If informed F1 observers think they know most but not all of the fine detail within such a secretive and complex business, then read Marc Priestley's 'The Mechanic'. They'll come away realising they don't know the half of it.
Priestley, better known as 'Elvis', was part of the McLaren team from 2000 to 2009, working his way from the test crew to a number 1 mechanic on the race team. During that time, he witnessed a remarkable cross-section of success and failure played out in an era that began by floating extravagantly on tobacco money and ended in a more intense regime governed by the ruthless watching eye of social media.
Had Twitter and Facebook been in play at the beginning of the Millennium, it's a fair bet that word of what Priestley describes as "a debauched and hedonistic lifestyle" would have reached the wider world. I may be naïve in the belief that this sort of thing had passed away with James Hunt in 1990s, but even if I had caught wind of the activity seen as routine and described in this book, I would never have believed it possible in an orderly and sanitised team commanded by a politically correct boss.
Even allowing for Ron Dennis's enthusiastic pursuit of working hard and playing hard, it's difficult to imagine what he will make of this forthright expose. Tales of class A drug taking on dance floors and the total trashing of hire cars and hotel rooms are not what you would have expected during his watch as McLaren team principal.
From an outsider's point of view, the stories add to the compelling narrative as Priestley makes no attempt at a cover up since he was not only at the heart of the action but frequently the instigator; a role that earned more than one written warning when damage was severe enough to be brought to the management's attention.
More intriguing from a historical context, however, is the continuing frankness as the author lays bare the pressures endemic to working at the sharp end of a title contending team. This is particularly revealing in the detailed account of a disastrous season in 2007 as McLaren let the championship slip between their fingers, the loss to Ferrari being the final agony in a year shattered by the Spygate scandal.
As chief mechanic on the spare car, Priestley was ideally positioned in every sense to witness the damaging split in a previously harmonious garage as an increasingly toxic atmosphere took its insidious grip. Blame is sadly but equally apportioned between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso as each tried to establish superiority during their respective first seasons with McLaren.
Priestley describes how the initial warm regard for Hamilton as an enthusiastic novice was gradually eroded by "devious under the radar sniping" and "arrogance" as the war intensified mid-season. Alonso was no better thanks to paranoia over the team's perceived support for Hamilton and a "lack of gratitude, even manners at times, for a team of people busting their balls to keep his title fight alive."
Priestley was not alone among the disillusioned crew choosing to celebrate post-race in Brazil with Kimi Räikkönen, the new world champion. The affection for the former McLaren driver is marked: "Kimi was level-headed, always relaxed, and an absolute pleasure to be around." That laid back approach mixed with a willingness to work hard was best summed up when, moments before the start of the 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix, Räikkönen asked Priestley how many laps the race was due to run. He had no idea -- and yet it would be his first win for McLaren.
The relationship with the Finn reached a controversial climax when Priestley placed die inside Kimi's gloves in Brazil, a move that was not appreciated by the good and the great as they attempted to congratulate a blue-handed driver at the end of his final race for the team. Räikkönen saw the funny side and put in a good word for a mechanic who felt sure he was about to be sacked for one prank that had gone too far.
It would be wrong to give the impression that Priestley could not have cared less. Quite the reverse. The book is, throughout, a genuine portrayal of the sense of privilege and excitement that came with working for McLaren. One reviewer has doubted the veracity of Priestley's remorse after some of the more outrageous moments but questioning such genuine narrative perhaps hints at the writer's sheltered life away from the race track compared to a high pressure and competitive existence Priestley and others embraced to the full.
There have been excellent books on the life and times of racing mechanics; the story of Alf Francis, mechanic to Stirling Moss in the 1950s; and Steve Matchett's account of his time with Benetton in the 1970s. Priestley's book is the next illuminating chapter in a world we actually know very little about. It is essential and entertaining reading.