Chris Rea on being an F1 mechanic, pancreatic cancer and why he doesn't drive his Ferrari to get a takeaway

Chris Rea on being an F1 mechanic, pancreatic cancer and why he doesn't drive his Ferrari to get a takeaway
Motoring journalist and former Telegraph motoring editor, Erin Baker, interviews Chris Rea on his new coffee-table book, La Passione and all things motoring including his stint as an F1 mechanic. 

Chris Rea, multi-million record-selling singer-song writer, racing driver and F1 mechanic (yep, you read that right) reaches into his pocket at lunch and pulls out a huge fistful of pills - about 15 in total.

He throws them into his mouth and starts crunching. If he doesn’t do this before every meal, he explains, he’ll have a bad bout of food poisoning immediately after.

Rea has been battling pancreatic cancer for years now, and actually has no pancreas, which means he also has Type 1 diabetes.

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Despite this, he’s in a sanguine mood, explaining that his illness has made him grateful for every day, so we sit happily chatting about his new coffee-table book, La Passione, which contains paintings by Rea, two CDs of his music and two DVDs all based on his hero, Wolfgang Von Trips, the Sixties Formula One racing driver who died at the Monza Grand Prix when his car flipped into the crowd, ejecting him and killing 15 spectators.

Third place would have been enough for Von Trips to secure the Formula One Drivers Championship that year.

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How, I ask Rea, does a boy from Middlesbrough end up supporting an aristocratic German racing driver who lived in a castle? “Times were different then”, he tells me in his gravelly Middlesbrough brogue.

“There were no politics; it was a fairy story.” He muses on his own background: “I get terrible stuff on Facebook from Middlesbrough”, he says sadly.

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“It’s 24 years since I left. They expected me to save the steel works. I don’t think they realise how not-big I am outside Middlesbrough.”

Still, he’s big enough that people still regularly stop him in the street to ask if he’s Chris Rea, despite the cancer shrinking him in every direction.

His love of Ferraris meant that he painted his first car, a 1968 Ford Anglia, bright red. “I then crashed it chasing a Mini across the Yorkshire moors. I was 17. I went “off”, as they say. Although you didn’t get write-offs when your dad had an ice-cream factory; the ice-cream van mechanics would fix it.”

Nowadays, he’s got rid of all his Ferraris, however. “The F12 I had was an unbelievably lovely car but I can’t turn left at the bottom of my drive in one, coz I’d have to go through my village, and I’m not going through my village in a Ferrari; I’ve got daughters, family and I’m trying to be normal, you know? Going to the Indian in a Ferrari… I can’t bear all that.”

I tell him that one of my favourite Chris Rea songs is Daytona, based on the 24-hour endurance race. “Never been”, he says, to my amazement, considering how evocative of the event the song is.

He also, it turns out, has never been to Le Mans, but it’s the race that kick-started his passion for cars.

“The year they did the first live Le Mans on TV, I was brought downstairs at a ridiculous time of night.

It was 1961, and that was what started it. We switched it on; it was just headlights in black and white. My dad was imagining round the black and white. I’ve never been the same since.”

Such was his love for motorsport, and his technical knowhow, that he ended up working in the Jordan garage during Ayrton Senna’s dual with Prost at Donington in the McLaren MP4-8.

“I was just feet away from his [Senna’s] car when he got past Prost. I was crying; it was incredible”, he says. He was responsible for changing Eddie Irvine’s right-rear tyre during the Monaco Grand Prix too, in 1995. 

From the pit to platinum albums. Sounds like it’s time for a well-earned break, but the Goodwood Revival beckons this September and Rea wants a race. We’d bet on seeing him there.

Chris Rea’s La Passione is out now on Jazzee Blue.