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 the Formula 1 mindset?

Am I a Formula 1 person?
All kinds of people work in Formula 1. Some have degrees and PhD’s, others can’t even add up or spell. It takes all sorts but one thing you’ll see in almost every Formula 1 employee is a racer’s mindset.

Trying to define the racer’s mindset is difficult but it is fundamental to any discussion on working in F1. What sets Formula 1 and motorsport apart from ‘normal’ industries is not the technology, or the money, or the glitz and glamour. What sets motor racing apart is the work ethic and the competitive motivation that runs through its employees. To get a job in F1 you need to understand what this mindset is and be able to convince your potential employer that you have the work ethic they need.

A race against time
Imagine the scene, it is Saturday morning and you are 40mins into FP3 (the final free practice session before qualifying begins). The live TV feed on the monitors cuts abruptly to show a cloud of dust and bits of carbon fibre bodywork scattered through a gravel trap. Even before the dust clears the team manager comes on the radio to confirm that your lead driver has crashed heavily into a tyre wall and the car looks to be badly damaged. Qualifying is less than 2 hours away and missing Q1 means that you’ll start at the back of the grid(or not at all), a disaster for the championship. The car has got to be repaired and back out no matter what. Your call to action.

It’s a familiar story in racing and to the casual TV viewer the repaired car normally appears clean and polished for qualifying as if nothing had happened. Easy eh? Wrong, it’s far from easy, and it’s situations such as this when the Formula 1 mindset is most evident. What goes on inside those pit garages during times like these is truly, truly impressive teamwork.

Earning your money
The mechanics were probably up late last night building the very same car after numerous last minute setup and aero changes. They’ve been at the circuit since 7am and had too much to do to stop for breakfast. Their driver’s latest mistake has just written off any chance of a lunch break and they are faced with a massive task to get that car rebuilt and turned around reliably for qualifying. They can’t afford to leave a nut untorqued or an electrical connector loose just because they are under pressure. You cannot complain at this point as the job just needs doing. In any normal industry people would complain about being over worked and underpaid. In F1 the only thing on your mind should be the disaster that not making qualifying would mean for your championship chances. Even if your team only ever expected to qualify at the back of the grid, you’ve still got to want to get the car back out and everyone is relying on you to make the difference.

This is why it is so difficult to break into motorsport
If you are a team owner or team manager you need people of this mindset and calibre in your racing team. When the pressure is on, either at the racetrack or at the factory, nobody cares how many PhD’s or degrees you have as the people who make the difference are the people who are self motivated and determined to get the job done properly. F1 teams generally employ people who have already worked within the industry because they know that they will understand the pressures that the job entails and if they have survived for any period of time in another racing environment then they probably have what it takes to do the job. Taking on a newcomer has massive risks even if they are well qualified from school or college. You might be smart but how do I know that you won’t pack up your things and go home at 5pm when the car is still only half built? To be successful in racing you need to be someone that others can rely on and to get a reputation for that. This is why getting that first job in racing is so difficult but so critical. To break through this barrier you need to convince your potential employer that you have a Formula 1 type mindset but there are no universities which offer courses in this !

karting experience
Photo Credit: gatogrunge via Compfight cc

How can I prove myself ?
I’m probably not the only person who has told you this but the number one way of proving to a Formula 1 team that you are the right calibre of person is to get involved in racing. It doesn’t really matter what level that racing is, be it karting or GP2 even, but the experience and learning you get from actually being at a racetrack and feeling the pressure of time and results is something that no college book or school lecture can teach you. Just taking that extra step away from your standard education at school or college will set you apart from the vast majority of the people who you’ll be competing with to get a job in F1. I can’t emphasise this point enough. I found that being at a real racetrack and experiencing the adrenaline of the competition only increased my determination to reach my goals and work in F1. You will learn so much about the what motorsport is really like, something that watching on television or reading online can never teach you.

How can I get involved?
This subject is big enough and important enough that I need to split it in two. My next post will outline the best and most accessible ways of getting involved in racing before you try to get a job in F1.

Feel free to comment on what I’ve talked about here either on this blog or via my Facebook page.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of F1 testing.

To work in F1, you only need listen to one person

A lot of people wonder and a lot of people dream. Surprisingly few people actually do. One of the reasons I started this blog was because I heard far more people talking about why they couldn’t get a job in Formula 1, rather than why they could. The list of reasons given as to ‘why not’ is long and is spread around like something of an urban myth. I read posts and articles from ‘experts’ most of whom have never spent a single day working in motorsport so how would they ever know? The good news is you don’t need to listen to them!

Why not?

Quite frankly it annoys me to read this stuff. I get irritated when I hear people saying “I would love to work in racing but you need to be rich”, or “I would love to work in racing but you have to have a degree”. The list goes on. It’s all nonsense. The people who told them that don’t work in racing. People in racing know that all sorts of people work in the industry and the only thing that stops you getting the job of your dreams is if you give up. Most people give up far too easily and normally after reading or listening to someone who knows less about it than they do!

I wanted to put that right, and put out some advice and encouragement to those people who love motor racing and want to make their living by getting involved. If that’s what you want to do then the opportunities are out there but you need to keep a clear focus and not be put off by every little setback. As the phrase goes “Anything in life worth having is worth working for”.

Tell that to a 10yr old

I decided I wanted to work in F1 when I was 10. I’d never thought about it before but my class teacher was an F1 addict and asked us every Monday morning if we knew who the top 6 finishers of the weekend’s Grand Prix were. I watched the TV to find out and the bug bit me! I decided then what I wanted to do with my life and I’ve never changed my mind since. I’m now 47 and it was the best decision I’ve ever made…

Plenty of people tried to put me off. My parents knew nothing about racing and wanted me to be an accountant or a teacher. Nothing wrong with that but it’s not what I wanted to do. My brother told me that it was far too specialised and I would never get the chance. My teachers either said I wasn’t clever enough and I would need all sorts of qualifications or asked me why I wanted to work in a garage when I could be an accountant… I didn’t listen to any of them because I knew what I wanted and I immersed myself in everything Formula 1 at every opportunity. Even when I applied for job I got plenty of knock backs but eventually my CV and my personality clicked with someone and I got my chance. I kept my first acceptance letter but I also kept the 2 reject letters I had from the same team a year earlier. They are written by the same person!

Setbacks are not permanent

It’s just a reminder that there will be plenty of setbacks and negativity along the way but if you stick to your dreams and learn everything you can your chance will come and you’ll be better prepared than the next guy/girl.

The Formula 1 business is now a big industry and opportunities are far more plentiful now than when I started working. Read my post on opportunities in motorsport to get an idea of just how many ways there are to start your racing career.

See you on the grid someday.

Thousands of people work in F1, there is room for one more !

Adrian Newey and Christian Horner of Red Bull Racing are 2 of the most famous people in Formula 1 at the moment.  Adrian Newey’s cars have won an incredible 9 constructor’s world championships and his fame and success is arguably as great as any of the current crop of F1 drivers.  Christian Horner is a relative newcomer to Formula 1 but has quickly established himself as a formidable team principle.

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These 2 are at the pinnacle of their professions but they are only the figureheads for a large number of unseen team members that work tirelessly behind the scene.  Employee numbers are a closely guarded secret but it would be safe to estimate that majority of front running and midfield teams are likely to have in excess of 500 employees each.  That’s roughly 6000 jobs in the racing teams alone.  The larger teams such as Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull have many more than that in their subsiduary companies (Red Bull Technology, McLaren Applied Technologies etc), and that does not even begin to count those people working on the engine programs.  As we work towards a major change in the engine regulations, there is a huge recruitment drive in this area.

In short, the industry behind Formula 1 racing is huge and many thousands of people make their livings from it.  When you widen the circle to other racing series and the service and supplier networks that surround the teams themselves then it is estimated that over 50,000 people are employed in motorsport related jobs in the UK alone.

For someone wanting to get into motorsport or work in Formula 1 that should be great news !  The more jobs there are, the more opportunities there will be.  In theory you are much more likely to have a career in Formula 1 today than you were 20 or 30 years ago.  Having said that, the global popularity of Grand Prix racing means that many more people want to follow in Adrian Newey or Christian Horner’s footsteps and so competition is higher than ever.

The right attitude, focus, experience and qualifications and a little insider help (thats where I come in!) will help lift you above 99% of the competition and make you the person that the teams want to join them.  Fantastic opportunities exist for school leavers, graduates, career changers or anyone else who wishes to earn a living working in one of the most exciting global sports in the world today.  This blog will hopefully help guide you towards that goal and see you working alongside the likes of Adrian Newey and Christian Horner sooner than you think.