There are two types of people that work in motorsport; visitors, and ‘lifers’. Dave Gear is the the latter, though with a stint as the former in Formula 1.
A race winning mechanic at Williams, Gear is now fettling cars for Erebus Motorsport.
Born and raised near Woking, south of London, his youth exposed him to the club racing scene in his homeland.
His father raced a V8-powered MG, and he can remember kicking around dirty and muddy paddocks at circuits like Thruxton.
“Before I was born, my dad used to race a V8 MGB,” Gear told Speedcafe.com.
“Dad, obviously, always had a keen interest in motor racing and I think Dad’s last race was ’88, which I would’ve been about four.
“I don’t really remember but Mum sent me photos of where you’ve got Mum, Dad and me, I had only been three years old or whatever, sitting next to the car at Thruxton.
“Back then, obviously, all the paddocks were just dirt gravel, so you’ve got the car just sitting on dirt gravel, there’s no barriers or concrete standings like there is now and stuff.”
His interest in motorsport was spurred on by weekends spent on the couch, watching the British Touring Car Championship and Formula 1.
Being based in London’s south, not far from Woking, there was a healthy McLaren influence.
“I was based just South of London, in a little sleepy village just outside of Woking, and obviously Woking is McLaren’s home,” he explained.
“Obviously, being so close to Woking, the whole town’s quite F1 based, or was certainly when McLaren were doing really well and they were at the top.”
As a five year old, Gear wrote to Ron Dennis, then McLaren’s Team Principal, asking how to go about becoming “one of those people that change the wheels in the pit stop.”
Dennis responded to the enquiry, and from that point on Gear’s ultimate ambition became working in F1.
While in high school he had the opportunity to complete work experience at McLaren, where he met Neil Trundle, while his next door neighbour Ken Grainger also proved a useful contact.
“Ken was actually one of the top people at Tyrrell in the composite shop,” Gear said.
“I was about 10, just before Tyrrell closed down, (my neighbour) actually arranged for me and Dad and we went and had a look around Tyrrell’s factory and F1 cars on a Saturday.
“Obviously back then trying to get things like tours and stuff were really hard. It wasn’t as corporate as it is now. So that was really good.”
From there, he studied motorsport engineering at Brooklands College before getting a job with Kid Jensen Racing, a Formula 3000 team which operated out of the same workshop as Grainger’s new employer, Protec Composites.
“I was literally just cleaning parts and making tea and sweeping up, and then they’d show me something, and I’d do a few bits of those,” he explained.
Fierce competition in F3000 meant there was no guarantee that, just because you had a car and team, that you’d be allowed to compete, and the worst performing teams were culled from the championship to allow for new entries.
Kit Jensen Racing was one of those, but with its demise came an opportunity with Porsche Motorsport in the UK, working on its Carrera Cup competition.
He was involved in preparing cars for guest drivers, which included the likes of Alain Menu, Paul Radisich, and Perry McCarty – the original ‘Stig’ from the BBC’s Top Gear.
A year with Fortec working in Formula BMW followed that before he joined Carlin for a four year stint in British Formula 3.
Results there proved strong, twice winning the championship with the operation; once with Jaime Alguesuari and then with Daniel Ricciardo.
“At the end of my fourth year, that was when Carlin went bankrupt and the Chilton bought them,” Gear explained.
“Probably the last six months of my fourth year things were pretty hard.
“We’re sort of not getting paid on time and obviously not being able to get stuff from suppliers at times and things like that.
“So I decided it was probably time to move because although we don’t do racing for the money, ultimately if you don’t get paid and pay mortgage then…
“So actually, then I went to work at McLaren.”
The job, as 12 month contract with McLaren’s automotive arm, saw Gear working on the MP4-12C project.
It’s an opportunity he describes as eye opening as he saw first hand the effort that goes in to developing a top end hypercar.
“With a race car, as long as it’s reliable we only ever do something that makes it faster; it doesn’t matter if it’s noisier or cost more or anything like that.” he explained.
“But a road car, you’re trying to make it faster, because that was obviously a high-end car, performance car, but there was so many other factors that had to come in and play.”
Towards the end of that contract an opportunity to join Williams’ F1 team presented itself.
“I was looking for the next thing and I had always wanted to do Formula One,” Gear said.
“One of the reasons for actually going to McLaren was I was hoping that if I made a good impression I could sort of sidestep into the F1 team.
“There wasn’t really anything at McLaren at the time, because they’d only recently abolished the test teams. and McLaren had kept quite a lot of their people.
“That was then when I saw a job at Williams had come up,” he added.
“My boss at McLaren was one of the mechanics on Senna’s car at Williams, I mean, back in ’94.
“So I got on pretty well with him, Rob Tyres, and I spoke to him and said, ‘Oh, there’s the job at Williams and I’d like to apply for it. Can you help me? Can you put in a good reference for me?’
“He said, ‘Yeah, no problem’.”
Soon after, Gear found himself as part of the team at Williams, working on Pastor Maldonado’s car as Front End Mechanic.
“They split the F1 car up into basically three sections,” he explained.
“So you’ve got a number one mechanic that looks after the whole car.
“Then you’ve got a mechanic that does the front end, so basically mirrors forward.
“You’ve got a guy that does the number one and then looks after the cockpit.
“Then you’ve got really a fuel tank and engine installation guy, which is the middle.
“Then you’ve got the guy that looks after the gearbox and rear suspension, rear wing, that sort of stuff, so rear end as it’s called.
“I was on Maldonado’s car. So we won that race in Barcelona, which was pretty special and even getting pole is pretty special.
“I think Maldonado qualified second, Hamilton had just beaten us and it’s the same weekend we were actually celebrating Frank Williams’ 70th birthday.
“We had some champagne and stuff for Frank’s 70th, and there was just car mechanics, just as you normally do at those events, we all huddled in the corner trying to keep out the way.
“The team manager started walking over towards us and we all sort of felt, ‘Ah, here we go. We’re going to told to stop drinking, it’s a race night. We need to go’.
“He came over to us and said, ‘Oh, just so you know, Hamilton’s lost his pole because he didn’t have enough fuel. Maldonado’s on pole for tomorrow’.
“The funny thing for when we did that little birthday celebration for Frank, Clare (Williams) actually gave Frank a little shitty plastic trophy because she said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know what else to get, Dad’.
“She said, ‘I know that Dad loves getting trophies. We haven’t got one for a while, but here you go’.
“That was on the Saturday, and then obviously, Sunday, I think Alonso though got us off the start and then we jumped him in the pit stops.
“The car was quick. Alonso couldn’t easily find a safe way past, and as everyone knows, Maldonado wasn’t exactly the safest person to overtake.
“Alonso probably didn’t really risk anything, and we won the race.
“I was actually one of the wheel guys, I did the left front wheel with them. So I was part of the pit stop that race, that was pretty good.”
That weekend was memorable for more than just Maldonado’s win, to date Williams’ last in Formula 1.
After the race, a fire broke out in the team’s garage, prompting iconic scenes as the paddock rallied in support.
“We’d done all the podium celebration and everything else and then Frank called us all in and said he wanted to talk to us,” Gear recounted.
“Frank’s pretty quietly spoken, so we were all huddled around Frank listening to what he had to say.
“It was only about 30 seconds into what he had to say and I heard this massive bang, and saw the orange flames come across the roof of the garage.
“It was like something you see when you go to Florida on the rides, when they do the fire, but obviously in Florida, the rides, those fires were all controlled where this one obviously wasn’t.
“So that’s a pretty unreal weekend really.”
Working for Williams, Gear found his role was far more prescribed than it had been at Carlin, Fortec, or Kid Jensen Racing.
Where previously he’d been Number 1 mechanic and had responsibility for all aspects of that car, at Williams his responsibilities were far more specific.
“I looked after the suspension, obviously fitted the suspension, all the pedals, the steering column, stuff like that,” he said.
“But even those components, like the wishbones when you took them off, you’d then send them back into the build shop and they would service them and keep an eye on them.
“Once again, we fitted the brakes, but subassembly would keep a track of what like the measurements for the pads and rotors and service the calipers.
“Where when I was at Carlin, you had to do the whole thing,” he added.
“You had to keep an eye on stuff, service stuff, work out yourself a bit more, ‘Oh, these normally only last three races’, so you knew to change them every three or whatever.
“Where at Williams, all that really was set out for you. You’re basically just got given a list.
“Every component on a F1 car has got a life number, so you’d just get a list from the chief mechanic and then say, ‘Oh, front wishbone number 14, the pedal number 12’, whatever.
“You basically just got given that sheet and you just had to make sure that every part you fitted was the right number. You were more of just like a fitter really.”
Much of that, Gear reasons, was out of sheer necessity as a result of a busy Formula 1 schedule.
That meant teams would often have less than two days to tear down and rebuild cars between events, with that process often happening at the venue for the next race.
After his time with Williams, Gear headed to Australia where he initially found work with Walkinshaw Andretti United.
He’s now with Erebus Motorsport, and while Supercars shares a lot of similarities with his time in F1, he acknowledges that it’s a very different world.
“I can remember my first test with Williams,” Gear said.
“I started on the Monday, I got the Tuesday morning off because I wasn’t flying until the Tuesday afternoon.
“I got there at the end of the first day at the test, because when I started it was a three day test.
“Each day we did was 21 hours, we’d get about three hours sleep a night.
“The first test I got to I got to the workshop and they said, ‘Oh, we’ve got some late freight for you, we’ll get you an envelope with some cash in it’.
“I’ve done a late freight and stuff with Carlin before and it’s getting the odd bits and pieces.
“I got there and there was a whole van of boxes that I needed to take on the plane; there was a complete built front wing, a complete built rear wing. The boxes were out of control.
“I got to the airport, I couldn’t even carry all these boxes on my own so I had to go pay a porter to help me take all these bags to check-in.
“They’d given me GBP 2000 in cash to pay for late freight and the only flight they’d been able to get me on was easyJet, which as you know is obviously a fairly budget airline and they’re pretty strict with all their baggage rules.
“Everyone in front of me in this queue has been arguing because their bag was half a kilo over and they didn’t want to pay the GBP 9 or whatever it was.
“I got to the front with all of these boxes and you should see the look on the old mate’s face. He was just like, ‘Oh, shit’.
“He added it all up and it comes to something ridiculous like GBP 700 excess baggage or something.
“And he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s GBP 700’. I was like, ‘Okay’, and just started counting out the money.
“That sums (F1) up where it’s just a case of, ‘We need all that stuff there, whatever it costs’.
“That GBP 2000 pounds, like $4000 they’d given me in cash to cover it, that was petty cash to them.
“That sums up what that kind of world was like, where in Supercars the budgets are much tighter and we have to watch what we have to spend,” he added.
“I’m not saying we don’t spend, you just have to be clever on where you spend it.
“There’s much more of a limited pot where Formula 1, I know it was limited, but it was almost unlimited.”
Now working in the Supercars paddock, Gear admits he still has a passion for open wheel racing, a legacy of his youth and the culture in which he was raised.
However, it is a move back towards what he experienced at Carlin, where he has greater influence over the car, and can play a bigger role in its success.
“That was something you didn’t really get at Williams with that, where if you ever damaged anything in the race, you’d just retire,” he reasoned.
“Unless you could finish in the top 10 when you got points, you might as well just park it up, where obviously in Supercars, if you finish the race you get points.
“I do quite like the buzz from knowing, ‘Hey, you’ve got this long’, and just the feeling you get when it goes back out.
“I think it was Townsville, it must have been the first race because we went back out the second race, that must have been one of the first races and we were watching on TV, both cars had done reasonably well.
“I was on Anton’s car that weekend, Anton’s car came in and then Dave’s car pulled up.
“We hadn’t seen on the very last lap, I think that was when Fullwood hit him or whatever and he got pushed into Kelly or something like that, and all the front was stoved in, all the back was stoved in.
“So Anton’s car had come in, I’ve rattle gunned the wheels off it and all we do and stuff.
“I turn around and I’ve seen Dave’s car and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Ah, f**k. When did that happen?’
“So then they said, ‘jump on Dave’s car for us. Fix it all the back up’.
“That was like a whole rear end of bodywork and that was done, I think, it was only really about an hour.
“We even had Shannen (Kiely, Erebus Managing Director) who does a really good job, but obviously she’s not mechanical and I’d be saying to her, ‘Okay, you need to go to the trucks and get the rivets’.
“That’s not Shannen’s forte, that’s not her area of expertise, so even she was having to come and help us, otherwise the car wasn’t going to be done in time.
“And she was there with (Barry Ryan) pulling bodywork out the truck and I think she went running down to Triple Eight to get some spares for us and whatever else.
“So it really showed it’s a full on team sport when you’re in those situations.
“All of a sudden job titles don’t really mean so much.”