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?”