that there just isn’t the scope to plot a normal career path. In the past you could aspire to move up to be number one mechanic, to chief mechanic and then even higher. And each time getting a decent pay hike.

That path doesn’t exist anymore because the pay grades just aren’t there – and if the staff inside the sport can’t see a future, then how on earth can F1 expect to attract the most promising individuals from outside?

And does it make sense for the cost cap to exempt the highest paid staff in the team who already enjoy many more luxuries than those working on the garage floor?

I think team management and those who run F1 are aware of what’s going on, but I don’t think they fully understand it, which is why there isn’t an urgency to make changes that would help everyone.

If F1 does nothing and doesn’t react to what a lot of mechanics feel, then you are just going to end up with a high turnover of people, and that is going to hurt the teams the most.

I’m not sure if it’s just the working staff who think that 23 races is too much: I sense even the fans think that a run of triple-headers is not great. It feels like the sport is being cheapened in a way, where each race is no longer as valuable and important because there are now so many.

And why isn’t there more consideration for a calendar that works better for staff? Why, for example, are we going from Azerbaijan straight to Canada next year? It doesn’t make any sense at all, especially when a Turkey/Baku run would be much more sensible.

Mechanics clear the grid as the drivers prepare to begin the formation lap

Mechanics clear the grid as the drivers prepare to begin the formation lap

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

There are some solutions though that would help us a lot.

Of course, wages are always important. There needs to be a rethink about the pay structure in the sport to ensure that those in the front line aren’t being hurt the most by the cost cap.

For what would seem like a small pay rise for the bosses would make a massive difference to a lot of us on the ground.

Also, why not get us out of our cramped economy plane seats for some of the more gruelling races, just so when we land we are in much improved shape to do a better job for the teams?

And what about pushing more for a staff rotation system, so we keep the best team members refreshed and motivated for the entire season? I know one team has tried resting mechanics for a few races this year and it has made a big difference.

But perhaps the biggest thing that would help is a bit of empathy from the top of F1.

We all do this job because we love grand prix racing, but there comes a point where our mental and physical well-being needs to take priority over the needs of the sport to keep pumping out the races.

More downtime for exercise and for recovery, some proper health checks to ensure we can perform at our very best, and just a better understanding of what our life is really like when you hit those brutal low points in the middle of yet another triple-header, would mean the world.

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