We catch up with Pirelli F1’s track­side en­gi­neer, Peter Mabon

Pirelli F1 track­side en­gi­neer


To hear the tor­rent of tech­ni­cal jar­gon spouted about For­mula 1 tyres, you’d be for­given for as­sum­ing that any­one in­volved in de­sign­ing, build­ing and op­er­at­ing F1 rub­ber must be the prover­bial egghead, armed with a phe­nom­e­nal list of aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tions. So it might sur­prise you to learn that the man who ad­vises the Mercedes team on tyre choice left school at 16 and came to F1 via a cir­cuitous route that in­cluded stints as a de­liv­ery driver and a For­mula Ford racer.

“My in­ter­est in rac­ing came through a friend of my dad’s [Sandy Wat­son, a stal­wart of the Scot­tish mo­tor­sport scene], who had a Club­mans car,” he ex­plains. “I used to go round and pol­ish it. In the school holidays I’d go down to Don­ing­ton Park and Oul­ton Park and help out. So I started at a low level: it’s all been about be­ing in the right place at the right time.

“I don’t re­ally have any­thing in terms of qual­i­fi­ca­tions un­less you count one of my proud­est achieve­ments: my Sca­nia Econ­omy Driv­ing cer­tifi­cate! I en­joyed school, just not any of the sub­jects. I liked the de­bat­ing so­ci­ety and play­ing rugby, but as for the rest of it, I missed the point of be­ing there.”

Mabon’s de­par­ture from the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem co­in­cided with the death of the tra­di­tional in­dus­tries of min­ing and fish­ing in his na­tive Fife in the early ’80s. Hav­ing en­rolled on a course in me­dia stud­ies, he switched to a Youth Train­ing Scheme place­ment with re­tailer John Men­zies. Then came the de­liv­ery job, and a rac­ing epiphany cour­tesy of a rel­a­tive who bought him a ses­sion at Knock­hill cir­cuit’s rac­ing school.

“I’d grown up around rac­ing,” he says. “Knock­hill is only half an hour from where I grew up in Burn­tis­land. I bought a sec­ond-hand For­mula Ford car just for fun. I ended up do­ing not so badly. In my sec­ond sea­son I was run­ner-up in the Scot­tish Ju­nior Cham­pi­onship – the win­ner was Louis Di Resta, Paul’s dad. I did the For­mula Ford Fes­ti­val that year in some­one else’s car, and Louis was up­set when I was a sec­ond a lap faster than him around Brands Hatch.”

Sev­eral photos from Peter’s rac­ing ca­reer are still out there. The most dra­matic was taken at Sil­ver­stone’s Copse in 1993, and shows his car air­borne and up­side down af­ter he clipped the in­side kerb. “It’s on the Face­book page ‘Heroes of For­mula Ford’, so ap­par­ently I’m a hero!” he says. “Un­for­tu­nately for fly­ing, not for driv­ing. Dario Fran­chitti came to see me in the med­i­cal cen­tre af­ter­wards – he was do­ing For­mula Vaux­hall Lo­tus – and said, ‘If I ever have an ac­ci­dent like that, then that’s it for me.’ But look at all the smashes he’s had since!”

By that time, For­mula Ford was mak­ing the tran­si­tion to Zetec engines, ush­er­ing in an era of de­clin­ing af­ford­abil­ity. Mabon took his leave and presently found a new way of getting his mo­tor-rac­ing fix: he moved to Wiltshire and started work­ing for Avon tyres, where he stayed for 15 years.

“I started as a tyre fit­ter and worked my way up. It took time be­cause I kept up­set­ting peo­ple. I was buried in the fac­tory on shift work, and it was only a sec­ond job in­struct­ing at Cas­tle Combe that kept me sane. It was a bit like Flash­dance…”

With a change of man­age­ment came pro­mo­tion to a track­side engi­neer­ing role, and it’s this ex­pe­ri­ence that he’s brought to bear for Pirelli since join­ing them at the start of their F1 pro­gramme, work­ing with Toro Rosso and then Red Bull be­fore Mercedes. He’s now based in Did­cot, Pirelli’s UK hub, where he and nine other track­side en­gi­neers – one for each team – pool data with se­nior man­age­ment and ad­vise on the se­lec­tion of tyre com­pounds for the com­ing races.

Track­side, he mon­i­tors tyre per­for­mance, degra­da­tion and wear to help Mercedes for­mu­late the op­ti­mum tyre strat­egy.“i usu­ally get the fig­ures right by punch­ing in all my ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “The teams like that be­cause they spend mil­lions on com­put­ers to cal­cu­late things like this, and then an oik like me comes along and gets quite close to the right an­swer.

“If I’d ap­plied my­self I’d have saved a good 20 years,” he laughs. “But then Ross Brawn didn’t go to univer­sity, did he?”

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