PIRELLI’S AMBULANCE MAN
Over the course of a grand prix weekend, Pirelli’s racing manager Mario Isola oversees the Italian tyre company’s F1 operations. But when he’s back home in Milan, he moonlights as a volunteer ambulance driver…
Mario Isola on his life in tyres – and his sideline in lifesaving
Like many cultured Europeans of a certain age, Mario Isola, 48, exudes urbane charm: think grey cashmere sweater and neat coiffure. The man responsible for Pirelli’s F1 operations invites us into the sanctuary of the tyre supplier’s motorhome and orders an espresso, keen to explain his work not only in Formula 1, but also on the streets of his home city. He’s been with Pirelli for 22 years – his whole working life – which has taken him from designing tyres for road cars to a role in the FIA World Rally Championship. Then, at the beginning of last season, he took over from Paul Hembery and now handles Pirelli’s day-to-day trackside operations in F1.
Isola’s passion for racing began when he was just 11 years old. He spotted an advert in the back of a magazine for a cheap kart, and badgered his father to buy it for him. He demonstrated a decent turn of speed, so his father upgraded his kart and began to act as his mechanic. Racing in northern Italy, Isola came up against future F1 driver Max Papis and sportscar racer Christian Pescatori. “When I was at a tyre test in the US some years ago,” Isola recalls, “Papis came up to me and said: ‘Your face is not new to me, where did we meet?’ I reminded him we raced together when we were 15 and he remembered. Now we stay in touch to this day.”
After ten years of karting (“I was not quick enough to be a champion”) Isola hung up his helmet and completed his compulsory year’s national service, before studying mechanical engineering in Milan. Once qualified, he applied for a job designing Pirelli’s tyres – but was offered another role altogether. “They wanted me to be a test driver for their road tyres,” says Isola. “I thought it was a joke, but apparently one of their testers had just resigned. I went to their test track so they could see my skills behind the wheel. But they said nothing at the time. I didn’t think I was very good. Two weeks later they gave me the job.”
Isola happily knuckled down to ragging cars around a test track to evaluate prototype tyres for their comfort and speed. He progressed from testing Pirelli’s products to designing them, working on a range of snow tyres for road cars. But his passion for motorsport still burned, and he eventually steered himself into the racing department. His first line of work was designing tyres for the FIA GT Championship, which brought him into contact with one of the engineering legends of the sport: Giorgio Ascanelli, formerly Ayrton Senna’s engineer at Mclaren, later, from 2007 to 2012, technical director at Toro Rosso. But in the early 2000s, Ascanelli was overseeing Maserati’s MC12 sportscar project, which ran on Pirelli rubber designed by Isola.“i learned a lot in those years working with Giorgio,” Isola maintains. “He was tough sometimes, but had a lot of experience and we won the championship together.”
At the end of their association with sportscars, Pirelli switched to rallying, becoming sole tyre supplier to the
FIA World Rally Championship from 2008-10. They then developed tyres for the GP3 series as a precursor to becoming sole supplier for GP2 and F1 from 2011, following the departure of Bridgestone. So now, Isola’s day job encompasses all aspects of Pirelli’s F1 operation – but that doesn’t mean he puts his feet up once he returns home from a grand prix. Instead he works night shifts as a volunteer ambulance driver. It’s a job he’s been doing for nearly three decades.
“Over the years I’ve become passionate about the work,” he says. “The more time I spent driving the ambulance, the more I realised it’s a job that needs specific training. You have four medics, plus the injured person and family members, so you are responsible for the safety of up to seven people and you need to be very fluid with your driving, otherwise you can cause additional damage to the patient. You have to respect the traffic laws – if you kill someone because you don’t respect the traffic lights, you are responsible – but obviously in an emergency you still have to be quick. An ambulance is heavy, there is equipment on board, so you need to understand the weight and how to brake and corner in the best possible way.”
With all this in mind, Isola designed a course to train ambulance drivers that is now used by 100 instructors across the Lombardy region of Italy, and up to 5,000 drivers have come through the programme. “People with a normal day job are obliged to volunteer to drive one night shift a week,” he explains. “And at weekends 90 per cent of the ambulance service are volunteers. We start at 7pm and finish at five in the morning. There’s enough time afterwards to go home, take a shower and go to work.”
So the next time you’re in Milan and see a flashing blue light whizzing past, take a moment to think of the volunteers who help out with this crucial service, even when they have hectic day jobs – such as running Pirelli’s F1 tyre operation.