Published: 05:00, 05 December 2021
When a teenage Ron Pellatt left school and got into trouble "dossing around" riding motorbikes with his mates, he never of dreamt he was destined to a life jetting round the world with A-list Formula 1 racing champions.
After getting a job as a mechanic in a workshop when he was 16, word got round he was pretty handy at fixing motors.
From his early years of working at a Ford dealership and tuning shop in The Brook, Chatham, his career accelerated through word-of-mouth in the close-knit motor trade circles in Kent, especially around the Brands Hatch area.
Indeed, such was his reputation, it wasn't long before the calls started coming in from the likes of Williams, Brabham and McLaren – all eager to hone in on his self-taught skills.
He was soon a familiar figure as test mechanic in the pit stops from Monaco to Japan, Saudi Arabia to Moscow, earning the trust of stars such as Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen, Nelson Piquet and in more recent years, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.
It was Ron who strapped a young Hamilton into a F1 car for the first time at Silverstone, a privilege the superstar got for winning the McLaren autosport award in 2004.
The 78-year-old, who lives with wife Penny in Cliffe, recalls "an excited kid" who was surrounded by his family taking pictures and raring to go.
He said: "You could tell from even then that Hamilton was going to go far."
Ron speaks of the close relationship between the multi-millionaire drivers and the backroom mechanics who play a crucial role in putting them on the road to success.
He said: "Some may think it is a glamorous life, but we are working on cars from 6am sometimes until three in the morning – and they appreciate that.
"They know the efforts we put in to make sure they are safe enough to go up to 200mph.
"People think when I get back home that I've been on holiday because I have a tan. But it's anything but a holiday."
There are days the grandad treasures like when Hakkinen won the world championship in 1998/99 and the numerous triumphs of Ayrton Senna – a racer he classes as "a true gentleman, fantastic person, committed driver and friend".
Then there's the car he built for the London-to-Mexico world cup auto rally in 1970 driven by Mike Butler and Doug Harris from Medway.
Driving a Surtees TS15 Formula 2 car for the Surtees family at the Goodwood Festival of Speed was another golden moment.
And more recently, working on the famous 722 car driven by Stirling Moss ahead of a film about the legend in partnership with Mercedes.
He said: "It is probably the most well-known car in the world, you couldn't put a price on it. And it will never be driven again."
But then there are the tragic memories when racers he grew close to were killed on the track.
Tom Pryce – the only Welshman to win a F1 race – died in front of him at the 1977 South African Grand Prix.
He knew Henry Surtees, the son of John Surtees who died in a freak accident at Brands Hatch when he was just 18.
And the biggest shock of them all: the death of international icon Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1, 1994.
Ron describes the Brazilian as a friend – working with him virtually every week between 1990 and 1993 when he was with McLaren.
He said: "It was a sheer tragedy. We just could not believe what we were hearing. It was very emotional.
"He was always joking about getting a new driver's watch and then one day he gave his old watch to me as a gift.
"It was very expensive."
Senna died in a hospital in Bologna after crashing into a concrete barrier.
Ron's lifetime on the road is worlds apart from how his life started after his father died when he was four.
He said: "I didn't like school much and was a bit of a rebel, just dossing around."
He spent his time playing billiards and riding bikes around the fields near Cliffe and "getting into trouble", which landed him in court and a three-year driving ban at the age of 16.
When he got his licence, one of the first things he did was buy a bike, an Italian Bianchi, and carried on his love of off-road biking.
He progressed from motorbikes to rally cross cars and was a regular at the Lydden Hill circuit near Dover.
He met Penny at a pub in Cliffe where she was living and they got married in 1966 after a short romance.
He said: "I have met many famous people but the person who deserves the biggest mention is Penny.
"While I have been away she has been my long-suffering wife, bringing up our three children.
"Without her backing, I couldn't have carried out my career in motorsport."
Ron has since given up working full-time but still does freelance work for Mercedes in Stuttgart where he helps to keep heritage cars running.
Closer to home, he also looks after entertainer Jools Holland's collection of cars at his home at Cooling Castle.
He said: "I've still got the bug. I don't miss the turning up and checking in at airports every two weeks, which was tiring.
"But I do miss the camaraderie, the mechanics and the fun."
The drivers Ron worked with were: Emerson Fitipaldi, Kimi Raikkonen, James Hunt, Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Mika Hakkinen, Jenson Button, John Surtees and Lewis Hamilton.
Ron added: "I was lucky enough to work with four of them – Piquet, Rosberg, Senna and Hakkinen – when they won the championship."