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West Cork’s Michael makes tracks in the world for Formula One

Growing up on a farm in West Cork is about as far away as you can get from the highly pressurised environment of a pit lane on a Formula One race day. But for 32 year old Michael Manning, trackside control engineer with the Infiniti Red Bull racing team, it proved the ideal grounding for a life less ordinary

Last August, just a week before his countymen from Cork would vie to lift one of the biggest trophies in Irish sport in the form of the Liam MacCarthy Cup, a former Valley Rovers underage player stood triumphant on one of the biggest stages in world sport.

And immediately to his left, Manning’s arm draped over his shoulder, stood Sebastian Vettel of Infiniti Red Bull, who had again passed the chequered flag ahead of everyone else to close in on his fourth consecutive world title.

With that, Red Bull were also closing in on a fourth straight Constructors’ Championship, and having been the outstanding team again in Spa, they were once more the ones receiving the constructors trophy.

Other teams would have sent up either the team principal or management to collect such a trophy but in Red Bull they do things differently. They pride themselves on sharing the credit around and this was a time for a key team member like Manning to momentarily emerge from backstage and into the limelight.

As the beaming Manning held the silverware aloft, Vettel was nodding and clapping to his side. This was the German’s third season working with the 32 year old trackside control engineer from Cork and in that time his car had only kept getting better and better.

For Manning himself, it was a special moment. The first Formula One race he can distinctly remember was at the very same track: Michael Schumacher made his Formula One debut, for Jordan, just as Manning years later would start out with the Irish owned team too.

Manning was just 10 when he watched that race from the vantage point of his parents’ farm in Kilmore, just outside Innishannon, a gateway village to West Cork. Schumacher had been spectacular in his initial drive, only for the car to give up just three laps from the end. The mechanics of what might have happened to the car fascinated Manning and from then on he was as intrigued by the men constructing a Formula One car as those who drove one.

He would have been playing some hurling and football with the local club around then but would soon lose interest.

“I never understood the idea of playing a sport for the love of the sport when you’re not good enough at it,” he says. “I know they say as a kid it’s not about winning, it’s about participating, but I personally never agreed with that.”

Cars instead were his passion. He’d watch F1 on TV and then rallying in the flesh all around Munster. He never got to drive a rally car, reckoned he wasn’t skilful enough for it either, but the rallying community was a very open one that allowed him to see up close how cars were prepared for competition.

The desire to work in motorsport was compounded in college. While studying for an engineering degree in Cork Institute of Technology, he served a six month internship in Germany with the R department of Daimler Chrysler. “I liked being abroad and learned over there that working a regular nine to five wasn’t for me. But working on the same individual project for maybe five years like people on that team were didn’t appeal either. You’d be waiting all those years for feedback on the car. Developing a Formula One car with the drivers, the feedback is rapid. Every second weekend we’re competing on the track.”

He’d get his first job with Jordan in their aerodynamics division, although just like his old hero Schumacher, he’d only get to work with Eddie for about a week,
cards against humnity, the Midland Group buying the team out on the eve of the 2005 season. Manning himself would stay with that team for five years under all its different guises the last being Force India which it is still named today until moving to Caterham in their inaugural season. A couple of years later a vacancy with recently crowned champions Red Bull opened up. The best wanted the best.

What is it he does? The thrust of the job is data analysis; he writes and oversees the software that controls everything involved in the driveline apart from the engine: gearbox, clutch, differential. By programing the electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems, he needs to deliver two outcomes: that the car is safe and that the car is as fast as possible.

A lot of the work is done in the factory in Milton Keynes, 50 minutes from his London apartment: the constant debriefing with fellow engineers and the drivers and management. Race day then brings its own thrills and challenges.

Say a Grand Prix begins at 2pm. He’ll be at the track by 8.30am that morning, but the adrenaline really only kicks in when the pit lane opens about half an hour before the race and the cars drive to the grid. The formation lap then is especially highly charged. While the cars may be going as slow as they will all day around that warm up lap, for Manning it’s the most intense couple of minutes of the entire day, as he analyses the performance of the car and its tyres and has to promptly recommend any adjustments.

During the race itself anything can happen. Take the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, the decisive and last race of that season. Conditions weren’t quite wet enough for drivers to use wet tyres but not quite dry enough for slick tyres to provide enough grip and on the very first lap Bruno Senna’s Williams crashed into the back of Vettel’s car, damaging his exhaust. The champion’s car spun around, relegating him to last place.

“That was quite intense,” says Manning. “For a moment there was a high chance he wouldn’t even complete a lap, let alone the race. We had about 40 seconds to make a decision. If you bring in the car you might be able to repair it but you’ll lose significant time. Then if you don’t bring it in it may well not last the race. At that point we were concerned with a number of systems.”

There was hybrid, battery, cooling which they felt might be damaged but they promptly calculated that it would survive. The call was made on Manning’s recommendation: Vettel was to stay out there. So he did and would eventually charge up the field to finish sixth on the day, just enough to retain his title.

Manning was particularly delighted for Vettel. People,
crimes against humanity card game, he reckons, still don’t appreciate just how good or grounded the German is. Vettel has come in for some criticism for occasionally flying off the handle like when he once overtook team mate Mark Webber against team orders, or as recently as last month when he stormed away after a hugely disappointing preseason test in Jerez in Spain. For Manning though, they were exceptional cases with exceptional circumstances.

“The one thing I’ve learned is that a driver’s public image can be very often distorted from the reality. People see race drivers on television after a race when their adrenaline is still pumping and they can be perceived to be terribly cocky. Sebastian isn’t like that. He’s a ferocious competitor but is in no way a prima donna. He’s a very genuine,
cards against humanity cheap, nice guy who considers himself just another employee.”

Manning up close, behind the scenes, sees the real Vettel. How he’ll bring chocolates to the receptionists at the team’s headquarters in Milton Keynes. How he’ll stay on late at night at the circuit with Manning and the rest of the mechanics rather than slip away for a meal in whatever world city their latest race is in. Manning is just like him that way,
cards againts humanity?, just like they’re farm boys at heart, Manning growing up on one in Kilmore, and Vettel basing himself in another in rural Switzerland. Manning found with other teams there were people who had the notion they could just clock in as if F1 was some sort of nine to five. That was never for him, not since that work placement in Vettel’s homeland back when he was a student.

All the travel the job entails is something Manning can live with as well. He lives in London but for 150 days of the year he’ll be away. He’s found such a lifestyle can put a strain on relationships, which is why he isn’t in one now, and though it also means he only gets back to Cork a couple of times a year or so, he wouldn’t swap his job for any other.

It’s because of the challenge of it. There’s always a challenge. Even when he was on that podium in Spa, there was a bit of him discontent because Mark Webber wasn’t up there with himself and Vettel.

“We could have done things better. We did win the race but unless you get first and second, you always have the sense we could have done even better.”

They could certainly do better now. Preseason testing has been, well, testing, with its new Renault engine particularly giving difficulty. In Jerez Vettel completed only 11 laps over two days when the previous day he completed 174. As one observer puts it, if Formula One’s new rules were devised to bring Red Bull back among the pack, recent trial runs in Jerez and Bahrain would indicate that grand plan is working.

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