Nigel Stepney talks Silverstone

July 7, 2005

While the British Grand Prix is set in an equally remote location to last weekend’s race at Magny-Cours, the atmosphere at Silverstone always has more of a buzz about it and is a more popular venue. This is partly because it is an historic location – the 2005 race will mark the 39th time the Northamptonshire track has hosted the event – but also because it is the home race for six of the ten teams competing in the World Championship.

English is very much the dominant language of the sport, with most of the non-British teams, including Ferrari, employing some personnel from the Anglo-Saxon world.

One such 'refugee' is Nigel Stepney, Ferrari’s race and test technical manager, who has been part of the Maranello squad since 1993. His first job in F1 dates back to the mid-Seventies, when he was a mechanic for the Shadow team.

“We were actually based in one of the small industrial units at Silverstone,” recalls Stepney. “I used to have a half hour drive from home through the back roads in my little Mini Cooper S, annoying the farmers and trying to beat my best time to work. But I was always careful and never crashed!”

“I went there when I was still doing my apprenticeship as a mechanic, working for a Touring Car team called Broadspeed, racing Triumph Dolomite Sprints,” he says. “And the first time I saw a British Grand Prix was actually at Brands Hatch when I was working for a team taking part in one of the support races that day. As a kid, I did not grow up following motor sport particularly. I liked all sports anyway but nothing in particular. My initial career idea was to be a Physical Education teacher when I was at school, but I asked my Career’s Master about “an outdoor sport” and I ended up with Broadspeed!”

Having lived and worked in Italy for so long now, Silverstone is almost as much of a foreign track to Stepney as Shanghai.

“It has not got a lot of character, but the original track layout was beautiful,” is his initial assessment. “Now it is not the same and has been spoilt a bit as a race track. Becketts originally was a one of the most spectacular corners, especially with all the crowd around it. The paddock does not provide the same amenities as more modern circuits and although it’s not a problem working there, you do notice the difference. Silverstone does not seem to have changed much and the garages are pretty much as I remember them when I started in this business. It is an old fashioned style of circuit. However, it is still very good for the fans. From the point of view of the spectacle, they can have a good view of the cars coming towards them and then going away. It is the fans in fact that give it that special atmosphere over the Grand Prix weekend.”

Stepney’s first F1 working experience of the British GP came in 1976. “I was still with the Shadow team and I was a “spannerman” on Clay Regazzoni’s car. I have to say most of my memories of the British event are not so pleasant. For example, when I was working with Lotus, it was the time of the controversial double-chassis car, the 88 and we had to transform it back to an 87 single chassis overnight, after the original car was banned and even before that, when I first went to the GP with Broadspeed, our car ran out of fuel on the last lap and we lost the win. During my time with Ferrari there was the year Michael (Schumacher) broke his leg and Eddie Irvine could have won there but for a very slow pit stop which cost us the race. Then there was the strange event when Michael won for us, taking the chequered flag in the pit lane. So it would be good to have a more straightforward race this weekend.”

The British Grand Prix always features a very full card with lots of support races and that means Stepney often bumps into former colleagues. “I see a lot of people I used to work with earlier in my career, many of them still working in the Support Races. It is good to keep in touch with them, even if some of them I don’t even recognise physically any more! But these are the people I grew up with, worked with and had fun with. So it is a time for good memories. I only really go back to England for these four days a year. I’ve actually fallen out of love with England a bit, but only because of the sort of life I now have in Italy. It is a lot easier to move around, less hassle than England. Going to the Grand Prix in Europe is much easier than travelling from England.”

If Stepney is a stranger to Silverstone these days, so too is the Scuderia. “We went testing back in June at Silverstone and that is the only time of year we go there apart from the race weekend, while the English teams have much more knowledge of the place,” says Stepney.

“Although the weather did not help us at that test, the results suggest we can go well there this weekend and we know we can be competitive. Things seem to be moving in the right direction and our performance has definitely improved over the past few races. In the last three races, as a team, we scored more points than anyone else. It shows we are on the right path and there is still a long way to go in the championship.”

Anyone who has experienced a wet summer weekend at Silverstone can instantly understand the British obsession with the weather and, as the resident Englishman, Stepney gets teased by the Scuderia mechanics.

“They give me stick about everything they don’t like here,” he laughs. “If they don’t like the food, they tell me about it and they give me a hard time if their hotel does not have a mixer tap for the hot and cold water! And of course, I get the blame if it rains. But I get my own back on them if things don’t go to plan at the races in Italy.”

The weather can play its part in the weekend’s proceedings. “We use the services of Meteo France to provide us with an accurate forecast, but at Silverstone, sometimes the best thing to do is just look at the sky! In fact, although everyone talks about rain, it can be the wind which is more of a problem as the circuit is a former airfield and very exposed. The blustery side winds can upset the car’s aerodynamic balance in the fast corners, while a head or a tail wind can affect our choice of gear ratios.”

Just as the Scuderia likes to beat the German manufacturers at their home races, or indeed the French in France and the Japanese on their home soil, so too, Ferrari is always keen to beat the British teams at Silverstone. So, a final question for Stepney as an Englishman working for Ferrari on his home soil: any mixed feelings? “Absolutely not,” he insists. “I work for Ferrari so a win is a win and beating my fellow countrymen at home is an extra satisfaction!” Ferrari

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