What skills make a good F1 engineer?

When you work in Formula 1 you get the privilege of working with and learning from some of the most talented individuals in motor sport. You get to see exactly what skills and personal attributes make a successful F1 employee and I want to share some of those with you in this post.

When I left college and started work I thought I knew pretty much everything about racing and engineering but I couldn’t have been more wrong. My degree taught me some valuable fundamentals but I learnt more about racing and design in those first 12 months of work than I had in four years of university.

One of the best aspects of working in Formula 1 is that you get a grandstand seat to watch and absorb every aspect of how a race team operates behind the scenes. You also get to see which people are the most successful and how they achieve it. The people who really succeed in this business aren’t necessarily the cleverest but they are smart in the way that they approach the job and I think that’s a good lesson for anyone wishing to follow in their footsteps.

The following are 3 key lessons that I’ve learnt from successful engineers in motorsport and these attributes portray the kind of mindset that teams look for in young or new employees :

  • Never assume anything
  • Assumption is the mother of all f@*k ups. A colourful use of language perhaps from an F1 old timer but its also very true. Formula 1 is a complex business and I’ve seen many ideas and designs fail because people assumed they understood rather than think through or test something fully enough. The best F1 people never assume anything and constantly question results either good or bad.

  • Simplicity is the highest form of sophistication
  • Actually a quote from the late Steve Jobs of Apple but equally applicable to F1. Extracting speed from a Formula 1 car is a series of compromises and in order to see what the best compromise is you need to break it down into as simple a problem as you can. The engineers who can reduce a complex problem down are far more effective in F1 than those who don’t. It’s all too easy to get carried away making complicated & expensive mechanisms and go faster bits which don’t actually solve anything. Keeping a clear head and prioritising what is really important is one of the most valuable skills to learn.

  • Don’t believe the hype
  • In a closed community like Formula 1, paddock chatter, media speculation and suspicion lead to great deal of discussion about what other teams might or might not be doing. It’s very easy to assume that other teams know something that you don’t and that somebody has a ‘magic pill’ or setup that means they are a second faster than you. Many engineers become distracted by these thoughts and become demotivated by the lack of a ‘golden egg’ or ‘demon tweak’ on their own car. The truth is success only comes from hard work and understanding, not from a shortcut or a single bolt on widget. The people who have the courage of their own convinction and are prepared to work away at those things are the ones who will make the biggest gains.

As I’ve said several times already, getting a job in Formula 1 is as much about your mindset and the way you think as it is about your qualifications. You can apply for a job with lots of top grades but if your application doesn’t show evidence of practical thinking and initiative then there is nothing to distinguish you from the many other well qualified people around. Ask yourself the question “what is it that teams need and how do I fulfil that need?”. It’s a game, a competition and you need to find out the rules and beat everyone around you.

Keep in touch

My updates to this site have been rather slow of late, for which I apologise. It’s been a particularly busy period recently which hasn’t left much spare time. I hope to get back to it a little more now.

If you are interested in a career in Formula 1 or want to learn more about how you can get involved, check out my FAQ’s or read through some of my other recent posts. Keep checking my blog for new articles or use the follow form on my home page to be kept up to date by email. I hope to shortly post a series of job role descriptions, detailing what the day to day duties of a designer, aerodynamicist, data engineer and many other people who make up an F1 team really are.

You can also follow me on Twitter @Work_in_F1.

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Life on the road – what it’s like to follow the F1 circus

The sight of a Grand Prix grid full of high tech machinery, millionaires and movie stars is one of the definitive images of international glamour. One of the first questions I get asked by people who learn that I work in Formula 1 is “Do you get to go the races too?”. It looks glamorous but what is it like if you have to work there for a living?

First thing is first, I don’t generally go to races. I, like the vast majority of people who work in F1, am factory based. The images of Formula 1 on television are what most people associate with F1 but this is not the reality for most of the people who work in the sport. Racing is actually only a small part of what we do. I travelled early on in my career so I do have some experience of what it’s like to be on the road.

Being on the race team is a very different existence to the rest of the factory but it is the very heart or epicentre of the racing team. Travelling with the team is a very dynamic, high paced and demanding lifestyle which many people thrive on but it’s not for everyone, and certainly not made up only of champagne parties and movie stars.

Off to join the circus

Travelling to Grand Prix and visiting different countries is the biggest single thing that attracts people to working in F1. The idea that you can get paid to go to a Grand Prix seems to good to be true. It is what I wanted to do before I started working and even though many people in the industry say that they have no interest in travelling, it’s likely that a great number of them wish that they could. It has a magnetic draw about it which few can deny.

The reality is that being on an F1 race team is hard work. You’ve got to really want to do it. I’ve said this already but it’s not how much work you have to do at the circuit but the work that comes from travelling that makes it tiring. There are 19 races in 2013 (there were meant to be 20) so nearly 1/3 of your weekends for the year will be at Grand Prix. The ‘weekend’ probably starts on a Wednesday and unless you are technical director or a similarly high ranking general you probably won’t get on one of the coveted Sunday evening flights home. You might make it back to the factory in Monday afternoon and then home that evening. The race weekend can often be nearer to being a week long. That is a lot of time that is not your own.

Which country are we in?

Airport-Hotel-Track-Hotel-Airport. It’s a routine that can start to dominate your existence. When you are on the race team you don’t need to do a great deal in order to get to the race circuit as you don’t need to make any of your own travel arrangements. The race team secretary will have done all of the hard work for you and you will have been provided with an itinerary which you may or may not have read. The only detail which is actually important is what time the minibus leaves the factory. As long as you make that then you’ll be herded along to the airport, put into a hire car and driven to your hotel. Its not uncommon to wake up in the morning and have no idea which country you are in. In fact, even when you get to the circuit, the inside of the garage looks almost the same as it does in any other country and you are surrounded by the same people. You don’t need to speak a foreign language and you don’t spend any currency so it doesn’t really matter where you are. Only the weather and the jet lag vary. Its no wonder that many people get disorientated.

Tourism time is limited but that’s not to say that you don’t see anything of the country you are in. You will probably get a few hours to get into the city or go and have a drink or two but that’s probably about it. Travelling to that many different countries, in some very different parts of the world will definitely give you a flavour of what these places are like and that is certainly more than any normal job would give you. One thing is certain, travelling with an F1 race team is never boring. Many people get fatigued over a number of seasons but none of them will ever regret the time that they spent with the F1 circus. You may not get to go to many champagne parties but if you are determined to get a job on an F1 race team then it is unlikely that you will regret the experience.

Keep in touch

If you are interested in a career in Formula 1 or want to learn more about how you can get involved, check out my FAQ’s or read through some of my other recent posts. Keep checking my blog for new articles or use the follow form on my home page to be kept up to date by email. I hope to shortly post a series of job role descriptions, detailing what the day to day duties of a designer, aerodynamicist, data engineer and many other people who make up an F1 team really are.

Alternatively you can follow me on Twitter @Work_in_F1.

What is an F1 engineer’s salary ?

We all know that F1 cars cost a lot of money and that many of the top F1 drivers live the playboy lifestyles of the rich and famous. How much does the average F1 engineer earn though ? Do many F1 designers have apartments in Monaco…?

Playboy Engineers

Engineering is not known for being a high paying career. Despite there being a real shortage of qualified engineers in many European countries, the industry average salary is relatively modest in comparison to many other professional sectors. Formula 1 is exceptional in many ways however and the competitiveness of the sport means that F1 engineer salaries are considerably higher than the industry norms. There is no doubt about it, you can earn a fortune in Formula 1.

So just how much can you earn as an F1 engineer ? Well, if your name happens to be Adrian Newey then you can command a multi-million dollar wage comparable or better than half the drivers on the grid. If you have another name then you could earn anywhere from Mr. Newey’s salary all the way back to the minimum wage… It’s all about your worth or value to the team.

Formula 1 is a capitalist driven business. The rewards for success are large but the penalties for failure are very harsh indeed. Salaries for engineers are very similar in that the very top engineers can earn telephone number wages but very junior employees may be paid quite poorly. There is no pay structure or prescribed pay scales in F1, every employee is paid whatever they are able to negotiate and in many cases there is a large difference in salary between 2 similar people doing a similar job. This puts many people off but I personally believe that this right for Formula 1 and is the way to get the best out of people. Some may disagree with that especially in times of austerity but as I said earlier, F1 is an exceptional business and exceptional people need to feel that they will be rewarded for going the extra mile.

Its important to understand that this isn’t about fairness or equality, nothing in F1 is about equality, but it is more about reflecting a person’s true worth to a team. If you are reading this blog you will probably know that getting started in an F1 career is very difficult because a great many people want to work in the sport and are willing to do so for little or no financial reward. Teams therefore have the luxury of being able to pick the best people and have little motivation to pay high salaries if they can easily replace them with another willing volunteer.

How much does a Junior engineer earn ?

In truth, starting salaries for graduates in F1 are actually pretty good and comparable with other engineering sectors. There is no pay structure in the majority of teams and as team policies vary it is difficult to put a single number to it but I would suggest that the average graduate engineer or one with only a year or so of work experience would earn somewhere between £20,000 and £30,000 depending on the position.

As your experience increases however, so does your value to the team and to prevent you leaving and taking what you have learnt to a competitor you will probably get a payrise. Junior engineers may earn up to £40,000 after a few years of work which is comparable to a manager’s salary in many other professional businesses. It is definately a case of working hard and being patient in the early years of your career even if you feel that initially you could earn more elsewhere. It’s a cliche but part of the reward of working in F1 is the involvement in the sport and enjoying what you do and so even if you don’t earn Newey money then there is still a lot to be taken from a career in F1. If you do it just for the money then it is unlikely that you will enjoy it or stick at it in the long term.

Salaries as you become more senior

As your career develops you should become increasingly valuable to your team. One of the great things about the pace of F1 is that you will be exposed to a vast amount more in your early years in comparison to ‘normal’ industries. You might work on brakes one week and then steering the next or develop front wings, floors and barge boards all in the same year. You might be the only person in the team with significant experience of some particular aspect of the car and so if you leave, the team stands to lose that knowledge and expertise. Suddenly, your negotiating position is a lot better…

Many senior engineers are on multi-year contracts with their teams in order to ensure that they do not leave and take valuable information with them. Salary ranges for these types of people range from £40,000 to as much as £80,000 depending on their particular expertise and experience. With such reward however you will need to take on increased responsibility and handle the pressure of expectation. Senior engineers are typically responsible for complex areas of the car such as chassis structure, suspension design or aerodynamic performance of the front or rear wing assemblies. Each F1 team may have around 20 senior engineers, depending on the size of the company, so it is a competitive level to be at.

Managerial and Chief Engineer positions

Beyond the realm of senior engineer, many people move towards managerial roles such as a department head or potentially chief designer or chief aerodynamicist. At this point there is certainly no form guide for salaries but six-figure retainers are quite common for these demanding roles. To reach this level you need to be a very capable individual who is able to stay on top of a number of different projects and issues under pressure. This is the big time of Formula 1 and many engineers in upper reaches of this catergory are now household names. The role of technical director is probably still the pinnacle of F1 engineering, taking overall responsibility for aerodynamics, track performance and car design. Salaries are seldom revealed but during Williams F1’s flotation on the stock market, the IPO prospectus showed that the then technical director Sam Michael’s income was £469,000 per annum. This is still likely to be short of salary of the technical directors of the bigger teams such as McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes but clearly it is still a substantial sum.

If you reach those heights in your career then you are probably talented and confident enough not to be reading this blog ! Good luck and think about the start I gave you! Remember that none of this is a promise or a guarantee. As with everything in motorsport, reward goes to those that work hard and commit to their goals. Working in F1 is not an easy path to riches and is not for people who expect a 9 to 5 lifestyle.

You can find out more about the various job roles in a typical Formula 1 team and how much you might earn in those role by going to the Job Roles section.

Keep in touch

If you are interested in a career in Formula 1 or want to learn more about how you can get involved, check out my FAQ’s or read through some of my other recent posts. Keep checking my blog for new articles or use the follow form on my home page to be kept up to date by email. I hope to shortly post a series of job role descriptions, detailing what the day to day duties of a designer, aerodynamicist, data engineer and many other people who make up an F1 team really are.

Alternatively you can follow me on Twitter @Work_in_F1.