And the award for most crushing review goes to:
This gentle reader, letter mailed to Benetton Formula Ltd., October, 1995.
“… why did Matchett ever write this book, seriously, why?… Awful … Quite terrible.
“Yours, … a true Damon Hill fan. Go Damon!!!!!!”
If you’ve thumbed through even a little of the content in the About the Author section, you’ll know that I’ve always enjoyed books. I like everything about them. And, from a very young age, from first opening the adventures of Alice, Pooh and The Swiss Family Robinson, I knew I would one day become a writer. I simply, emphatically, understood that I would.
I’m not suggesting I held some childish, deluded notion that I was destined to write something of staggering worth; no playground fantasy of writing something that would forever change people’s perception of the world. Not for a split second did I ever think or desire that. Merely, it was a calm inner confidence, a core certainty that I would, one day, publish something. Looking back, that innate childhood knowledge is the only thing I have ever been unwaveringly certain of throughout the whole of my forty-nine years.
As a carefree lad of ten it was all so obvious, so clear: why would I possibly not become a writer? I would save up, buy an antique fountain pen, perhaps a hat of some sort, too: I’d noticed in photographs that many authors seemed to find hat-wearing de rigueur. At the time I’d assumed they did this to appear suavely cultured (I’ve since concluded by successful experimentation that, in fact, they more likely did so to keep warm: a practical response to having insufficient funds to buy logs for the fire) but details such as ink pens and haberdashery could all be finalised much later; in essence, however, I had my entire future life planned.
Then I grew up.
Growing up in an archetypal working class family, educated via England’s state comprehensive system (schooling continually promoting the merits of learning a trade, something that actually paid a living wage, albeit a meagre one), there really wasn’t a great deal of one-on-one tuition or extracurricular encouragement given to budding would-be writers. The vast majority of my peers and I were not given the map showing directions towards the dreaming spires of Oxford. That road was for other travellers. We were tutored in the hope of becoming apprentices, not students.
I don’t wish that to sound bitter, as if cheated in some way. I certainly don’t feel cheated and I’m not at all bitter. Naturally, some lucky (and clearly gifted) kids did breakaway, escape the system, get to college and discover all the milk and honey that lay beyond. I believe things have advanced significantly since my time at school, nowadays many more kids are given the chance of a university education but, back then, throughout the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, the reality was very different: working class kids received an average working class education. Twas the way of things.
For the great majority the comprehensive education system prepared its pupils for a life of mainly manual work. In the late nineteen-seventies, a time when many of my contemporaries left school at just sixteen, they inevitably followed paths trodden by their parents before them: they worked as trainee miners or plumbers, painters or builders, electricians or mechanics. Nearly thirty years on, many of my old school chums are still working in their particular chosen trade, too. And extremely skilled craftsmen some of them have become.
So, in my own case, although I proved reasonably good at English – the lessons fun and unforced – there was all but no chance of my pursuing writing as a career. University was for others. It was how it was. On the extremely rare occasions when university was discussed, it felt as though my teachers were describing some faraway fairyland. There were no satisfactory answers when we asked why anyone would possibly want to spend even more time, years more, in school. Moreover, from what we could glean, these extra years in school were all without pay. Lost years with no chance of reward? Why? Why would we do that when we could leave school, get a job and earn a few pounds? Again, no persuasive explanations were forthcoming; the silence of the system only backed up our naive appraisal. The real rewards of a college life remained a mystery, unexplained; we didn’t need to know. University was a secret club to which we were not going to be offered membership. The system didn’t need that, wasn’t designed for that.
At fifteen, therefore, following a somewhat surreal – and surreally short – consultation with the school’s “career advisor,” a sad, defeated chap dressed entirely in bedraggled brown, the pull of tradition proved too strong; like a nail to a magnet the Trades drew me towards them.
And I have absolutely no regrets of how my working life panned out as a result of the decision I made to pull on overalls, pick up a spanner, a micrometer, and learn how to strip and rebuild an engine. As I have often said, career wise, I have been extremely fortunate.
Incidentally, in one of Life’s bizarre twists, the academic blocks of my four year apprenticeship, both the course lessons and the examinations themselves were all conducted at the technical college of Loughborough University. Their engineering faculty is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Over the years the campus has produced some truly exceptional pit lane talent: Neil Oatley, Steve Hallam and Rob Smedley are all Lufbra Alumni.
Although my City & Guilds apprenticeship qualifications stopped short of degree level, I feel extremely fortunate to have been enrolled in Loughborough, mentored and tutored by the finest lecturers in the business; I thank them all. I’ll never forget their guidance and enthusiasm throughout those formative years. I owe them a great debt of gratitude; I sincerely hope that the small part I played in helping my team secure the 1995 Formula 1 constructors’ championship goes some way to repaying their efforts; to show their time was not entirely wasted.
My books summerise (more or less) all that has happened to me professionally, from my days as an apprentice mechanic, right up until now, so there’s no point in repeating any of that here. However, I thought it useful to touch on a childhood memory and mention the school business above by way of introducing the very reason for my writing Life in the Fast Lane.
Back in the late nineteen-eighties, when I began to seriously look at Formula 1 as a potential career, I wanted to learn all I could. Not so much of the glitz and glamour of the sport: the exotic tracks and the international travel, the beautiful women and the hedonistic parties (although, naturally, these particular aspects certainly held an undeniable appeal), I could study all of that once I was a member of the F1 fraternity, but that wouldn’t happen until I had earned a position within a team.
Consequently, what I really wanted was to discover more of the industry of Formula 1: how the cars are designed, built and developed; how the teams are structured, who was answerable to whom, the hierarchy and duties of the staff; an explanation of the various responsibilities of the designers, engineers and mechanics.
Searching the shelves of local bookshops, both new and second-hand (these were, remember, pre Google, Abe and Amazon days), I unearthed an abundance of journalist-written driver biogs; plenty of the yearly Autocourse reviews; even a few sporadically published annuals designed, presumably, to take the fight to Autocourse’s dominance. But there was little else; I was surprised at how little literature on life inside the F1 factories had been published over the years.
In fact, in terms of firsthand accounts of the working life of a grand prix mechanic, the only book I found was Alf Francis, Racing Mechanic. If you’re an enthusiast of motoring literature then I’m sure you know this book well. If the title’s new to you, then I strongly advise you to get hold of a copy. It’s a captivating read. First editions are becoming increasingly rare (and current prices for a fine or very good copy reflect that) but Haynes published a more affordable reprint in 1992. Alf didn’t write his own story, he gave it in interviews to a journalist, Peter Lewis. Again, if that name’s unfamiliar then I urge you to click on the link, you won’t regret it. Sadly, I never had the pleasure of meeting Major Lewis, he seemed an intriguing, yet wonderfully modest chap.
As fascinating as the Alf Francis story is, it is set in the late nineteen-fifties. It was 1988, thirty years later when I was trying to break into F1; I really needed more recent accounts of pit lane life to gauge what I was letting myself in for. However, of anything remotely contemporary, I found nothing.
Over the last twenty years Formula 1 has grown to become a multi-billion dollar industry but even in the late nineteen-eighties it was a highly successful media business: millions of television viewers tuned-in for each race, there were weekly magazines and yearly reviews and videos to collect. Clearly, people wanted to learn more about the sport they loved.
While somewhat forlornly searching for books to guide me in my quest to become an F1 mechanic, this lack of autobiographical – even biographical – literature covering pit lane life struck a chord. It seemed an obvious hole in what was otherwise a well serviced market. With that thought came the realisation that I had accidentally stumbled upon a potential niche, the very niche I had been searching for since I was ten years old.
Although I hadn’t so far applied for a job interview with any of the grand prix teams, I now knew the identity of the subject I would explore in my future writing. Time to buy that pen I had been promising myself. As for the hat, I was still way too naive to understand the real need for one. That particular epiphany wouldn’t hit for a further ten years, sitting hunched over my laptop computer, in a ramshackle farmhouse in southwest France; the bitter wind howling outside, battering the door as I tried to write my second book, fingers so blue with cold it was proving impossible to write a coherent sentence.