Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up next: Steve Matchett, an esteemed racing TV commentator who is also a well-known author and former championship-winning mechanic in F1. Though this interview is strongly recommended as a podcast, it is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
Being relatively late to the racing world, I’ve only known you as a broadcaster, but you were a mechanic in Formula One. Was racing and working on cars the goal for you? Was that your boyhood dream?
No, it was most certainly not. I grew up in the middle of central England — not very far away from the Donington (Park) racetrack. So we had a racetrack that was very close to us, but my family had no involvement or interest in racing or all. And I never went to a motor race for many years.
What got me involved in the automotive industry was a school friend of mine. We were both trying to decide what we would do when we left school. Back in England in the 1970s — it seems strange now in comparison to the United States — but college and university were foreign words to us. We had no introduction to university at all. It was not long after the end of the second World War — ’70, ’75 — and the comprehensive school education in England at that time was all pushing people toward the trades. You were going to be a plumber or a mason or something to do with electronics. Or you would end up in the automotive industry. It was just a very different time. You could tell the whole push of the government was to get people working again.
So a friend of mine had an interest in cars and mechanics. And he had one of the original Austin Minis, one of the late-50s Minis. One day he said, “If you want to come down to the house, I’m going to be working on the car. Come see what it’s all about.” And that kind of caught my interest. But before then, it was a completely foreign subject to me.
I became an indentured apprentice. I looked around for opportunities to be a mechanic, because I wasn’t really sure what to do. You’re young, you’re 16, you’re not really sure what the world is all about, right? So this was a profession. It was something to do.
We were very fortunate nearby the down I grew up to have a Ferrari dealer. There were about three in the country at the time — one in the north, one in the south and one in the heart of the industrial midlands, which is where I was. It was called Graypaul Motors, which has now become a very prestigious Ferrari dealership.
I used to work at a little Mazda dealership literally just down the road from the Ferrari dealer, and enjoyed the work as an apprentice mechanic very well. To remove ego out of it, I was actually very good at it. The theory side of it and the practical side of it gelled with me very easily. All of the sudden, I thought, “You know, I kind of get this.” In a way, it was like most things in life — I’m really self-taught in most things, even being an indentured apprentice. To get to grips with the theoretical side, I would just take more time than some of the others. I just enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the study side as much as the practical side.
Anyway, to go back full circle, there was the Ferrari dealer and I applied and applied and applied to them, and eventually I think they just got bored with me and gave me the opportunity. So I started working on Ferrari.
How old were you around this time?
About 26. I’d been around for awhile and I’d worked for a BMW dealer as well, but it was really Ferrari that caught my attention. I just loved the idea of those V-12s, those European exotic cars. As a young kid, it was obviously very appealing — and as a mechanic, even moreso.
It’s like Aladdin’s Cave. You go inside a Ferrari dealer and Ferrari owners have no shortage of cash. You can keep working on their cars and they seem quite happy with the bill at the end of it. Because back in those days in the 80s by that time, the car had increased more in value than the money we’d spent on the servicing end of it. So it was kind of a win-win situation.
I became very interested in doing restoration work on Ferrari and service work on Ferrari, and I cut my teeth on 308s, the carburetor cars and the injected cars and the 328s that came after that. The Testarossas, the flat-12 boxes. To take an engine out of a Testarossa — just to change the cam belts — was a fairly surreal experience, but it was all part of the servicing program.
So that got me involved in automotive engineering. And of course, from there you can see the connection to F1 — Ferrari’s F1 team. I knew I was never going to join Scuderia Ferrari’s F1 team. But that got me interested in Formula One. And then I just started applying to teams until one of them gave me a position — which was Benetton.
So you’re sitting at the dealership and thinking, “I’m pretty good at this and could potentially work on race cars.” It was just a matter of someone giving you a chance at that point?
I’ve always been a big believer in if you’re sensible, practical and have common sense — which a surprising number of people do not, as videos on the internet are a testament to — and you have a desire to do something, I’m a firm believer all of us are capable of doing whatever we want to do in life. I really do believe that.
So I was never afraid of undertaking bigger and bigger challenges at the Ferrari dealer. Whenever the next rebuild came around, I would volunteer to do it. I don’t mean that to sound egotistical, I was just keen to do it.
I had the same thought about Formula One. I had no race experience, but by this time I understood how engineering worked, how cars are put together. And it just seemed to me you’re always looking for the next step in life. And having reached Ferrari in the road car world, it was “Where do you go next?” Then you’re just taking sideways steps or you put the wrenches down and move into the managerial side of it, and that didn’t really appeal to me.
But working on F1 cars did appeal, and it comes with the added attraction of world travel — which is all very glamorous when you’re a young man. So what was wrong with that? Nothing.
I applied to every team that was English-based — which was pretty much all of them.
Just sending resumes out?
Just sending them out. I just laid it out that I’ve not had any racing experience but I’m very keen on working with Ferrari. I’ve had transfer gearbox experience, which was just breaking into the world of F1 back then. And to cut a long story short, Lotus offered me a position — which I turned down because Benetton offered me a position. I just looked at those two companies. Lotus are a huge name, obviously a very worldwide famous name in motorsport. But I just got the impression Lotus were on the wane and starting to go down, and it looked to me like Benetton were just starting to come up. I thought it would be more of an exciting chance to see something grow.
So Nigel Stepney, who was the chief mechanic at Benetton, took me on as a position of working on gearboxes in the sub-assembly department.
So you get hired there and get your foot in the door. At that point, was it a matter of proving yourself to get more responsibility?
To a degree, it was. But like I said, I’m always prepared to try something new. Carbon brakes were just getting started in Formula One. They were really ramping up; all the teams were seeing the performance advantage of having these very lightweight brakes on the car. Carbon brakes were not just about the brake efficiency, they were also light. So when you’re dealing with unsprung weights, there’s a great advantage to that.
The technical problem with the brakes was at that time, they tended to crack. Very small fissures would start to appear down the material. You had to keep your eye on them. They were terrific, but if you didn’t watch them, they would eventually lead to a brake failure.
Nigel, as chief mechanic, was looking after the carbon brakes as well as all his other responsibilities. He was finding it just too much. He wanted to have somebody from the factory take that over from him and look after the carbon brakes on the race team.
Well, you could look at that in one sense and say, “This is a pretty minor position on the race team. It’s looking after the brakes. How exciting is that?” But for me, I figured this is a way to get onto the race team! It’s the next step. And the guys I was working with were adamant they didn’t want to be working with brakes — they wanted to be gearbox mechanics.
Nigel asked everybody else of seniority over me whether they wanted this position, and everyone turned it down. I put my hand up and said, “I’ll have a go of it, Nigel. Nobody else is going to do it. I’ll help you.” And I think Nigel really liked that. He liked the idea I was prepared to have a go, even if it was looked upon as somewhat of a menial position on the team. He liked I was prepared to try it. So instantly, I went from being factory-based in England to joining him on the race team.
And I went around the world. I looked after the brakes, and I had a few cross words with engineers who were insistent the brakes were OK when they were clearly not OK. Nigel was impressed by the face I wasn’t going to be trampled underfoot by their seniority, and he appreciated the work I did for him in that first year, in 1990. At the end of 1990, they were looking for a race team mechanic on one of the cars, and Nigel offered it to me. So it was just step after step after step. Great, good luck and good fortune. Most of my career has been based on that — accidental good luck. So now I was working on one of the cars.
So it was just four years later that you won the Constructors Championship?
We won that in ’95. And we won our first Drivers Championship with Michael (Schumacher) in ’94. We really should have had the Constructors in ’94 as well, but that’s a whole other podcast for you.
So yes. It was hard work, but I loved it. I loved the teamwork. I loved the idea of being part of something bigger than oneself. Working with the guys, working with the team, traveling with the team under pressure and the all-night work — yes, it’s exhausting, but you realize you’re working toward something bigger. I enjoyed all of that.
But at the same time, I was already looking toward the next step within myself. I’ve always been a big fan of literature. I’ve always been a big reader. And I always wanted to write. But as we just touched on at the start of our interview, with the lack of comprehensive education and not being pushed toward a university, nobody was giving me any encouragement to pick up thy pen and write. It just wasn’t going to happen. But I still enjoyed doing it.
I was writing little diary entries and stories. I was keen to keep writing, keep reading. Working on the race team, it was an epiphany: Nobody is writing about what’s happening within the teams. All the books in motorsport and F1 are about the drivers. Nothing wrong with that — journalists write about what they have access to, and journalists have access to the drivers and the drivers are the heroes of the sport.
But I thought there was an unexplored niche about what was happening behind closed doors. Who was the chief mechanic? Who are the mechanics? What do they do on a daily basis? So in ’94, while we were fighting tooth and nail with Williams for the Drivers Championship, I write my first book — Life in the Fast Lane. I have no idea how I had time to do it now, looking back at it. I was exhausted to begin with. I’d write this book from midnight until 3:30 in the morning and grab a couple hours of sleep. But when you’re a young man, it’s a whole different thing, right?
I managed to get a publisher and got the book published. And then I moved onto the next stage.
What year did you leave the race team?
It was ’98.
And at that point, you figured you were going to be a writer and that was going to be your life?
Yes. That’s pretty much exactly how it was. I was enjoying myself on the race team, but I also realized this was a young man’s profession. I realized there were two options: Make Formula One work for you, or Formula One will eventually kill you. It’ll force you out of the industry out of exhaustion and fatigue. I didn’t want to be around forever doing Formula One. And we’d won the Constructors Championship. What do you do after winning the Constructors Championship? Sure, you can go for two or three or try and eventually beat Ferrari’s 16. But that’s an entire lifetime spent in the pit lane.
I very much enjoyed writing. My first book was published, and I was being offered more and more magazine work through Autosport, F1 Racing, On Track in the states. So I made the decision to quit Formula One — retire — and try to make a career as a freelance writer. I really wanted to be an author, but I knew when it came to paying the bills, magazine work pays infinitely better than writing books — unless you happen to be J.K. Rowling.
So I looked around and pondered what I should do. I realized England was too expensive to go from a steady salary to nothing. But France, at the time, was much more economical in terms of housing. So I did the Peter Mayle thing — which was the classic romantic image of going to France — and bought a rundown farm. It hadn’t been lived in for 40 years and had no running water, no electricity, no drainage — it was effectively a barn. And I started restoring the house. I had bought it for next to nothing. Even the locals in the little village didn’t it, because they thought it was too far gone. When I arrived as a stranger in this village, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I would spend all day banging away at this house — trying to repair the roof, trying to repair the walls, trying to install rudimentary plumbing, rudimentary electrics. And at the same time, I was writing magazine articles and working on my next book — The Mechanic’s Tale.
For those asking about my old farmhouse restoration project in France (after listening to @jeff_gluck‘s podcast) here are just two: the classic ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos. Ten years separates these two shots. Some of my happiest years, too, no question. pic.twitter.com/7aVelc1DUG
— Steve Matchett (@MrSteveMatchett) July 26, 2018
So once you were writing for awhile, how did the opportunity to be on TV come about? Did you ever picture yourself as someone who would be on TV?
No. Absolutely not. It was never in my future to work in television. My future, in my own mind, was to finish the restoration on the house, finish Book 2 — The Mechanic’s Tale — and then hopefully work on Book 3 and Book 4 and Book 5 while staying in France. It was a very remote corner of France, between Cognac and Bordeaux — so it had obvious appeals to be there. Cognac is famous for one thing and Bordeaux is only famous for wine. Beautiful country, but very remote and quiet. But for me, I loved all that. My childhood was spent in a very quiet little English village, so that sort of isolation was always appealing to me. I always had a very romantic idea of France — the wine and the cheese and the sun and the relaxed life — so I was living that.
It was a very sort of hand-to-mouth existence; there wasn’t an awful lot of surplus (with money). I can remember selling a magazine article and being so thrilled, I went out and bought some wood for the fire! It was that sort of existence. But it was fun.
So how did I get into TV? Mr. Frank Wilson, who was at the time working for Speed Vision, he managed to get ahold of my email address from On Track magazine. He was stuck for an announcer in 2000 for the Canadian Grand Prix. David Hobbs and Sam Posey were going to be in Le Mans, and that left Bob Varsha on his own in the booth. So Frank Wilson, who was a producer of the Formula One coverage in the States, was scratching his head and thinking, “What are we going to do about this?” He’d read my first two books and some magazine work I’d done. And he said, “You know, Steve offers a different perspective. We’ve never seen this side of the sport covered like this before.” Typically, motorsport announcers are former drivers. It’d been like that seemingly forever. But there’d never been anyone who said, “Well, the cars are built this way for this reason” and “Look what’s happening now on the pit stop” and “That’s a bad pit stop because this happened.” That kind of got glossed over.
So one dark and stormy night in the middle of nowhere in France, I was tapping away on the laptop and an email pinged onto my screen from Frank — who I didn’t know at all.
Wow! Just out of the blue?
I thought it was a joke. I thought it was some old friend from Benetton winding me up. But Frank said, “Hey, we’re stuck for an announcer. Would you mind flying over? Would you consider helping us out for one race?” And as we’ve touched on several times now, I’m not afraid to try something new. So I said, “Sure. What’s the worst that’s going to happen?” If they didn’t want to offer me any more work, I’d go back to France. So that was it. I went over and helped them out for that one race — and here we are 20 years later, having a chat.
That’s remarkable. But you had to Charlotte from France at some point to do this. Was it tough to give up that lifestyle?
That first race I did was from their Stamford (Conn.) studios. But I was still living in France. So every race, I would fly across the Atlantic — commuting. That soon became a long and tiresome commute. Because thinking back a bit now, it wasn’t just the length of the flight — which was six or eight hours. But from door to door, from leaving the hotel in Stamford to opening the door of my old farmhouse in France, was 23.5 hours. Because I was in the middle of nowhere, so it wasn’t just a matter of catching the flight to London or Paris and commuting down. I’d disembark in the north of Paris, catch the Metro through Paris to get to the south of Paris at Montparnasse train station, wait four hours for the next TGV — the next fast train — to take me down toward Bordeaux. (Laughs) If I knew I was going to be working in TV, I would never have moved to this remote part of France. But life doesn’t work that way, you know?
So after a period of years, Speed Vision was acquired by FOX and FOX wanted to relocate everyone down to Charlotte for the NASCAR connection. I spent the next 12 years or so working down in Charlotte. At one point, I said, “Enough. I’m going to buy some property over here.” So I had to sell the property in France.
It was a tough time to do it, but there comes a point where you just know life is leading you somewhere else. You come to a series of crossroads in life, and it’s “Do you turn left or right?” And I’m very happy I do live in the States. I love the life here. I certainly miss the life in France, but I love the life here and Charlotte is a great place to live. It’s getting busier all the time and more and more people are moving in. There was a time when there were no road jams, but Charlotte is getting very busy.
You mentioned you’re someone who has constantly challenged yourself. Is there a next thing at this point, or is life good and you’re enjoying doing this?
Well, life is good. But I’m getting older; I’m 56 now and beginning to slow down. I enjoyed working with FOX and Speed Vision and I very much enjoyed the five years I was covering Formula One with NBC. If the deal with NBC hadn’t have expired and gone to ESPN, I’d probably still be working with NBC covering Formula One now.
But that’s come to its natural end. And as soon as it did come to an end, Frank Wilson was on the phone to me saying let’s go out for a beer. He said, “We’ve got this interesting new thing we’re doing — Formula E. Come have a look at it.” Hence here we are today. And I like this. I like what I see from Formula E. I still enjoy the technical aspects of the cars as much as the racing. As long as the guys are happy for me to indulge my passion of looking around cars and speaking to a camera and telling that story, I’m happy to do it.
But at the same time, I continue to write. I’ve just written Book No. 4, which is a selection of short stories called These Desired Things. It’s the first deliberate move away from motorsport writing. I feel that side of my life is beginning to come to a close; it’s a natural phase. I’m not upset by it. It’s just the way life works.
I’ve also been doing audiobook recordings of the earlier works as well — and I love doing audiobook narration. I like that work very much. I’ve just recorded The Mechanic’s Tale with Tantor Media up in Old Saybrook, Conn. Had a blast of a time doing that with the guys up there and they seemed very happy with the finished product. We had a chat and I said, “Hey, if anything else comes up where you need a guy with an English accent, I’d be more than happy to consider doing more audiobook narration.”
So when you ask me what does the future hold, I think that’s where it’s going. I still like to be around motorsport and I’m more than happy to help Frank Wilson out — Frank has been a huge inspiration and help to me over the years. I adore writing, so I’ll still continue to do that. And the audiobook narration work, if that continues, I’d be a very happy man.