Jim Kayes catches up with fast-moving Kiwi motor-racing engineer Michael Harre to find out what’s driven his incredible success.
Michael Harre is not a name many will instantly associate with Formula One success.
He’s not up in lights like Lewis Hamilton, the international superstar who earns close to $100m a year, has won six Formula One titles and is widely regarded as one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen. Heck, some say he is the best.
No, but Harre is the chap who makes Hamilton’s car go fast. Super-fast.
“We are always trying to optimise it to the millisecond,” Harre says from his home in England as he tries to explain all the bits that go into making a car go fast.
When I ask if a great driver can make an average car look good and whether an average driver would win in a superb car, he slips into a fascinating chat about wind displacement and how hard it is for the car coming second because the “dirty wind” reduces their performance by at least 40 percent.
It’s a neat way not to say how much Hamilton benefits from Harre’s expertise.
Born in South Africa, Harre, 41, is steeped in Kiwi motorsport history. His father, Bruce Harre, grew up on a dairy farm just outside Hunterville and was great mates with Chris Amon after they met at the Rangitikei Car Club.
They left for the UK together in the early 1960s to take on the world and although Bruce fancied himself as a driver he soon slipped into the role of Amon’s mechanic.
The pair flatted with F1 drivers Mike Hailwood and Peter Revson. Jim Clark, the Scottish F1 driver who won two world titles, would often doss on their floor.
When Clark came to New Zealand to compete he loved chatting about dairy farming with Bruce’s dad as they were both farmers.
While he harboured dreams of being a driver, Bruce McLaren convinced Harre he was a better mechanic. Little Bruce, as he was dubbed, was the third person to join Bruce McLaren’s racing team.
Together the two Bruces designed and built some of McLaren’s early race cars.
Harre later joined Firestone where he put his chemistry degree to use helping design tyres and working with Ferrari’s Nikki Lauder.
“Dad sowed the seed when we were young, with my brother and I watching Formula 1,” Michael Harre says.“We were always around racing cars, we had motocross bikes and all those sorts of things. And from a very young age I wanted to be a race engineer.”
He studied engineering at Auckland University then headed to Britain, first working for the Super Aguri team in F1 in 2005-06, then Virgin as race engineer for Timo Glock in 2011.
In 2013 he was working on the 2014 engines the F1 cars would be running and in 2014 he was working with Williams as a performance engineer. Then, at the end of 2014, Mercedes asked him to be their chief trackside engineer.
Now, after 12 years of travel, he has returned to the factory and is the team’s head of technology development. Harre is happy to have slipped his passport into the sock drawer but he does miss the thrill of being trackside.
“I was chief engineer for the power units during the five years that we won, so it was fairly successful but also fairly stressful. I think I’ve got a lot of grey hairs because of that.
“But that’s part of it. I was brought up in the industry. My father was a racer, it’s been in the family. I miss the racing and when I’m not there, at the circuit, I’m trying to do it myself.”
A normal race week saw the engineers arrive on Wednesdays and the drivers at midday on Thursday. “I was the lead engineer so I had two teams that dealt with the drivers. One dealt with Lewis and the other dealt with Nico (Roseberg) or Valtteri (Bottas), and we had to try to give them the pertinent bits of information. Because they have to take in a lot of information you can’t overload them.”
Harre says in his earlier years Hamilton relied on his natural talents as a driver.
“I think Nico taught him that you need to pay attention to certain things, because Nico was very good at honing in on the technical elements and making it better. And that’s probably what made him win a championship because he concentrated on elements that made him better, because he didn’t have the talents that Lewis has.”
Bottas has a good work ethic, too, as he strives to be better than Hamilton. “Which is quite challenging because Lewis is now also quite technical and he takes things on board himself, so [the environment] is fairly challenging.”
Having worked so closely with one of the world’s true sporting superstars (Hamilton has 15 million Instagram followers and 4.2 million on Facebook), Harre has a rare insight into what makes him tick.
He is, of course, a perfectionist, but a fallible one.
“As many times as he has done it, there are always nerves,” Harre says of Hamilton. “You can imagine the adrenalin as you’re sitting there with all those engines revving and five per cent on the clutch pedal can be the make or break of whether you are going to have a really good start.
“When the pressure is on he puts a lot of pressure on himself, and so does Valterri, and in doing that they are only human, so they will make errors now and then.”
When he doesn’t win, Hamilton reacts as anyone would. He’s upset at first, but then quickly focuses on why he didn’t win. “You can see him get angry, for sure, and whether he blames himself or the equipment – I think both have had a fair amount of blame thrown at them.
“We are always disappointed. We are so used to winning now so when we don’t win – and I think this is what makes Mercedes so good – we are very self-critical.
“Generally, if we have made an error we come back a lot stronger, and we learn from our mistakes and he (Hamilton) does the same. So if he had a bad start the time before he will hone in on that and practice, practice, practice so that he gets it right for the next time, which is maybe a little bit of a different attitude to what he’s had before.
“When he does suffer a defeat it makes him even hungrier – and you can see that even in a race, when he’s not winning he has his head down and it’s not as if he isn’t giving it 110 percent.”
With Formula One stuck in park as the world grapples with the Covid-19 crisis, Harre’s team has developed a ventilator as part of F1’s Project Pit Lane, with Mercedes set to produce 10,000 of the C-PAP units.
At home he is tinkering with the single-seater BMW race car and Formula Ford he has in the garage. He likes to race but admits only to “being better than my brother, which is good enough because it winds him up”.
He’s enjoyed the down-time but he can’t wait for the engines to be revving in pit lane again. This is, after all, a man for whom racing has been his life – something that was reinforced to Harre at his father’s funeral in January.
“It was nice to see so many of his old friends there. It makes me feel proud of him and everything I’m doing I’m pretty much grateful to him for, because he is the one who lit the candle for me.”
* Made with the support of NZ on Air *