'People said you couldn’t be a mechanic if you paint your nails'
JESIKA Vance woke up one morning, drew the curtains back and looked out in wonder.
She paused and thought about where she was and how far she’d come.
The snow-topped peak of Mount Fuji was there in all its imposing and peaceful glory.
It was certainly a world away from the grey and forbidding waters of the Foyle that chopped in the distance from her home in St Johnston.
The Japanese city of Gotemba rests beneath the 13,400-feet tall Mount Fuji, one of Japan’s ‘Three Holy Mountains’ and Vance was in town in her role as a motorsport technician with the Aston Martin racing team.
“The people who live there rarely saw Western people and they spoke no English,” says Vance, who has rapidly risen in her field and now works as a Prototype Technical with Arrival, a UK-based company developing electric vehicles.
Japan was 2018 and she had never experienced a long-haul flight, let alone a hotel without Corn Flakes!
“The EastJet flight to Birmingham felt about as far as I had travelled and I was worried about going to Heathrow and the trip to Japan,” she says.
“It was an amazing experience. Ordering food was just a car of pointing to a picture and hoping for the best, but we got the hotel to order us in Corn Flakes.”
Her brief visit to Gotemba was all work, though.
A short few years beforehand, she was known simply as ‘Maurice Vance’s daughter’.
But now, Jesika had made her own name.
THE call, as they tend to do, came out of the blue.
It was in the autumn of 2017 and Jesika Vance had just started her third year of a motor vehicle maintenance degree at the North West Regional College in Derry.
Prodrive, a motorsport and advanced engineering group in England, appealed to her, but she needed a foot in the door.
They were offering apprenticeships but, at 20, Vance felt as if she was a bit long in the tooth for such a role.
“I just wanted to get a foot in the door to maybe prove that I was better than an apprentice,” she says.
“I was already in eduction in it; I was invested in it. When I saw what Prodrive were doing, the first thought was that i was a wee bit too old for an apprenticeship, but by some stroke of luck they rang me out of the blue and asked me over for an interview.
“I couldn’t believe it – the stars had aligned for me.”
Prodrive wanted her over for a week to their base in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
She’d work for a week on trial, free of charge. It was a golden opportunity.
The week was drawing to an end and the offer came. Prodrive wanted her as a Junior Technician.
A month later, she packed up her course at NWRC and moved bag and baggage to Banbury.
She says: “It was exactly what I wanted. I had already done Level 2 in North West and was midway through the Level 3, Diagnostics.
“The opportunity was just too big. To this day, I’m in touch with my lecturer. I try to go and see him when I can anytime I’m home. He always says that I can come back and do the Level 3 anytime I want but, at the minute anyway, it’s out of the realm of what I’m doing.”
Her first role with Prodrive involved, among other things, building a bespoke hydraulic unit for the McLaren P1 – described by Top Gear as a ‘hybrid hypercar that promises to be the most involving car to drive on road and track’.
This year, Ford have released an all-electric Transit cargo van. Vance was involved in building a prototype of that vehicle.
She says: “That was the start of my involvement with electric vehicles before I went to the motorsport side – and that was when my real career really started.”
Prodrive built Aston Martin cars, many of which were bought to race in events like the British GT Championship.
Such was the level Vance’s involvement in the building process, she was also dispatched as part of the race crew and had a lead role in the pit lane.
“I knew the car inside-out so it made sense for me to be in the pit crew,” she says.
“We were building one car a week. The aim was: Build a race car a week, start Monday and finish Friday. On some weeks, the customer would pick it up on a Friday and we might be away racing with that customer the next week.”
Vance’s role in the pit lane was the wheel change. A simple process, you might think, but with the pit clock ticking the nut gun can feel like a burden on the shoulder.
She says: “The pit stop might be one minute long. You have to get the car up, fuel the car and get the four wheels off and on. It sounds really simple to say take the wheels off and put them on, but when you’re under that pressure and adrenaline, you feel as if it’s the most important thing in the world.”
In 2019, they won the manufacturers’ championship and, as someone who had been a key part of the team that built the cars from scratch, Vance’s heart beat with an extra bit of pride. She worked closely with Kelvin Fletcher and Martin Plowman who won the British GT4 Drivers’ Championship.
She says. “I had a hand in building every GT4 Aston in the Championship. That gave us an edge. We had a lot of first-hand knowledge of the cars and we won the Championship.”
FROM ever she can remember, cars were a passion.
The young Jessika spent any spare hours possible ‘helping’ her father, Maurice, in his garage in Raphoe.
“I was very much a Daddy’s girl when I was wee,” Jessika says.
“I had so much admiration for him and then I had interest in the job. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide I’m going to do this.”
As she grew through her teenage years, the love of cars and their workings didn’t dim. Indeed, it grew.
She soon became aware of the pitfalls of a world that didn’t seem too welcoming to a teenage girl who simply wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a mechanic.
Ever the protective father, Maurice had words of caution, too.
“Even daddy had concerns about my choice of career,” Jessika says now.
“He would say to me how it was a hard job, it was sore on the body and the winters were cold. You get no thanks for it. ‘Do you really want to be a mechanic?’
“But I did. I really did.
“I was around him helping him since I was a wane. It was in my blood from an early age.”
She went to school at Castletown NS, a short jaunt from her home, before attending the Royal and Prior Comprehensive in Raphoe.
Her family, through her father’s successful business, is well known in the area.
To Jessika, the thoughts of becoming a mechanic were natural.
“I expressed to my guidance teacher that I wanted to be a mechanic and, to me, that shouldn’t have been a surprise,” she says. “I lived in my daddy’s pocket.
“To my dismay, nobody thought it was a good idea. At that time, there was only one other female mechanic in Donegal, Samantha Cowan.
“I was going to stock racing, following rallies and going to car shows from I was a wee girl. It was just what I wanted to do.”
She hit a brick wall many times, though. An interview to become a technician at a Donegal-based garage showed a reflection of the world she was entering.
“The man basically said that he wouldn’t let his daughter do the job so he wasn’t going to let me do it,” she says.
“It was really difficult.
“Every corner I turned, there was a small group of people who would have looked differently. People telling me that I shouldn’t do it.
“Someone said one time: ‘Would you not rather be a hairdresser?’ ‘How did you get into this?’ ‘Who let you do this?’
“A lot of time it was just ignorance. People didn’t think that they were being offensive. I was always very tongue-in-cheek about it and just laughed it off. But that did make me more determined to do it.
“That made me more stronger as a person and as a woman.
“People take me a lot more seriously now. That’s because of working with Prodrive. It’s now like: ‘Oh, you worked there, you must be okay!’
“I have felt pressure every day of my life to prove people wrong in a way. Boys don’t have to do that. Times have changed. When I started, it was really bad.”
Jessika considers the comment for a moment and admits that her success perhaps would give a different outlook on that.
She says: “I’ve done a lot more than a lot of people have got a chance to do. I have proved a lot of people wrong who said I couldn’t do it. The UK is a lot more progressive than Ireland. There are people out there who think it’s not right that women do this job.
“People said you couldn’t be a mechanic if you paint your nails.”
THIS week last year, she finished her last car build for Prodrive.
Arrival had come calling, after their HR manager sought her sought on LinekIn.
“It was a big decision to leave,” she says.
“I didn’t really know where I was going from there. I was doing well, but did I want to do it forever?
“I was very proud to say that I worked for Prodrive. When I told people that I was leaving, they were all: ‘Are you sure?’ It was my dream job and I worked there for three years. It was time to move on.
“The sector was changing around me and there was a shift towards e-racing. People were pulling away from GT racing a bit and electric vehicles were really picking up. I’m a big believer in what’s for you won’t pass you. When this chance came, I couldn’t brush it off and ignore it.”
She is in the role of a Prototype Technician at Arrival, who are focussing on producing lightweight commercial vehicles. This summer, the company announced a new passenger bus designed for coronavirus-era social distancing.
“I help to develop the prototype vehicles into production vehicles,” she explains.
“There is no one part that I specifically do. It is so vast and varied. No two days are ever the same.”
The job, she explains, can involve fabrication, coming up with new ideas, solving problems or good old fashioned ‘bolting things together’.
“It was a new opportunity and a new challenge,” she says.
“I didn’t know anything about electric cars, but Arrival wanted the finesse of a motorsport technician to build their vehicles. Motorsport technicians have a certain eye for things.
“I took a chance. The first week I didn’t know if I had made the right move.
“I was just thinking: ‘What am I doing?’ You build up these skills and you have a very niche skill set. Then, imagine going into a place that doesn’t do anything like that.
“It was almost like starting again, but I love it and I wouldn’t change.
THE weekdays might be spend under the hood, but Jesika has quite the penchant for ‘glam’ too.
In 2016, she was a candidate to become the Donegal Rose for the Rose of Tralee.
“That was such a brilliant experience,” she says. “I met some lovely girls and had such a good laugh doing it. I didn’t get to be the Donegal Rose, but I was so happy to be in the competition.”
A conventional stereotype is firmly out the window with the St Johnston woman.
It was always so.
“At the weekend, I would be out Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” she says.
“I don’t drink and never had, but I loved to go out.
“I loved glam, I loved going out, putting a nice dress on and having my hair done.
“When Monday came, I might have remnants of the weekend’s nail polish on. You’d get the odd customer who’d point out that I’d get my nails destroyed!”
She likes nothing better than to come home and get a drive in her dad’s Mk1 Escort having also followed in his passion for vintage cars, noting a want for a Mk1 Escort or Cortina herself.
Having built Aston Martins for a living, you wonder if perhaps a James Bond-type DB5 would appeal.
“A few of my friends have actually worked on the new Bond movie,” she adds.
She missed the annual trip home for the Donegal Rally – which was cancelled anyway – due to Covid-19, but hopes to come home for a month at Christmas.
Home is still where the heart is.
After all, it’s where she cut her teeth in the business.
“It’s where I came from and where all my thinning was done,” she says.
“It’s where my daddy and where his daddy started. There’s a lot of family history in the garage – it’s where I learned to do what I do really. It didn’t come naturally to me. I had to work on it and I learned as much as I could from daddy every day.”
Living proof that you can be what you want to be.
“And if I want to paint my nails pink, I’ll paint my nails pink!”