Fear, faith, friendship: Inside F1’s most precious relationship

The race engineer is responsible for the set-up of the driver’s car, alerts them to incidents and on-track traffic, and monitors their temperament.

To an extent, the driver puts their life in the hands of their race engineer whenever they take to the track.

“I feel very aware of safety at the race start, but in general I don’t dwell on that more than a driver does,” Stallard says. “You realise drivers are much more scared of dishonour.

“They are often much more worried about the shame of damaging a very expensive car and being out of the race than they are about the personal injury risk. It is more fear of not doing enough than doing too much and something terrible happening.

“Those moments [when crashes happen] are difficult because it is your friend in the car. It is not just a colleague – you don’t work with someone that closely and not become friends.

“At a certain point in an accident, all of the lines of data go vertical. You know something bad has happened, but a small spin and a crash into the wall look incredibly similar.

“You don’t really know what happened. It is very easy to ask the wrong question like, ‘Is the car OK?’. That sounds odd to someone watching on TV, who, before they hear that, has seen very clearly that the car has gone into a wall at 200kph. But the good thing is drivers are quite understanding.”

During his debut season in 2022, China’s Zhou Guanyu suffered one of modern racing’s most harrowing crashes.

Multiple cars made contact just after the start at Silverstone, sending Zhou’s Sauber tumbling upside down, hurtling across the tarmac and through the gravel at high speed. Upon impact, the car flipped over the barrier and landed on its side. Until he was extracted from the car around 20 minutes later with no significant injuries, many feared the worst.

On the Swiss team’s pit wall, desperately waiting for news, was Becker.

“That was definitely the biggest accident I experienced with a driver,” the German recalls.

“We immediately lost telemetry to the car, so there was no communication to him. And we did not receive any information from race control because they did not know how he was either. It was 15 minutes without any information, which was very, very difficult.

“But you remind yourself that you have to be professional. I pushed hard to keep it on the calm level, because if I start to get worked up as a leader in the team, then everything goes in the wrong direction.”

Piastri’s accomplished rookie season, in which he secured a ninth-place finish in the drivers’ championship, was achieved in spite of a dreadful start to the year for his McLaren team, who were way off the pace of the leaders.

His ability to control his emotions during that time made life easier for Stallard.

“The role of a driver in a team, even a rookie, is a significant leadership position because there are only two people that drive the car,” Stallard says.

“Leadership from a driver can be a lot of different things – it is not always standing up in front of hundreds of people and orating to the entire organisation. A lot of it is in the debrief over the intercom, the feedback about performance, or the way they present themselves in the car.

“I don’t think Oscar realised he was doing it, but he was leading just by being in the team, taking stuff on himself and not apportioning blame.

“He could have been really difficult, but the leadership and calmness he showed in that period was one of the instrumental factors in keeping the team in the right place and turning around performance.”

During his time working with current Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc at Sauber, Becker also experienced the rapid development of a young driver who many believe is a future world champion in waiting.

“When he was testing for the first time for us, we have a reference data set – a baseline – where we can measure how quickly he can adapt to F1, and during this test we could all already recognise that Charles was very special,” Becker explains.

“His way of working was special too.

During testing, he always had a small black book in the car. And after each run he made some notes to remember – the most important details. And then in the debrief later on he was referring to the information he wrote down during the session, which is quite impressive.

“He had a very academic approach. Some outstanding drivers are not interested in the technical side, and then they converge to a certain level where they do not improve any more. They just reach the limit of their talents. But the top guys find this extra step by being very good in car development and set-up.”

As well as evaluating the pace of car and driver at the end of a race weekend, engineers review how they themselves have performed over the airwaves.

“I actually practise [managing adrenaline],” says Becker. “I usually do a race replay where I listen to all the radio conversations, which is very chaotic, and try to practise being very calm and training my voice to have a consistent volume, not speak too fast, and so on.”

Prior to dedicating himself to engineering full-time, Stallard was an accomplished rower who competed for Cambridge in the Boat Race and won a silver medal with Team GB at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

“I think I have always been quite good at handling pressure,” he says. “One of the things I was always very aware of as a rower is that you need the crew to work. If you create stress for the other athletes, the crew doesn’t work. The same is true of an F1 team.

“Increasingly you realise that it is the human side where most of the competitive edges come from in F1. You realise it is all about the people.”

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