Matt Needham: "Every move I've made in my career was to get to Formula 1"
Matt Needham has worked across an array of motorsport categories in his career so far. Starting out at the National College for Motorsport based at Silverstone, Matt has climbed the motorsport ladder in different roles, including working in both the Formula E and Formula 1 World Championships.
Now, Matt is a Show Car and Historic Mechanic for The Memento Group.
Matt’s earliest memory of motorsport – more specifically Formula 1 – dates back to when he was much younger and he would sit in front of the television with a Sunday roast watching the races with his dad and brother. Although not totally into the racing aspect at that age, Matt enjoyed the first lap and would disappear for an hour or so, then come back to watch the podium celebrations.
Fast forward a few years and motorsport became more of a family thing for Matt, and they made an event of race weekends, spending their time go-karting before watching the Grand Prix.
Growing up, however, Matt attended more racing events in the UK as opposed to following Formula 1 around the globe,
“It hasn’t always been Formula 1,” he says. “It’s not the most accessible for a lot of people.”
Matt remembers attending the British Formula Ford festival at Brands Hatch, but he was lucky enough to visit Spa in 2012 and Monza in 2014 for Formula 1 Grands Prix races.
At the end of sixth form, Matt decided that staying in the education system wasn’t the best pathway for him, so he began to explore other options. It was his Gran who mentioned the National College for Motorsport at Silverstone to him initially, and Matt began to look into it as an option.
“It never really was an option for me as a career,” Matt says. “Growing up in the education system, you don’t really look towards sport as an option.
“In sixth form, we had personal tutors and I explained to mine that I wasn’t interested in pursuing the university route and explained what I wanted to do; I vividly remember her saying to me, ‘you’re not going to become the next Lewis Hamilton’.”
That was Matt’s first moment of actually pursuing a career in motorsport.
At the National College for Motorsport, Matt studied a pre-apprenticeship course which provided him with the basic knowledge to line him up for an apprenticeship in order to get into the college.
“I was there for around six months and then they push you into getting apprenticeships,” Matt says. “Alongside still being tied to the college, I was linked to them for about two years whilst completing my apprenticeship.
“For somebody like me who doesn’t like sitting down in a classroom, it’s a really good place to be.”
Matt has been located near Silverstone – the epicentre of motorsport in the UK – for many years, so opportunities like these have been readily available to him. As part of his studies, the college encouraged him to get his name out there with teams racing at Silverstone on different weekends across the year.
One of Matt’s college tutors worked for Joe Tandy Racing as an engineering alongside tutoring, and he recommended that Matt became involved with the team in any capacity he could.
“I did two weeks work experience with them; it was a couple of days in the workshop and travelling down to Brands Hatch with them for a test,” he says. “After that, they offered me an apprenticeship. It was nice to have that first opportunity snapped up.”
In his earlier days with Joe Tandy Racing, Matt spent a lot of time learning from his peers.
“I’d only been exposed to motorsport for six months at this point, so it was all about understanding how a race team works,” he says. “The beauty of a team like that is they’re so small so you’re almost forced to get involved.
“You can’t just sit back and watch, you have to get your hands dirty.”
He spent the year of his apprenticeship with the team shadowing a mechanic in Formula 4. During that first year, Matt was able to learn everything about the car across all aspects. The following year, he was put on a car as a number one mechanic.
“You’re doing things you never really expected,” Matt says. “If you have a crash at a race weekend, you become a bodywork repair technician as well.
“It’s things you never really imagined you’d be doing, but you learn to work really quickly as well as under pressure.”
In 2017, Matt landed a role as Number 2 Mechanic with the NIO Formula E Team. His role consisted of making sure the car was in good order, building it up from the start of the week and implementing set up changes.
Working with NIO gave Matt his first experiences in travelling internationally for work. His first day with the team was in an airport ahead of flying to New York.
“I had no chance to get to know the people or learn the car in a relaxed environment,” Matt says. “I threw myself in at the deep end.”
Working in Formula E was a totally different form of motorsport for Matt, considering he’d only worked with smaller teams in the past. It gave him the opportunity to work with more people in bigger teams as well as working with two cars per driver.
“We’d do the car swap during the race so there was quite a lot of work there,” he says. “There was more responsibility to get it right.
“It’s a good way of learning because you do things quickly. You’d do things once and then do it again immediately.”
The travelling aspect of Formula E was something Matt enjoyed, too.
“I went to some amazing places with Formula E – New York, Montreal, Hong Kong – some really different places to Formula 1,” he says. “We were in the city centres which were
cool places to be with lots to do.”
“F1 is the goal for most people in motorsport,” Matt says. “It’s what got me into motorsport and it has always been my goal.
“Every move I’ve made in my career was to get to Formula 1.”
Prior to working with NIO, Matt was always checking F1 teams’ job websites and eventually, he found a role with Haas.
“It was a race team support job so it wasn’t actually with the travelling race team, it was factory based,” he says. “But it’s a good step in the right direction.”
Matt was due to be flying to Hong Kong with NIO when he received a phone call from Haas, inviting him for an interview.
“I spent the entire journey to Hong Kong making notes for the interview,” he says. “After the interview, I got an email saying they’d like to put me in for a second interview with the Team Principal.”
In recent years, and whilst Matt was still working with the team, Haas have had a resurgence in form, from getting their first points in a few years to being on Pole last year with Kevin Magnussen in Brazil.
“The first race we got our first points in two or three years was an amazing feeling,” Matt says. “Everybody loves an underdog moment, don’t they?”
Matt travelled to most races with Haas during his three years with the team.
“I remember being on the grid at Silverstone for my first Grand Prix and seeing the Red Arrows fly overhead; I just looked up and thought, ‘wow, I’ve made it’,” Matt says. “Moments like those are when you really appreciate what you do.”
Image credit: Matt Needham