Globe-trotting Formula One engineer Nathan Tupper, 29, always wanted a job “where my hands would be dirty enough so that if I had to use someone’s computer, they’d moan at me”.
Despite having to use a computer during his present job, it’s fair to say that Nathan has achieved his goal and so much more. As race team engine dresser for Mercedes Formula One, driven by the most successful British driver in F1 history Lewis Hamilton, Nathan gets paid to dirty his highly trained hands all over the world.
Nathan’s passion for racing and all things mechanical began at an early age – and he jokingly suggests that it may have taken root before he was even born.
He says: “If you go way back to where my mum and dad come from, it’s very close to Goodwood, where they hold the Festival of Speed. Mum was pregnant with me when they went to the first Festival ever, so that’s where they reckon it probably started.”
Throughout his upbringing Nathan explored the way things work and how they are put together.
He says: “I grew up with Scalextric, Lego, Meccano, then when I was a little bit older, Airfix kits, then a little bit older still, helping Dad service the car on the driveway."
“I did quite a lot of tinkering, too. I found screwdrivers and took stuff apart when I was 8 years old, then gave it back and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t know how it goes back together.’” It was perhaps inevitable that Nathan would complete a BSc Motorsport Engineering degree, which he began at the University of Wolverhampton in 2015.
During his studies he threw himself into every opportunity available, working with the F3 racing team, University of Wolverhampton Racing (UWR); taking part in the Morgan Challenge, where students work alongside Morgan craftsmen and women; and being a co-team lead for the Formula Student Project.
Nathan says: “I remember that summer in 2016. If I wasn’t doing my degree project, I was doing similar work for another guy at weekends, and if I wasn’t doing that, I was racing my go-kart.”
Nathan’s career break came early. Due to the University of Wolverhampton’s links with the Mercedes F1 team, Mercedes offered Nathan a role in their aerodynamics department shortly after he completed his degree. Despite this huge opportunity, Nathan already knew that the role wasn’t right for him and politely declined the offer, knowing that the job wouldn’t get his hands dirty enough.
The bold move paid off, as a few weeks later Mercedes called Nathan back and offered him a fixed-term contract as an engine systems technician – essentially having headhunted him immediately after his graduation.
Nathan says: “This was at the end of Mercedes F1’s third year in a row where they’d won everything. So I thought, I don’t know what’s happened here, but I’ll take this 6-month contract and roll with it. And it’s all basically snowballed from there."
“A lot of the guys who I now work with did apprenticeships at race teams and worked their way from national to international, but not me. The whole University of Wolverhampton race team set me up very well.”
Rather than seeing the University simply as a steppingstone to reach where he stands today, he says it is still “very much a family thing to me”. As well as having met his 6-year-strong girlfriend while working on the University of Wolverhampton’s F3 cars, Nathan remains close friends with Shane Kelly, one of the motorsport technicians and a professional racing driver for UWR.
He says: “Shane and I got on very, very well. He put a lot of trust in me as a student, and I’ve kept in touch with the (Wolverhampton) uni team. It’s not been a case where I used the University to get my job and then ran away. It still means quite a bit.”
Nathan says that Shane wasn’t just a member of staff or a figure of authority to him, and has since become a true friend.
He says: “At the end of 2021, Shane was doing work for Aston Martin in Abu Dhabi, so we met up while we were both there. Another time, Shane was working at Silverstone for the Grand Prix weekend and I stayed at home because obviously it’s close to where I live, and Shane stayed with us.”
Nathan’s present role as a Formula One race team engine dresser for Mercedes requires him to be at the top of his game. It’s his responsibility to fit all the cooling systems to the engine, ensuring they are the correct parts fitted to the correct specifications. He also gets involved in pit stops on race days, and if he finishes before others then he assists anyone else who needs it.
He says: “My first few races were very much, ‘rabbit in the headlights’. You know your job, but at the same time you’re thinking, ‘What am I actually doing?’ Now, it’s become second nature."
“If Mum and Dad see someone who asks what I’m up to now, they answer, ‘Nathan works for Mercedes, F1. You know, with Lewis Hamilton.’ Everyone knows what that means – they don’t even have to care about motorsport, people still know who he is."
The team drills regularly to stay sharp and well-practised, but there are always times when the pressure builds, as it did in Austria in 2022.
Nathan says: “Lewis had an accident during qualifying and we had to change the chassis to another one overnight, while keeping within the time limits. There are very strict curfews that you can’t break more than 5 or so times a year across 22 races, so we had just 3 hours after qualifying when we had to strip the car. Then in the morning we knew that we had 4 hours to get that car ready to go out."
We all know what we’re doing, but we also know that the time is ticking.
Working in the top tier of motorsport with the UK’s brightest F1 star means that Nathan spends 22 weeks travelling each year. Despite contending with different time zones alongside occasionally tough humidity in countries such as Singapore, he says that visiting other countries with his job is a privilege.
“My favourite races are the American races, purely because I like America. Food, entertainment – it’s all available over there. “Austin, Texas is probably one of the best races of the year from that point of view. Miami was really good last year too, as we managed to go to the ice hockey and a couple of people went to see Miami Heat play basketball. We try to make the most of our time and opportunities.”
It isn’t just the travelling that Nathan is grateful for – it’s his entire career. He has worked for the Mercedes Formula One team at a time of soaring success, and he doesn’t take it for granted.
“My first track-side win in Formula One was the Grand Prix, working on Lewis’s car at Silverstone. It felt like my life was complete. To be there when Mercedes won Silverstone and then won the championship was very special, because only a small amount of people ever have the opportunity to feel that.”
When Nathan is asked what his dream accomplishment in the industry would be, his answer is perhaps unsurprising. He looks almost bashful when he says: “I’m not saying this in a weird way, but I genuinely feel like I’ve already achieved it. All I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid was race and go racing, and now that’s my job: to go racing and travel the world doing it."
“There are things I still want to do now – like, I’d love to do Le Mans as a mechanic – but if I never have the opportunity to do any of them, I already feel like I’ve achieved my dream.”
It is only through hard work that Nathan has reached his enviable position, and he has some sobering advice for those hoping to reach a similar level to the one he has achieved.
“If you want to do something, throw yourself at it. Spend as much time as you can doing it. That’s all I did. I might not be the most capable but I’m the most willing.
“So what if it’s between Xmas and New Year? There’s still stuff to do, so get on with it.”