MONACO (Reuters) - When Dave Ryan started working for the McLaren Formula One team in 1974, the New Zealander was handed a mop and told to clean the floor.
The job got more complicated over the next 35 years.
The former world champions, founded by Kiwi racer Bruce McLaren, are marking the 50th anniversary of their debut in Monaco this weekend and what Ryan knows about the team could fill a library.
Now racing director for back-of-the-grid Manor, minnows with big ambitions and powerful Mercedes engines, the 62-year-old lived the highs and lows at McLaren.
A mechanic to Britain’s 1976 world champion James Hunt, Ryan became chief mechanic in 1982, team manager and then sporting director before leaving in 2009 in the midst of a furor involving Lewis Hamilton and race stewards.
He worked with champions like Ayrton Senna, a six-times Monaco winner, Alain Prost and Mika Hakkinen as well as now triple champion Hamilton.
“McLaren’s a team that’s rebuilding. They’ve been rebuilding for the last few years and at the moment the signs are looking like they might have found a direction,” he told Reuters on Monaco’s traditional Friday rest day.
”They are a fantastic team with a huge history behind them and it’s kind of sad in some ways to see them where they’ve been. But I‘m sure, given the talent they have, they’ll find a way back.
“I have been through some really good times, and difficult times with McLaren, but the quality always came through in the end.”
McLaren have not won a race since 2012 and started a new partnership with Honda last year, finishing ninth out of 10 teams. This year has shown signs of improvement.
Only Ferrari, the sport’s oldest team, have won more championships than McLaren’s eight constructors’ and 12 drivers’ crowns between 1974 to 2008. Ryan was there throughout.
Bruce McLaren went to Monaco in 1966 with a team of six people, including himself and his wife. The M2B car lasted nine laps before retiring with an oil leak.
When Ryan started, the team were on their way to a first championship with Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi.
It was light years from the situation today where graduates with first class engineering and electronics degrees are recruited from the best universities.
Ryan arrived in Britain knowing nobody and with 17 pounds ($24.87) in his pocket after buying a raincoat and a backpack with the intention of traveling around Europe for a couple of weeks.
He partied with fellow expats, occasionally slept rough in London’s Hyde Park and overstayed his ticket home.
“I was actually stuck in England,” recalled Ryan. “It took me nine years to save up enough money to get back to New Zealand but in the meantime I saw a poster advertising the British Grand Prix and hitch-hiked out to Brands Hatch.”
He and a friend sneaked in without a ticket, pitched a tent and then flipped a coin to see who would hitch back to the nearest fish and chip shop. Ryan lost.
The car that stopped turned out to be driven by the circuit manager who put him on the gate in exchange for a ticket. Seeking more work in the pit lane, McLaren offered him an interview and then employment at the factory.
“I was cleaning the floors. That was my first job. Which was fine. They gave me a proper job after that,” he said.
“There weren’t many people but we got through a lot of work. Everybody just mucked in. I’d get handed a drawing or something and be told to go and make that.”
The parties were good, particularly in the 1970s with Hunt at the peak of his powers on and off the track, and there was a real sense of team spirit.
“We were just a bunch of young guys out having a lot of fun including James and (team mate) Jochen Mass. It was really hard work but we had a fantastic time,” said Ryan.
($1 = 0.6837 pounds)
Editing by Tony Jimenez