The pits

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The Independent Culture
Tomorrow in the Melbourne Grand Prix, the most expensive show on earth roars into life. By the time the season ends in Japan in October, Michael Schumacher, supreme driver of his generation, could be $50 million richer. Behind him and his co-multimillionaires lies another band of men with skills equally refined, equally crucial. Their love of the game is as intense as the drivers' but their lives are somewhat different. Neil Lyndon reports. Photographs by Jean-Marc Zaorski

When fuel cascades from the nozzle and ignites upon the car's superheated metals and carbon fibres, these are the men who get blown off their feet by the explosion and sheeted in flames.

Watch what they do. It's always the same. Their first movements protect themselves. They throw up their arms to shield their faces from the blast and hurl their bodies away. Then, in the next instant, before the certainty can form in the spectator's mind that "This driver's going to die", all the mechanics turn back towards the inferno. Their instinct to save the driver and the car is almost as strong as their will to live. It may kill some of them this season. If so, it won't be the first time. When a wheel comes loose after a pit stop, detaches itself from the car that is accelerating away under 700bhp of power and goes bouncing along the pit lane like a berserk ball in a bowling alley, these are the guys who take its weight in the back, the neck, the skull or the legs.

Some of them have been paralysed this way. Some have died. When a nut strips a thread or a jack jams or a coupling comes unstuck and the testy, peevish, impatient superstar in the cockpit is delayed for a second in his progress towards the acquisition of yet another million, these are the ones who catch the blame. Even so, they are doing the job they always dreamed of.

They fly economy while the drivers and the team managers are up at the front of the plane or, having left the circuit early to take off in a private aircraft, are already home. Ayrton Senna used to read the Bible while he flew in first class. The wrench monkeys at the back read Autosport. Nigel Mansell may argue for days about the number of suites to be provided in luxury hotels for his retinue (his pilot, his minder, cook, secretary, personal press spokesman and the rest) at each Grand Prix. The mechanics share rooms and rarely have time, during a race week or a test session, to eat or sleep. If an engine blows up, they will work all night to install its replacement. And, if the car goes out and blows up again on the first lap of the next day, they will do it all again.

Formula 1 is the richest sport on earth and these are most essential functionaries but, apart from the programme sellers and the car park attendants, they are its lowest paid. Development and manufacture of engines for an F1 team can cost more than $200 million; the same team's wage bill for 200 staff at the factory and in the race garage may not top pounds 5 million. Michael Schumacher could earn $50 million in the coming season. The mechanics who make the F1 circus go round may be lucky to take home pounds 20,000. At the end of the season, when the drivers bank their Krugerrands, the mechanics get their rewards too. The grateful drivers give them the gloves and overalls and helmets they have worn in the races and the mechanics sell them. Then they go and have a weekend in Bali on the way home from the last Grand Prix in Australia.

They are replaceable, disposable, common. The jobs pages of the motor racing magazines regularly carry ads for mechanics for F1 teams. The queues for those vacancies go twice around the block. Every apprentice in every lock-up garage in the country would give a finger to work for an F1 team. As likely as not, the guys in the garage who are getting their hands jammed in gears will have engineering or information technology degrees. Being an F1 grease monkey is becoming a graduate game, paid in peanuts.

While the managers and the sponsors talk deals, always in mil ("three mil","five mil", "what's a mil?"), the pit crews talk results, records, performances. While the drivers hold court in their motor homes, the pit crews try to work through the intruding lenses and limbs of hundreds of journalists and photographers who never want to know their names. Out of all the thousands who make their money from Formula One racing, the mechanics may be the only ones whose enthusiasm is genuine and unalloyed. When they gather at the pit wall to greet their car, and their driver has won, their joy is one of the least feigned, most authentic sights in any sport.

They call themselves the lads