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F1: My Race Weekend – Chief garage technician

Caterham's chief garage technician Richard Howell talks Crash.net through a typical weekend at the circuit
  • Joined Caterham in January 2013

  • Previously worked for Williams, McLaren, Red Bull, Marussia, and HRT

  • First race:1999 Australian Grand Prix


Preparations and early arrival


If you take an average grand prix weekend, it begins on the Thursday of the week before, so you're talking a good 10 or 11 days before the race. We are at the factory, restocking the trucks, loading the cars, kit and everything like that, so I have to confer with most of the department heads to make sure that all of the items that they want sent to the following grand prix are all on the truck ready to leave on the Friday night.

I'm always a race ahead of myself. Trying to organise logistics, the restocks, movements… I've got six people in my department so I'm looking after five guys and having to organise all of that is quite challenging itself but it's a job I enjoy.

We have a good group of guys who come and drive our trucks for us. They help us to load the trucks and we get the same guys every race, day in and day out which is also good, so we are getting a bit of continuity. So it's getting easier and easier, but you have to be very specific on what you're stacking on top of what and what's lifted where and also – because we don't have access to all six trucks on the Monday and Tuesday that we arrive at the circuit to set up – we have to make sure that what we need first is on the trucks we can access first.

At every race we have Europe-wise, we have close to 40 tonnes of kit. That doesn't include the weight of the trucks, but at the fly-aways, we carry 32 tonnes of kit because 10 tonnes we put into sea freight. Sea freight leaves a good six to eight weeks early depending on the destination. We carry all our consumable items and items that are cheap enough for us to have bought six of. Effectively we have a European kit and then we have five other kits for the amount of sea freight we've got at different parts of the world at any given time.

Generally we will arrive on a Monday afternoon at the hotel. We'll spend the evening having something to eat, chilling out. Depending on what time we arrive in that country depends on whether we will go and do a couple of hours work or not. Tuesday we set up, Tuesday is an early finish, so we'll have a night out, maybe a couple of beers. Same on Wednesday. Thursday night is potentially a late night for us depending on what parts arrive from the factory.

Friday


Friday is our busiest day, as there are two practice sessions. If the session starts at 10, we're supposed to be here for 7am. But we'll come in an extra half hour before everybody else to open the garages, get all of the bodywork back outside, the jacks back in place, fill the stock area up… That way the mechanics can come in and get straight on with their job, allowing them more time to get what they've got to get done. Ultimately, we'd all rather be standing round with our hands in our pockets with the job done, than rushing up to the last minute. We want to get everything done in time.

When we finish the two practice sessions we're into our turn around period, as we call it, which is the stripping then rebuilding of the car for the following day. There is a garage technician per car there just to keep on helping getting out kit, putting kit away, helping the mechanics as they need some help. I wouldn't say we are mechanically trained, but there's no reason why we can't jump on it if some guys need help with spanners; we will jump in and help them.

Saturday


I'm not on the pit wall during sessions – I'm lead fuel man, so I do the fuel on Marcus Ericsson's car. I'm busy doing that, and once my fuel is done – which takes two or three minutes each time the car comes in – I step back and supervise what's going in the garage. If another member of my team is having a problem then I'll step up and help them. I'm always listening to the team communications because you get hints of what is coming up, you hear what people are saying, you tune into what is going on. There are a few key expressions you might hear that make you think 'that doesn't sound right'. So you tend to spend more of your time paying more attention to what's going on across the whole garage. Once all that's gone, by the time that's been done there's always something else… You're forever scanning, making sure everything is okay, basically trying to tread water to keep afloat.

That being said, nothing normally goes wrong. If something goes wrong that is car-related then that's what we've got the mechanics there to do. I don't work on the car – none of the garage technicians do – but we are there to assist them if something does go wrong. For example, each car has got a heater. We've also got two spare heaters plus spares to fix them, so in a session if the heater goes down we just bring in another heater to substitute the one that's broken and then that one will be fixed while the spare's being used. The trick is trying to be one step ahead of the mechanics, so when you hear of a problem and the floor's got to come off then the two garage technicians assigned to that car for that session will make sure that the kit's available for them to do that. The way I look at it is when you watch programmes about people in surgery, you've got the surgeon there and you've got the assistant there passing him his tools – that's basically what a garage technician does for the mechanics during a session.

Saturday we'll be finished by about half past six, seven o'clock so again we'll go out and have something to eat, spend time with our friends then early to bed, we have the race on Sunday.

Sunday


During the race, I'm part of the pit stop crew so I'm in the garage in my overalls and my helmet, sat on one of the chairs where you see us all watching the TV. I've got a team of about six to ten men who will come in during the race and start stripping everything down while we are sat front of house, which you see on the telly. By the end of the race, the back of house will be stripped down and that's pretty much how pack-up starts. Once the race is finished, overalls are off, hi-viz jackets are on and then we turn the music up really loud and just get everything done as quickly as possible. It all comes down to planning – I want to make sure everything gets packed up quickly so it gives us more time off, but obviously it needs to be done properly so we don't end up fixing it when we get to the next race.

There's no rest for the wicked – we'll finish here about half-past ten on Sunday night after the race, and for a back-to-back we go straight in to rebuild what we've just taken down the night before, rebuild it again at the next circuit. I might consider sleeping in one of the trucks on a Sunday night, because they've all got beds in. I've done a trip or two in the tractor unit, resting for the whole 18 hour trip. It means 13 hours' sleep instead of six and then a three-hour flight, checking in and all the scene at the airport.

Richard Howell was speaking to Kate Walker


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