MECHANIC: Matt Saunders, a casualty of COVID
By Mat Coch
Sunday 8th November, 2020 - 2:00pm
It’s astonishing to think that a career in motorsport could be so fleeting as to be over before your 25th birthday.
And yet that’s potentially the future being faced by Matt Saunders, an Australian Endurance Championship winner with Scott Taylor Motorsport and Mark Winterbottom’s former race engineer at Team 18.
From the Gold Coast originally, Saunders identified as a teenager that he wanted a career in motorsport.
He followed that ambition, picking up a job with STM while still at university, before making the move from Queensland to Melbourne last year to join Charlie Schwerkolt’s Supercars operation.
It looked a dream move, an opportunity to work as a race engineer with a championship winner, all while just 22.
But by the time of his 23rd birthday, Saunders was in Albury building boats, his future in motorsport somewhat under a cloud.
“To be honest, I don’t really like to think of it,” he told Speedcafe.com when asked how the prospect of leaving motorsport sat with him.
“I am pretty young and I have already achieved a lot of things, like the championship at 21, Supercars by 22, especially as a race engineer.
“Do I walk away having already done all that stuff or do I come back and I keep swinging for another 10 or 20 years and see what happens? That’s the part that I don’t know.”
Saunders’ current fate was a result of coronavirus, falling victim as teams had to consolidate their businesses in an effort to remain afloat.
Despite his youth, he’s pragmatic about the situation and holds no ill will towards Schwerkolt for making the tough decision to cut him loose.
The relationship between then remains positive, and Saunders was drafted back in for the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000.
He was originally recruited to be race engineer for Winterbottom in mid-2019, but the arrival of Manuel Sanchez and expansion to two cars saw him shifted over to work with Scott Pye for 2020.
“I was race engineer for Frosty, so looking after car build, all your strategy prep, car set-up, all your key performance indicators, all that sort of stuff,” Saunders explained of his role at Team 18.
It was a different environment from that he’d experienced at STM, though many of the learnings gained from his time there carried over.
“Scott runs a very good race team, we had a lot of good equipment, a lot of good people, a lot of good processes,” he said.
“Our workshop manager there, Chris Byres, had come from Supercars back to us. He brought a lot of that stuff with him, so I got to see that.
“That was obviously implemented at Scotty’s and then when you went back to Supercars, it was a very similar process or very similar style.”
The opportunity to work with STM came about almost by chance.
He had accompanied his father to Queensland Raceway in 2013 and it was there that he was asked what he’d like to do with his future.
“I think I actually pointed at either Dutto (Mark Dutton, then race engineer for Jamie Whincup) or Jeromy (Moore, then Craig Lowndes’ race engineer) back then and was like, ‘I want to do what that guy’s doing’, having no idea what he was actually doing.
“But some further research found out about race engineering, how to get there, you go get your mechanical engineering degree and try and get a job somewhere and just work your way through.
“So pretty much from that day forward that was the goal, I wanted to be a race engineer in Supercars and studied hard in school, went to university, and knocked on doors.”
One of those doors was Taylor’s, as he responded to an advertisement looking for help.
“I was in the first five weeks of my first year of university, so straight out of high school pretty much, and Scott Taylor Motorsport had an application online, they were looking for a number two mechanic.
“I sent in an email that said, ‘I’m studying Mechanical Engineering, I don’t know if that’s of interest to you’, and long story short ended up with an interview with Gary Bailey and Glenn Seton.”
The interview took place while Bailey and Seton were loading a truck, during which they let slip that they’d be at Queensland Raceway on the following Monday.
In pursuit of his dream, Saunders bunked off uni for the day, and made the drive out there.
“Nobody shows up on Monday to QR to see what’s going on, and they said, “Oh, well you’re here, you might as well work’.
“That’s what I did, and at the end of that week, Scott offered me a job.”
To begin with, it was something of a mixed role. Technically Number 2 mechanic, working with Seton and Bailey, he quickly found his niche working on the team’s data.
At his first event with the team two weeks later, he effectively worked as a data engineer, a title that would stick with him when not helping clean trucks, wheels, or helping on the tools.
It was a balancing act as he continued to study, wherever possible grouping classes to afford time to work at STM.
“It’d be two massive days at uni, I’d be there for 12 hours a day or something, and then for the rest of the week I could go and work for Scotty,” Saunders said.
While in his final year of uni, Saunders worked as race engineer to Max Twigg and Tony D’Alberto, helping guide them to victory in the Australian Endurance Championship.
By that time, STM had expanded to a second car, and had high profile outings at the Bathurst 12 Hour, establishing itself as one of the leading motorsport operations outside of the Supercars paddock in Australia.
“The team just kept growing and as the team grew so did my role, I suppose,” Saunders remembered.
“I was sweeping floors, then I was data guy, then race engineer, and then by the end of it, I was team manager.”
It was a whirlwind three-year tenure which saw him exposed to almost every facet of the business.
“Scotty gave me some amazing opportunities and really taught me about the wider part of business, not just, ‘This is how you make a race car go fast,’ (but) ‘this is how you run a P&L (profit and loss), this is how we look after staff and contracts and customers’.
“I really enjoyed that side of it as well. As much as we all love going to the track and race engineering and that, I actually preferred the business side of, ‘This is how we make a race team run properly’.
“All the finer details of that stuff was a little bit left field,” he added.
“Obviously doing engineering, you learn a little bit of project management and management skills, but not so much the business side, which was really cool to see.”
There was even a stint working with Triple Eight, working with the squad’s GT World Challenge Asia operation.
That opportunity took him to Fuji, where he engineered His Highness Prince Jefri Ibrahim of the Johor Royal Family, Jazeman Jaafar, and Shane van Gisbergen.
While working with STM, Saunders met Phil Keed in early 2019, the experienced Technical Director at the helm of Team 18.
A conversation between the two revealed that Keed was in search of a data and race engineer for Winterbottom, though things didn’t immediately progress.
“At the time I thought about it and was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to make the jump now’.
“Then we actually ran into each other, it would have been about two weeks later maybe, at an airport and it was the same thing.
“It was like, ‘Have you thought any more about it?’
“I hadn’t really and then I thought, ‘The opportunity’s there, maybe I should investigate it a bit harder’.
Soon after he met with Winterbottom and team manager, Steve Henderson, at which point things developed pretty quickly.
Four weeks later, Saunders was moving his life from Queensland to Victoria, embarking on the next step of his motorsport career.
Less than a year later, and he was building boats; a COVID casualty.
“This year Charlie expanded to two cars, Scotty Pye came on board and obviously along with that (a) second data engineer, second race engineer; still retained Phil as our technical director, hired more mechanics and everything,” Saunders explained.
“So long story short, Charlie’s obviously got a pretty good team and he’s got a performance coach there.
“We did the Myers-Briggs test, which is a personality test to create the best environment possible and link the best engineer with driver, and so forth.
“It was determined that me and Scotty Pye were the best combination and Manuel Sanchez, who came onboard from GRM, was a better combination with Frosty.
“Nobody realises what goes on behind the scenes going from one to two, but it’s a big jump and it’s a lot of work for every department across the team.
“So it was a very different year initially and then obviously the Grand Prix, it was a very weird environment, to be honest,” he explained.
“We all rocked up on the Wednesday to set up and it was like, ‘Wonder what’s going to happen with this COVID? It’s starting to get pretty out of control’.
“Obviously F1, it was in the media something crazy, and then it got to Friday morning and everybody rocked up and went, ‘Think something serious is about to happen today’.
“We’re all about to roll out to qualifying, I was sitting at the data stand with the headset on and I think either Steve or Phil came over and goes, ‘Yeah, she’s all shut down, we need to start packing up’.
“That’s pretty much all she wrote so far.”
In the weeks that followed, team boss Schwerkolt was tasked with some difficult decisions. One of those was to let Saunders go.
“Charlie had to work out what he was doing, so the whole team got stood down effectively,” Saunders explained.
“I think it turned out to be, and still is, a lot worse than what anybody had predicted.
“When Supercars decided to come back and there was new personnel limits involved and all the other bits and pieces going on behind the scenes, some hard decisions had to be made.
“Obviously retaining Phil with his knowledge, given my age and the amount of Supercars knowledge I had, and then Manuel coming on board who had been at GRM for seven or eight years, so a lot more Supercars knowledge than me, it made sense (to let me go).
“Anybody would have made the same decision to keep those two and put Phil not so much in a technical director role, but back into race engineering.
“So I needed a job,” he continued.
“I had just bought an apartment a week before the Grand Prix, so I’ve been in that for eight hours, and then I had to go and find some work to keep paying the mortgage.”
That quest led him to Albury, where he’s currently working building boats, another of his passions.
“I’m a very big water skier and barefooter,” Saunders said.
“The natural progression, if I can’t follow one passion, which was motorsport was ‘right, I’ll follow the next passion’, which was water skiing or barefooting.
“Now I’m in Albury working at Malibu boats, primarily fitting engines and all the underwater gear; propellers, tracking fins, all that sort of stuff, but I kind of dabble in all of it, to be honest. Anything in the production line is what I’ve been doing.”
There was of course that Bathurst cameo, and Saunders remains hopeful of a motorsport return in the near future.
“I’m assessing everything that’s in the market at the moment both within and outside of motorsport and yeah, we’ll see what ‘21 looks like,” he admitted.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that most people never get to see in terms of teams and Supercars and all of that sort of stuff.
“Until a lot of that gets put into paper then yeah, I think she’ll be a bit up in the air for me.”
And so, for the moment, Saunders sits on the outer edge of the motorsport fraternity; a championship winner who looked to have the world at his feet just a year ago, a victim of circumstance; a casualty of COVID.