Dave Redding is part of the Formula 1 furniture and living proof that talent takes you places.
Dave came to Grand Prix racing as a mechanic for Benetton, moving on to McLaren and to Stewart Grand Prix before returning to McLaren as team manager in 2009. Fans of soul music will understand why he’s known around the paddock as Otis.
He joined Benetton in 1988, working with Alessandro Nannini, who’d come from Minardi and was widely tipped as a future world champion. At the British Grand Prix, on a very wet British summer’s day, Nannini found himself on the podium after a fairly chaotic race.
“I remember it well,” Dave tells me. “Not so much for Sandro being on the podium, but more because he spun quite a lot and fell off a few times. It was chucking it down with rain, and the race seemed to go on forever. As mechanics, we’d all been amazed that the Williams guys had converted their car from active to passive [suspension] overnight. That was a brave thing to do, a real challenge for any team, and we were all talking about it.
“Sandro was a really nice guy – most drivers are – and his family had a bakery in Siena so he brought us some really rich cakes. His sister was a pop star so she caused quite a stir when she came to the track. He drank a lot of coffee and smoked Marlboro cigarettes like a chimney, but we were sponsored by Camel so the girls had to put his Marlboros in Camel packets.”
Mechanics spend a huge amount of time away from home, so what is the buzz that keeps them going and brings them back to the paddock year after year?
“There’s good camaraderie between the teams; we go to the same bars and restaurants so we swap gossip and stories and any big news goes up and down the pitlane pretty quickly. It becomes a way of life. It’s hard work, but you get to travel and you have an end product every two weeks which is rewarding. It’s a sport, it’s competitive, and getting results keeps you hooked. Balancing the job with home life can be tricky.”
In 1995 Dave worked with Mika Häkkinen and the recalcitrant McLaren MP4/10. It was a rollercoaster season: Mansell came and went, Jan Magnussen had some races, and Mika had a life-threatening accident in Adelaide.
“I’d only just joined McLaren so it was my first season with them. I liked Mika. He didn’t say much, like Kimi, but he had a good sense of humour. Mischievous probably best describes it. He was very focused, which made him seem unapproachable, but he’d often stay and chat with the guys in the evening when we were working on the car. I was the number one mechanic on the car, so when he crashed in Adelaide it was very worrying because we didn’t know what had happened.
“There wasn’t the track coverage, or the telemetry we have today, so you have that moment of paranoia. ‘Was everything tight? What could have gone wrong?’ All those thoughts go through your mind, that’s just human nature. Then you start piecing together what’s happened, and when it’s a serious accident, you just want to make sure the driver’s OK, that’s the most important thing.
“All these thoughts are going through your mind in milliseconds. The driver is paramount, then once you know he’s OK you can think about what may have gone wrong and whether it was anything us guys were involved with.”
Dave is now the team manager at McLaren-Mercedes, elevated to those high chairs on the pitwall, so have all his years of experience as a mechanic helped him manage the way the team works?
“I understand the issues the guys have and as you get older you realise a lot of it is about characters and personalities. Most of the little problems are just annoying for a few minutes, there’s a bigger picture. This year has been frustrating but we have to retain our credibility, we have to do a good job, the car has to be reliable, the pitstops have to be done properly and that keeps everyone going. We want to beat Force India, we want to catch Ferrari, and in Russia we had a very good result and the fastest pitstop in the race, so there’s plenty keep us all motivated.
“The cars are very complicated now, so I’m very involved in reliability issues, but I take a back seat when it comes to taking things apart. I leave that to the mechanics who are the experts. What looks obvious when it comes to changing something is not always the case and you can end up breaking something.”
The next gig for Otis and his band takes them to Austin, Texas, a town known not only for rocking, but also racing. Three races to go, and plenty still to play for with Force India in their mirrors and Ferrari in their sights.