My Work in Motorsport blog is a collection of tips and advice for people who want to get a job in Formula 1 or other motorsports. I have worked in motor racing for almost my whole career and want to help other people onto the ladder.
In this post I talk about one of the most popular and envied jobs in motorsport, the race engineer.
Photo Credit: Mark Gilmour via Compfight cc
A race engineer is effectively the racing driver’s right hand man, the person he relies upon to setup the car and give him the information he needs to perform at his best. Television coverage of Formula 1 in recent years has begun to broadcast the pit to car radio transmissions and the voice of the race engineer can often be heard passing information to the drivers, answering their questions or telling them to hurry up.
The race engineer has a very involved role at race weekends as he will organise how the car is run, what the setup is, how much fuel is put, what tyres are put on and what tests are carried out. Much of this will have been pre-planned during the pre-briefings with the driver, and before than during preparation at the factory. In fact the race engineer’s preparation for the race weekend will begin immediately following the previous race or test.
After each race the engineer and driver will sit down and go through a debrief where the performance of the car are discussed corner by corner and stage by stage during the race. This feedback is critical for the rest of the design and vehicle dynamics team back at base as it allows them to go away and try to come up with solutions to the car’s handling or reliability. Likewise, when at the factory the design team will brief the race engineer on new development or changes to the car specification which he will then incorporate into his run plan and pass onto the driver. The race engineer is the primary link between his driver and the rest of the team and therefore must be a very organised and effective communicator.
The engineer will probably carry out lap simulations to optimise gear ratios and wing levels, generating data on the effect on lap time of more or less downforce and the effect on top speed and fuel consumption. He may also oversee a simulator session with the race driver, going through possible setups and predicting the benefit of aerodynamic changes. The race engineer must understand all aspects of the systems on the car in order to make the most of the performance they have to offer. They do not need to understand the very fine detail of the theoretical aerodynamics or design but must understand how to get the best from it and what it can do for them and the driver.
With all of this preparation in hand, the engineers typically travel to the circuit on the Wednesday prior to the race weekend where they will oversee the final build of the car and meet up with the rest of the mechanics and race team. A track walk has now become a critical part of the weekend and an ideal opportunity to discuss the circuit corner by corner with the driver. The engineer will often photograph the kerbs and tarmac quality and compare to notes from last year and anticipate any effect of alterations to the layout on laptime and setup.
The practice sessions are planned in minute detail, each run being a precise number of laps and having a distinct purpose. Even the out and in laps are utilised fully with practice starts, constant speed aeropasses and engine mixture sweeps being carried out as the car comes round to start its first timed lap. The opening practice session is effectively an information gathering exercise on engine, brake and gearbox temperatures, tyre life and performance and verifying the choices that he made during the preparation in the factory. This information then goes forward to prepare for the second practice session, then again to the third before the final choices are made for qualifying and the race.
The huge amount of data generated by the car’s telemetry means that each race engineer now has a dedicated data engineer to analyse and summarise the car’s important parameters for him. This role is considered an apprenticeship for the race engineer as it allows him to understand the car’s detailed behaviour whilst observing the senior engineer and how he operates. Formula 1 race engineers are generally either vehicle dynamicists from within the team or engineers who have extensive experience in lower formulas. It is certainly not a job that you can jump straight into but it is perfectly possible for someone with only 3-4 years of work experience in Formula 1 to become a race engineer. The very close personal relationship between driver and race engineer means that engineers often change teams at the same time as the drivers as they form part of their trusted inner circle and can command very lucrative salary deals as a result.
In terms of pressure the race engineers job is very, very demanding but is about as close as you can get to the driver’s seat without actually wearing the crash helmet yourself. They are typically very competitive individuals who live and breathe racing and put in very long hours at the race track and at the factory. The race engineer is often the public face of the team as they appear on television alongside the driver during practice and racing. Many engineers are now well known names and faces amongst the regular fans and some are even known to have their own publicists !
If you want to experience the glamour and excitement of racing close up then race engineer is the ultimate position. The typical route is likely to be a vehicle dynamics position within the team then graduating to data engineer and ultimately to race engineer. The alternative is to get first hand experience of race engineering in lower formulas, which is surprisingly easy to get. Most junior race teams are in desperate need of extra pairs of hands and if you are quick to learn then you can offer your services as a data analyst and quickly build up experience of setup techniques and mechanical changes. The range of adjustments available in the lower formulas is in fact very similar to those in Formula 1 and so expertise is readily transferable should you get the opportunity to move up. I know of several people who volunteered to ‘make the tea’ at sportscar teams one year and found themselves race engineering at the Le Mans 24hrs race the following season. There is no substitute for jumping in at the deep and getting involved so don’t be disheartened. Something that can seem a very long way away today may come around very quickly with just a few steps in the right direction.
Keep coming back to this blog as I get into more detail about how to make inital approaches to F1 teams and how to build up relationships and contacts that will get you that first crucial job in motorsport. The racing industry, like any other, works on trust and knowing which courses, qualifications and experiences junior jobs are likely to gain the respect of team members is critical to making that first breakthrough. I hope to go through all of the available routes and options open to you in order to make yourself a credible prospect for a job in motorsport. Its easier than you think when you know how.
Good luck and keep an eye out for all of the new season’s cars coming out over the next few days. You could be designing or building part of those same cars in the very near future so please let me know what you want to know or give me some feedback by commenting and following my blog.