Steve Matchett has played many roles in life, from the grunt work of an auto dealership mechanic in England to loftier climes as an author and television personality.
Many Americans recognize Matchett as a member of the standout broadcasting crew of Formula 1 Grand Prix television coverage from 2000 through the 2017 season. He continues as a features presenter for Mecum Auctions on Motor Trend TV – the reason he will be at Car Week.
“I always love it when the Mecum chaps ask me along,” says Matchett, who now lives in Charlotte. “You guys have great weather out there. It reminds me of a perfect English summer day.”
From 1990 through 1998, Matchett traveled the world as an engineer for the Benetton Formula 1 racing team. He helped Michael Schumacher win drivers’ championships in 1994 and 1995, as well as Benneton claim the 1995 constructors’ title.
But motorsports bring highs and lows. At the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix held in Imola in Italy, two drivers – Roland Ratzenberger and the famed Aryton Senna – died and another was seriously injured. Crew members and fans also suffered injuries. That same year Matchett was engulfed in flame at Hockenheim when fuel gushed from Jos Verstappen’s Benetton and erupted during a pit stop – an incident he describes in his first book, Life in the Fast Lane: The Story of the Benetton Grand Prix Year, published in 1995.
Weekly: You’ve been to Car Week many times, what do you think?
Matchett: I went to Carmel once and saw the price of real estate and realized Carmel is not for me [chuckles]. But I went to Carmel Beach and watched these guys fish. I could have done that all day. I’ve always been attracted to real folks doing real things. When we’d race at Monaco, I’d get more pleasure from the little bars and restaurants where real folks were having dinner. I feel more at ease around regular folks. That’s what I like about Mecum – it’s as much a car show as an auction, a family atmosphere. [Laughing.] But boy, would I give a different answer if they invited me [to Concours d’Elegance].
Which car would catch your attention on the auction block?
If money was no object – although it always is – it would be a 1984 Ferrari 288 GTO. The shape of it – it’s extremely cool. Dec. 23 is my birthday, by the way.
What’s it like to be around great drivers like Michael Schumacher?
What makes them do what they do is beyond me. I’ve never had a desire to drive a Formula 1 car. Michael – talk about otherworldly. He had an uncanny ability to know what the car was doing. I asked him, “how do you know when it’s on the edge?” He said, “I can hear the car talking to me. I can feel it from all four corners.” But he was very grounded. He would be around the garage. He’d bring in a tray of espresso coffee he’d made.
Looking back at Imola, what goes through your mind?
It was an absolutely awful weekend. There was something wrong. You felt it from the moment we arrived. When I got home I poured a Scotch, sat down on the bed and burst into tears in the middle of the night. It hit me all at once. I sobbed myself to sleep.
What was life in the fast lane like otherwise?
It was a fun time. I don’t know how the guys today do it. We would go to Japan, Australia, but we had a fair number of European races. I loved the travel side of it. In 1990, my first win with Benetton was at Suzuka [Japan]. Then we went to Australia and won the next race. I thought Formula 1 was supposed to be difficult. Of course, I found out it was difficult. It consumes one’s entire life. But for a young man to experience the world and the high-end engineering, it was fantastic.
You have three books to your credit.
I enjoy that type of writing. You can stop and leave it for a week and come back and edit. With articles you don’t have that comfort level. I still enjoy writing – I’m working on a little book right now – but that thing about the well running dry is definitely true. When I was writing my first book I was still with Benetton. I was writing in my spare time. Now I have all day to write and can do three paragraphs.
Fans miss your F1 broadcasts.
We had a great following in the states. I’m more well known in the states than I am in England.