MECHANIC: Ron Meadows, the world’s most successful mechanic
By Mat Coch
Sunday 15th August, 2021 - 2:00pm
The podium at the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix is one of the most exclusive and sacrosanct locations in world motorsport.
Aside from victory in the world championship itself, it’s one of the most highly prized accomplishments in the sport’s premier category. It’s also one Ron Meadows has ticked off.
Sporting Director of the all-conquering Mercedes Formula 1 team, Meadows represented his peers alongside Lewis Hamilton after the Brit claimed victory in the 2019 edition of the race.
It was a remarkable encounter, one which saw Hamilton defend with all his worth against a relentless Max Verstappen to hang on to victory.
It was his 77th career win, 56th with Mercedes and third in Monaco, but it was the first without Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion having passed away in the days prior to the race.
A key figure in the Mercedes framework, and inspirational individual, his loss hung over the weekend like a heavy blanket.
Mercedes celebrated him with a red halo, and the sport with red caps, as had become the late Austrian’s signature.
“I was very close to Niki, obviously, probably the closest in age to him in the team,” Meadows explained to Speedcafe.com.
“We used to have a lot of banter between each other, and he was such a straightforward, nice guy, and our relationship was incredible.
“That’s been the highlight for me working in Formula 1; being placed on the podium because Toto [Wolff] knew how close we were, and that’s why he did it.”
It was an incredible, poignant moment which left few dry eyes. The juggernaut team showing a vulnerable and human side to which we could all relate. In doing so, it offered the highlight of a career that started some four decades earlier as a mechanic.
Meadows’ family was not interested in car racing, it was only when he first sampled the sport courtesy of a friend that he was bitten by the bug that would go on to define his life.
A Liverpudlian, his began his journey in motorsport volunteering at the nearby Oulton Park circuit in the mid-west of England.
“It all started when I was 12 and friends of mine took me to a racetrack called Oulton Park,” Meadows explained.
“It was for a Superkart race. It was in the days of Martin Hines and people like that, so these karts were quite impressive.
“I went to watch, and it blew my mind. I thought this is where I want to spend the rest of my life, getting involved in motorsport.
“There was one kart coming by and, every time it changed gear, it pulled left and I wondered why that was.
“Well, I walked into the paddock and then realised that the driver had one arm, so the reason it pulled left was every time he changed gear, there was no one holding the steering wheel.
“So I went over to have a look at this chap and he was busy trying to put the kart on a trolley himself with his one arm – wouldn’t let anyone help him.
“It was just so impressive in how driven this guy was, I thought, ‘wow, these people are strong-willed’.”
A few weeks later, with the motorsport bug having bitten hard, Meadows was back at Oulton Park, this time watching on as Berry Sheene took on Kenny Roberts on two wheels.
A Formula 5000 race followed, where he saw then-McLaren driver and F1 championship contender James Hunt wave the Union Flag to start the race.
He was hooked, and the course of his life was set.
“Every spare weekend I had, I went to Oulton Park,” Meadows recalled.
“By the age of 14, I was helping people prepare cars and I was being picked up by the motorway and taken down to the tracks and then brought back in the evening by another team who raced locally.”
While a teenager, Meadows encountered Tom Walkinshaw, whom he would join in 1980 as a mechanic.
Business was beginning to boom for the Scot, whose foray into the British Touring Car Championship also strayed into Europe, with BMWs, Ford Capris, Rovers, Audis, and Mazda RX7s.
It was with the latter that has left Meadows with an indelible memory, when looking after one of the team’s cars at the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
“I think it’s ’81 or ’82, and we had three or four Mazda RX-7s running, and it rained… You know how hard it rains at Spa,” Meadows said.
“This was incredible rain where I think they stopped the race for four or five hours because Eau Rouge was flooded by a metre and a half of water.
“Just before the red flag came out, one of our cars came in with the fuel tank hanging out the back of it.
“The driver had gone off and there was fuel spilling out of, it mixing with the water, and it’d just gone all the way down the pit lane.
“My memory is watching everyone run out of the way of that car.
“Eventually it ran out of fuel and it was just water.
“We tried to get the driver out of the car and he refused to get out – I can’t remember his name, but he wanted to finish the race.
“The crash he’d had was so big that we had to get a Portapac pump between his legs and the footwell to pump it out so they could actually get full throttle.
“That’s how big the crash was, but he would refuse to get out, and I thought, well, there’s commitment for you.”
Meadow’s time with TWR came to an end in 1983, during which time the operation had grown from 40 staff to 700 – that figure a mixture of Walkinshaw’s motorsport and garage businesses.
Formula 3 then called, working with David Price who had run the likes of Nigel Mansell, and won the French F3 title with Pierre Petit the year prior.
“I spent my time in France looking after a young driver called Paul Belmondo with his famous actor father,” Meadows recounted.
“I remember we did a race in Monaco and, at that time, Paul Belmondo was going out with Stephanie of Monaco, the daughter, and their relationship was so high profile the media attention to that was much higher than all the F1 drivers at the time.
“From there, I went on and worked in Group B rallying with Austin Rover with the 6R4,” he added.
“That was great fun. I really enjoyed the rallying side, something I’d never done.
“I was quite shocked when the cars turned up for the first time covered in mud and last time I’d seen it was brand new. That got my attention!”
Meadow’s own Formula 3 and Formula 3000 teams followed before heading to the United States where he took on the team manager role with Walker Racing.
That saw him working with Robbie Gordon and Gil de Ferrarn in IndyCar before returning the family to his homeland.
“We all decided it was either stay in America and go for it, or come back to Europe,” he explained.
“We let the kids vote, and they said they wanted to go home, so that’s what we did.”
Though looking to take some time off, Adrian Reynard soon came calling with a new opportunity.
Meadows and Reynard knew each other from IndyCar, where Walker Racing ran the British designer’s cars.
“Adrian Reynard approached me and said they’ve got this deal with British American Tobacco to set up this team called BAR,” Meadows said.
“You’ve heard these stories lots of times from different people, that they’ve got this budget, and I thought, ‘is this real?’
“I did some digging and it was real, but I said, ‘I’ll happily come and join you, but I don’t particularly want to run the team or do any of the traveling because I’ve done nothing but [that] for 20 years’.
“My mission was to get the facility built and kit it out with all the different machinery and employ staff.
“[We] dug ground in February ’98, we moved in November ’98, so it was really a short timescale to get everything together.
“In the meantime, we’d settled the test team because we’d also bought Tyrrell.
“The rationale for buying Tyrrell was to ensure that we got the constructors’ points.”
BAR, which had 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and Ricardo Zonta (for the most part) in its driving raanks, went without a point in its debut season in 1999.
It was a tough pill to swallow, and one that didn’t sit well with the team’s paymasters, who began applying pressure.
That resulted in Meadows taking on the team manager role, initially on an interim basis.
More than two decades later, it’s a position he continues to hold, though today boasts the title of Sporting Director.
It’s a journey that’s seen him remain loyal as British American Racing became Honda Racing, Brawn, and finally Mercedes.
In that time he’s been part of 119 race wins, 110 of those with Mercedes, with last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix his 400th as team manager.
Though a step removed from swinging spanners himself, it’s something Meadows could still do, though concedes he’d not be the team’s top performer.
However, he retains a mechanical interest, scratching that itch through a karting team where he applies the lessons learned over a lifetime in the sport on its next generation.
His team enjoyed success in the British championships last year, and the World International Trophy in Rotax.
“I got a real thrill out of that,” Meadows admitted.
“Dealing with the kids and trying to give them my knowledge, and trying to help them move forward, and the thrill of the racing, it’s so exciting at that level and it’s so pure.”
With his young mind set on a career in motorsport, Meadows admitted becoming a mechanic was the only option he ever considered.
“I never ever considered being an engineer,” he said.
“Back in those days, there was probably a lot less engineers.
“F1 teams in the mid-seventies were probably 60 people… it’d be all the superstar engineers who would decide everything, you wouldn’t have a team like we have now.
“I think it was also the banter in the garage and the awning, and dealing with the guys, and [belief that] this is your car and if you do a good job, and the driver’s good enough, and the car is good enough, you’re going to win races.”
It’s that approach which leads him to this day with the staffing choices he makes.
“When I employ guys for our race team, it’s a given that technically they’ve got to be good, but have they got humility? Are they good team players? And how are they going to mix with the group?
“That’s how you select that, and they’re the skills you learn over the years as the team’s grown and grown.
“We’ve had some great success over the last seven years, but I’d say over the last decade we’ve been blessed with some really great people who have gone on to different roles within the company to make us better.”
It’s working with talented individuals that has helped Meadows reach the heights he has, including that Monaco podium as he celebrated the life of his colleague and friend, Niki Lauda.
“Without knowing it, I think by osmosis really, you deal with some fantastic characters during your career and you can go in two directions; you can ignore it, or you can try and be a sponge and take it in,” he reasoned.