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Le Mans Postscript - Working a Different Beat. June 19th 2007

Working a Different Beat

Racing in the Le Mans 24 Hours places unusual pressures on a team, even one as experienced and disciplined as RML, and it’s perfectly normal for personnel numbers to swell during the Le Mans week. For a normal six-hour race there might typically be eight or ten members of the pit crew, including the permanent race engineers and mechanics like Paul, Jakey, Rick, Volker and Adam. For Le Mans, another half a dozen or more join the team, to act as cover when the going gets tough, relief when someone needs a rest, or technical back-up on telemetry, electronics and engine management.

These people have to fit into an environment that buzzes with efficiency and mutual understanding. Every member of the regular team knows their place, appreciates each other’s relative strengths, and slots into a shaped hole like a jigsaw piece, fulfilling a vital role and contributing towards the cohesive functioning of the group. Under those circumstances, it cannot be easy for anyone not working full-time with the squad to fit in neatly, but one man did exactly that last week. More surprisingly, unlike all the other additional personnel, he’s not a permanent member of the RML staff and had never worked with a race team before. Indeed, Mark Deacon (above) comes from a very different background. He’s a Bobby with the Metropolitan Police.

For more than twenty-five years Mark has been an MG enthusiast and restorer of classic cars. His particular passion is the original MG TC, TD and TF from the nineteen-forties and fifties, and over the years he’s lovingly rebuilt several examples – alongside other models and marques. He has also been a Le Mans fan for the best part of a decade, and travelled out each year to follow the race, living rough in one of the campsites to begin with, and then renting rooms with a local family. “I used to camp,” he admits, “but I’d been trying to get into a hotel for years. The trouble is, the teams tend to have them all fully booked years in advance. One year I called Hotel Green, hoping for a vacancy, and the manageress there was really helpful. She said she didn’t have a room, but she did know of someone nearby who might be able to help. She put me in touch with a local family, and I’ve been staying with them every year since.”

His interest in motorsport, sportscars generally and MGs in particular, meant he’d been following the fortunes of RML since the beginning of the EX257 project in 2003. Last October he was trawling the Internet, and checking up on the RML website, when he came across the “Careers” page, and read details of a vacancy for a very high-powered technician. It was not a job he could hope of doing, and he’s happy enough working for the Met anyway, but he downloaded the application form nonetheless.

Filling it in was more of a challenge. When he came to the space where it asked for ‘job applied for’, he hesitated for only a moment before writing down: ‘Anything!’. He really was prepared to do almost anything, even if that was little more than making cups of coffee. “I worked out that the operation might get bigger this year, with a hat-trick on the cards, so I wanted to volunteer for the team,” he explained. He never really expected to receive a reply. Then, out of the blue, he had a phone call. “That was in January. Someone from RML called me to see if I was going to be at the historics show at Stoneleigh. I hadn’t intended to at the time, but that call changed my mind.” That was followed in April by an invitation to visit the RML offices in Wellingborough for an interview. “I spent half an hour being grilled by Phil Barker, and they gave me the job!”

He couldn’t believe his luck. “I never for a moment thought I’d get here,” he said on Friday, before the race, “but here I am, on the other side of the fence, working in the Le Mans pits. It’s incredible. I’ve been a spectator here for years, and I’ve always loved the atmosphere, and always dreamed of getting involved, but never imagined it would actually happen. It’s quite an amazing experience. It’s like being a kid in a toyshop!”

Mark is a very practical, hands-on sort of guy, with a cool head on his shoulders. It’s probably the result of his training. “I’m a Community Police Officer with the Met, currently working the “Home Beat” in the Borough of Southwark. It’s all part of the “Safer Neighbourhoods” scheme,” he explained. “It’s a project to bring community policing back to the streets, focusing on local issues, solving problems, and being seen. It’s the real “bobbies on the beat” type of policing, and I really enjoy it.” Perhaps being familiar with discipline, being able to keep cool under pressure, and knowing how to work with people, was the ideal foundation for a week with a race team at Le Mans.

Mark’s first job was to help unload the truck after the drive over from England. Hauling crates, helping set up the pit garage boarding, moving equipment, stacking wheels and tyres. That was Monday, while the engineers were preparing the car for scrutineering, and these were probably the routine, laborious tasks he’d expected to be given. On Tuesday the whole team was present in the Place des Jacobins in the town centre for scrutineering, and Mark took his place with everyone else for the team photograph. On Wednesday and Thursday he was part of the support team that looked after the supplies, cleaned the wheels, scraped the tyres, fetched and carried in preparation for qualifying. Steadily, his workload, and the responsibilities that went with it, increased.

Friday, that fabled “day of rest”, found Mark in the thick of working on the rebuild of the EX264 in preparation for the race. He wasn’t boiling hot water for coffees, or stocking the fridge with cold drinks – he was dismantling the rear sub-assembly. “I’m chuffed to bits!” he said. “They’re letting me strip down the entire rear suspension and gearbox sub-assembly (left). I never for a second thought they’d let me get my hands on the car, but here I am, working on the rear suspension.” Over the days, Mark’s capable handling of smaller tasks had convinced everyone in the team that he could be trusted with greater responsibilities. “He’s got on very well,” said Adam Hughes, one of the regular race technicians. “He’s adapted to it very quickly, got on with the tasks assigned to him, and mucked in. Having him here has made it a lot easier for some of the other mechanics, and he’s been a brilliant addition to the team.”

Mark smiled a little sheepishly. “They’ve found plenty for me to do, and it’s not even the start of the race yet. They’ve got me involved in as much as is practicable, and I’m loving every minute of it. They’re suggesting I won’t be saying that by three o’clock on Sunday morning, but I’m determined to keep at it for as long as I can. It is very tiring though!” He was also keen to do his bit for team-spectator relations. “I’ve been following Le Mans for years, as a fan, and you’d be amazed how well-informed some of the spectators are. Their passion and their knowledge can be immense. Some of the team have always been on this side of the track, never on the other, so I’ve been trying to redress that understanding, that balance, just a little.”

(Mark, centre left, watches Thomas Erdos getting ready to enter the MG's cockpit for the start of the race)

During the race itself, Mark was a fully integrated member of the team. He wasn’t left standing at the back, watching from behind a screen as the car came in for pitstops. Instead he was a given specific roles to fulfill and duties to perform.

Each time the car came in, his job was to ensure that his one of four pre-heated tyres was ready, still hot, and in the right position to be fitted swiftly to the car. If there was a problem, he also played his part in the smooth processing of a repair. When the EX264 came back to the pitlane after Andy’s crash on Saturday, Mark was manhandling body panels (left) and helping prepare the replacement aero-kit for the restart as if he’d been doing that kind of thing for years.

“I never expected to be given anywhere near as much responsibility as they’ve been asking me to do,” he said, almost breathlessly, after one pitstop. “I’m dead impressed with the team. It’s so evident that they know exactly what they’re doing, all the time, but despite how busy they are, they’re making time for me, and they’ve been so welcoming. I want to repay their faith in me by doing what needs doing to the best of my ability.” Resting between pitstops, Mark worked on through the night. “I always expected it to be tough, and I expected it to be professional and organised. I’ve certainly not been disappointed. It’s been an extraordinary experience, and a great privilege.”

On Sunday morning, when Mike Newton brought the battle-worn EX264 back to the pitlane for the last time, Mark was standing there alongside the others. He’d shared the hard work and the exhaustion, the heat and the grime. He’d been a part of the squad that had repaired the car after that major accident on Saturday afternoon. Now he was there at the end to share their disappointment.

Next weekend, Mark hopes to be at Silverstone for the annual MG Car Club gathering. “I remember going to Silverstone last year, immediately after Le Mans, and being shocked to see the EX264 sitting there. It hadn’t been cleaned since the race, and it was still covered in dead flies. That was when I realised just how much this car had done for the MG brand. It deserves much wider recognition than it gets.” As part of that belief, he’s now working on an article to feature in the relaunched Safety Fast magazine, the official publication of the MGCC. “I’m hoping for something along the lines of how some run-of-the-mill MG nut gets involved in the Le Mans 24 Hours. It’s what most people would dream of,” he said. “I’d also like to acknowledge what the team has done for me, and for MG.”

“I feel like I’ve been a member of a fly-on-the-wall film crew,” he concluded. “I’ve witnessed the highs and the lows, and I’ve stuck with it to the end. To have been allowed this level of access is extraordinary, and I’ll never forget it. It will be bizarre going back to my old job next week. I know I’ll still be buzzing!” Mark and his partner have three children. He’ll have quite a tale to tell when he gets home.