As you read these words, the Formula 1 teams are all working flat-out in preparation for the Hungarian Grand Prix, the final grand prix of the first half of the 2014 Formula 1 season, just days after having worked flat-out throughout the German Grand Prix meeting last weekend.
Hockenheim was very hot - 30-plus Celsius every day - and Budapest may well be hotter still. The pit garages will be hotter again. As for the engineers and, in particular, the mechanics, therefore, clad as many of them often have to be in thick all-enveloping four-layer fireproof overalls, well, just imagine how exhaustingly overheated they become. And yet they have to work not only extremely hard and extremely long but also extremely accurately.
I have often said that the job of a Formula 1 mechanic is the hardest in the world, in fact, and when you stop to think about it you can understand why I have come to that opinion.
Moreover, when a Formula 1 mechanic makes a mistake, his error is shown on live TV in front of 100 million viewers worldwide, and it is usually castigated by commentators and pundits, sitting in air-conditioned booths, sipping chilled mineral water, many of whom have little notion of the stresses that may have contributed to that error.
Why am I telling you all this? I am telling you all this because the best Formula 1 drivers - the world champions - have always been acutely aware of it, and have always conducted themselves accordingly.
One of my all-time heroes is the great Juan Manuel Fangio, who studied to be an automobile mechanic after leaving school at 13, then attempted to become a professional footballer, then did his military service with the Argentine armed forces, then continued to work as a mechanic, then finally made his racing debut at the ripe old age of 27, in the 1938 Turismo Carretera, a road race in his native Argentina, in a Ford V8 sedan.
By the time the Formula 1 World Championship had been inaugurated, which event was marked by the running of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, Juan Manuel was 38. He did not win that race - he retired his Alfa Romeo 158 with an oil leak, on lap 63 out of 70, having led much of it - but, of the 50 grands prix he started thereafter, he won 24. Oh, and he won five Formula 1 world championships, too.
Of course, Juan Manuel was fabulously talented - naturally quick and possessed of a wonderfully calculating racing brain. But an aspect of his skill-set that is often overlooked was the way he engaged his mechanics in his success. He raced at a time when Formula 1 cars were massively less reliable than they are today, yet his cars always seemed a little more robust than those of his team-mates and rivals.
Why was that? It was because he was courteous and friendly with his mechanics, spoke to them as equals, and even sometimes shared his winnings with them. He did that for two reasons: because he was a nice guy, and because he knew it meant they would go the extra mile for him in an effort to ensure that his cars were as well screwed together as possible.
It is not fanciful to suggest that that attitude may have saved his life, in fact, for in those days a shunt was often fatal, so perilous were the circuits and so unprotected were the drivers, unbelted in their wide-open cockpits, clad in cotton shirts and leather skull-caps.
For many years Juan Manuel’s magnum opus of five Formula 1 world championships stood as a record. Now, that benchmark has been surpassed, and the record is held by Michael Schumacher, who became Formula 1 world champion seven times in his long career.
Like Juan Manuel, Michael was a superbly gifted driver. But, also like Juan Manuel, Michael prioritised engagement with his engineers and mechanics.
Have you read Steve Matchett’s excellent autobiography, ‘The Mechanic’s Tale’? If you have not, you should. Steve is a 51-year-old Englishman who worked as a Formula 1 mechanic for the Benetton team from 1990 to 1998, a stint that encompassed Michael’s two world championships for the team (1994 and 1995), and now works as a commentator for the American TV network NBC. I enjoy Steve’s TV commentaries, but the following four paragraphs from his autobiography, describing Michael’s first grand prix win (at Spa-Francorchamps in 1992), are as revealing of Michael as anything I have ever read.
"His rapture at winning that race is something he has continued to show with every successive win. Here is a man who delights in winning and takes no win for granted. He understands that to cross the finish-line ahead of all the others involves a massive amount of effort - effort by the whole team as well as the driver - a simple fact that some other drivers have clearly forgotten.
"On the occasion of that first win, as with each of his subsequent wins, Michael’s sheer happiness was recognition of all that team effort, from the work of the fabricators, the machinists, the composite specialists, the electricians, the mechanics and the drawing office. The toil of hundreds was reflected in the utter joy of his podium celebrations.
"On returning to the garage, he shook every one of us by the hand, thanking us all individually for our help, another genuine show of appreciation that would continue with each subsequent win.
"I have never felt such an integral part of a team than when working with Michael and sharing in the pleasure of one of our victories."
That last paragraph is particularly telling - and you can be well sure that Michael continued in the same vein when he arrived at Ferrari and began to win and win and win again.
Clearly, since I admired Juan Manuel so passionately, you will not be surprised to hear that I also tried to emulate him where I could. It so happens that I had myself begun my racing life as a mechanic, at home in Sao Paulo, working on my elder brother Wilson’s karts when we were both teenagers, and later also performing the same role for our great friend Carlos Pace.
But I wanted to race myself. The trouble was, racing cost money, and I was only a teenager so I did not have any. But the fact that I was becoming a good mechanic was something I could use to my advantage. In fact, when I was only 15 I started a car accessory business. I patented an aluminium steering wheel, with leather trim, and sold it as the ‘Formula 1 Steering Wheel’ to Brazilian motorists who usually bolted them onto the steering columns of their Volkswagen Beetles. I also sold magnesium road wheels, sports exhausts and twin-carb engine conversions, and in the end I was building and selling mini-karts too.
That way I was able to finance my racing in Brazil, achieving a lot of success in so doing, and soon determining that the next stage of my racing career would involve moving to England.
When I duly arrived in the UK, in February 1969, as a 22-year-old far more experienced in the realities of hard work than 22-year-old racing drivers usually are today, I knew that I would only ever be as successful as my mechanics wanted me to be.
The first mechanic I really gelled with, and whom I hold in high and warm regard even now, was Ralph Firman, who was the mechanic assigned to me by Jim Russell when he invited me to race his Lotus 59 Formula 3 car in the 1969 Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch.
I was unclassified in heat one, but I won heat two and I finished third in heat three. Ralph and I were on our way, and we went on to enjoy great success together that season, at the end of which I had become British Formula 3 champion.
When I moved up to Formula 1 in 1970, I soon carved out the same kind of relationship with Lotus boss Colin Chapman - and also with my mechanic, Eddie Dennis. Eddie was a fantastic mechanic and a lovely guy. I won nine grands prix for Lotus, and one world championship (1972), and I couldn’t have done it without Eddie and his boys. They worked brilliantly and tirelessly for me, and I will never forget it.
They made very few mistakes, but I want to share with you a funny story about one of the few errors they did make. The 1971 season was not a great one for Lotus, sandwiched as it was between two successful ones, in each of which we won the world championship (with Jochen Rindt in 1970 and with me in 1972).
But at the 1971 British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, we were looking pretty competitive. I had qualified my Lotus 72D in fourth position, behind only Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari 312B2, which had taken the pole, Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell 003 in P2, and Jo Siffert’s BRM P160 in P3.
On the warm-up lap, just before the race, I was accelerating up through the gears as usual, and as I changed up from third to fourth I felt the engine revs die on me. I played around for a few hundred metres, changing up and down to try to work out what was going on, and soon I realised what had happened: Eddie and the boys had fitted the fifth-gear cog in the position that the fourth-gear cog should have been fitted in, and vice versa.
There was no time to correct the mistake, of course, and, as a result, in my confusion, I made a poor start, dropping to 11th place on lap one. But soon I managed to work around the problem, moving the gearlever to what should have been the fifth-gear position when looking for fourth, and likewise moving the gearlever to what should have been the fourth-gear position when looking for fifth.
It felt weird at first, but after a while I got the hang of it and soon I actually began to enjoy myself. In the end I managed to work my way back up to third place at flag-fall - one of the hardest podiums I have ever earned!
When, in late 1973, Colin and I had a disagreement, and I began to search for an alternative team to drive for in 1974, the key factor for me was always going to be the quality of the team’s engineers and mechanics. Nothing else mattered to me nearly as much as that. And, although I considered Brabham and Tyrrell very seriously, the reason I finally selected McLaren was that the team was so well organised, so highly motivated, and so unselfishly disciplined. The guys there wanted to help one another win more than anything else in the world, and it showed.
When I arrived at McLaren in early 1974, I very soon formed close and collaborative relationships with a number of key individuals: Teddy Mayer (team principal), Gordon Coppuck (chief designer), Alastair Caldwell (team manager), Tyler Alexander (senior technician) and Phil Kerr (commercial director), but the mechanics were all great guys too, and the atmosphere at that little factory at 17 David Road, Colnbrook (Berkshire), which the team had moved to after the death of their founder Bruce McLaren in 1970, was always buzzing with industry, effort, enthusiasm and good humour.
We bonded well together - and, as had been the case at Lotus, I achieved great success at McLaren, winning five grands prix in our two years together, plus the drivers’ and constructors’ championships in 1974, the team’s first ever such triumphs in Formula 1.
I would never have achieved any of that success without working so closely with such a great bunch of guys.
Believe you me, that kind of intimate working rapport is just as important now, despite all the hi-tech gizmos that assist engineers’ and mechanics’ understanding of how their racing cars are behaving. Yes, those ultra-sophisticated systems are crucial, of course they are, but the most conscientious drivers still work long into the evenings with their engineers and mechanics, in an effort to help them arrive at an optimal chassis set-up for the following day, and they are consequently respected better than their less hard-working peers. And, as a result, they win more.
But, as I say, however good a team’s drivers are, its heart and soul are its engineers and mechanics, So, this coming weekend, when you watch Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen flinging their McLaren MP4-29s around the tortuous Hungaroring, spare a thought for the McLaren engineers and, in particular, the mechanics, who will have worked 18 or more hours a day, every day, in extreme heat, under excruciating pressure, often without time even for a cooling beer before bedtime.
They are heroes, every one of them.