Wil­liams me­chanic’s F1 suc­cess

Robert ku bi ca’ sn um­ber one at wil­liams is a short oval win­ner.

Motor Sport News - - Headline News - by Neil­ran­don

n his first day in Abu Dhabi pre­par­ing for the fi­nal grand prix of the For­mula 1 sea­son, Ben Howard walked down the pit­lane to a hero’s wel­come.

“All my friends in other teams called out ‘How are we do­ing champ?’, ‘Well done mate!’ and they were all shak­ing my hand,” says Howard. “It was mega.”

The pre­vi­ous Satur­day, the num­ber one me­chanic on Sergey Sirotkin’s Wil­liams FW41 had achieved a life­time’s am­bi­tion. Rac­ing at the Birm­ing­ham Gala meet­ing in Novem­ber, Howard led from flag-to-flag to take his first race win in a BRISCA F1 stock­car and with it the Dave Leonard Me­mo­rial Tro­phy.

When the 37-year-old pulled up in front of the start-fin­ish line af­ter the race he sat in his car, head in his hands.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Howard ad­mits. “I had to take a minute to com­pose my­self.”

Howard was born and bred in Rochdale, where he still lives, a town renowned as home to one of BRISCA F1’s great­est stock car dy­nas­ties, the Smith fam­ily.

Stu­art Smith blazed a trail in the se­ries from 1969, the year he won his first of six World Fi­nals. Sons Andy and Stu­art con­tin­ued the legacy. Howard can now add his name to the list of Rochdale race win­ners.

“My dad was very good friends with Stu­art Smith Sr,” says Howard. “And as a teenager I be­came friends with Stu­art Jr – not on the rac­ing side, but so­cially.

“I got into stock cars when I was at school. There was a small garage opposite to where my dad worked in Rochdale. I used to of­ten hear a car in there and it was the BRISCA F1 of Craig Howarth. I ap­proached Craig to see if I could do work ex­pe­ri­ence there. Af­ter school on a Thurs­day I would go down to the garage and at the week­ends I’d go rac­ing with them.

“And so that re­ally got me the stock­car bug. But when I got a job and went to col­lege it kind of stopped. But I al­ways fol­lowed it.”

Hav­ing left school af­ter his GCSES Howard took up a four-year ap­pren­tice­ship at col­lege as a mo­tor ve­hi­cle me­chanic.

His third-year col­lege place­ment led him to a garage where the owner re­stored his­toric sportscars. When the owner sold his equip­ment to a com­pany in Lis­bon and re­tired, Howard was of­fered a job in Por­tu­gal.

“I was 18 and so I packed my bags and my tool­box and went to Lis­bon,” he says.

Three years later Howard re­turned to Rochdale and worked at a garage where a cus­tomer owned a 1982 Tyrrell 011 F1 car.

“The owner used to race in the same se­ries as the one I was in­volved with in Por­tu­gal,” says Howard. “I worked on this car and we would do eight to 10 events a year around Europe. It was good rac­ing.”

As a 25-year-old, Howard was nur­tur­ing his skills as a me­chanic, but was un­aware his fa­ther had se­cretly sent his CV to a num­ber of F1 teams.

“One of them rang me out of the blue,” says Howard. “Su­per Aguri asked me to come down to Ox­ford. So I bought my first suit and off I went.”

Af­ter an hour-long in­ter­view at the Leafield Tech­ni­cal Cen­tre, he got the job. “Su­per Aguri was a team full of peo­ple who had never worked in F1 be­fore,” he says. “By the third year we were beat­ing the works team, and it was then Honda pulled the plug.

“Ev­ery­one knew Su­per Aguri wouldn’t be around by the end of the sea­son so I put some feel­ers out to some team man­agers. I got a month’s con­tract with Pro­drive and As­ton Martin and we won Le Mans with the DB9 – so that was a nice one to tick off the box.”

It was while at Le Mans Howard took a phone call from the Wil­liams F1 team. “It was with about four hours to go in the race when I got a phone call from Wil­liams and was asked if I could stop off at the fac­tory on my way back home,” he ex­plains. “I’ve now been there 11 years.”

Howard was pro­moted to num­ber one me­chanic three years ago. “There’s a num­ber one with each car,” Howard ex­plains. “And you have five num­ber two me­chan­ics, so it is a team of six me­chan­ics on each car. Now I am num­ber one me­chanic work­ing on Robert Ku­bica’s car.”

Howard, for his part, be­gan his short oval rac­ing ca­reer in BRISCA F2 in 2016, hir­ing a car from lo­cal driver Rob Mitchell.

“I won my first fi­nal at Sh­effield,” he says. “As good as it was hir­ing cars I wanted some­thing to do at home so I bought one. I did a cou­ple of meet­ings in 2017 – and it be­came a mas­sive project. I ended up strip­ping the car down to chas­sis legs and a rollcage and re­built it out of my garage and raced it last sea­son.”

But com­pet­ing in BRISCA F1 was the ul­ti­mate am­bi­tion. Hav­ing had a brief out­ing at the fi­nal Coven­try meet­ing in 2016, Howard took part in the fol­low­ing sea­son’s Gala event in Birm­ing­ham, hir­ing the Tar­mac car of Ricky Wil­son.

“I started at the back and plod­ded round just to get a feel for it and then I did the Sun­day af­ter­noon meet­ing of the Skeg­ness Speed­week­end last year and had an­other play from the back.

“And that was it re­ally, that was my sea­son done for the year. But then a friend at work wanted to have a go in a BRISCA F2. I sug­gested the Gala meet­ing and I was go­ing to go along with him to be a sup­port. I wasn’t down to race at the meet­ing be­cause Ricky had trashed his car a cou­ple of weeks be­fore at Buxton.”

But on the Thurs­day be­fore the meet­ing Howard got a mes­sage from BRISCA F1 driver Mark Sar­gent, who of­fered him a car.

“I turned up on the Satur­day ready for prac­tice and the car was there ready and Sarge told me to jump in. I was just go­ing to get in with my jeans on to check the seat fit­ted OK and was com­fort­able with the ped­als. But Sarge said, ‘no, no, get your suit and hel­met on, you’re straight out for prac­tice.’ I fin­ished third. I got loads of con­fi­dence from that go­ing into the fi­nal.”

Be­fore the fi­nal Howard sought some ad­vice from his all-time favourite BRISCA F1 driver, Andy Smith.

Howard was never headed in the fi­nal, and ended up pulling away from the pack. “With three laps to go I looked in my mir­rors and I was ac­tu­ally pulling away. With two to go I was think­ing ‘I’m go­ing to win a fi­nal!’

“Then it went through my mind ‘what do you do when you win?’ I thought ‘I’m just go­ing to give it the big beans and come out of the corner side­ways smok­ing the tyres’, but I went a bit too early and I nearly lost it!”

Howard re­veals a num­ber of friends in F1 fol­low stock car rac­ing: “Ev­ery­one looks at a BRISCA F1 stock as a lump of steel with a mas­sive en­gine in­side it but I’ve had peo­ple come with me to meet­ings and they have been re­ally im­pressed. These guys build their own cars and are so clever and ded­i­cated. The engi­neer­ing is amaz­ing. It’s spe­cial re­ally.”

And even some of the F1 drivers have also shown an in­ter­est. “Ku­bica is re­ally keen and al­ways asks how I’ve got on through­out the year and Felipe Massa al­ways keeps in touch,” says Howard.

As the 2019 sea­son ap­proaches, Howard hopes to con­tinue rac­ing both in BRISCA F1 and F2.

“What­ever shale meet­ings are on when I’m home I’ll be rac­ing my BRISCA F2 but if there aren’t any shale F2 meet­ings on I’ll be hunt­ing for a drive in a BRISCA F1 on ei­ther shale or Tar­mac,” he says.

“I re­ally want to do some shale sur­face meet­ings next year, but if any­one has a car spare I will be straight in.” ■

Ben Howard took his big­gest vic­tory at Birm­ing­ham last Novem­ber

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