5 things every aspiring Formula 1 engineer should know
With the goal to help the community of students, and aiming for a global reach, we share here some insights on the topic of finding a job in Formula 1. If you are an engineering student who wants to start a career in Formula 1, here are 5 things you should know.
1 - Hands-on skills are an invaluable asset
The role of an engineer has changed massively over the years. Think of the early days of automobiles and airplanes. These machines were built at times when knowledge on vehicle dynamics and aerodynamics was limited. Yet, cars and planes did exist. People building such land or air borne vehicles were talented engineers who were able apply theory and hand calculations to real, practical problems, and build said vehicles with their own hands.
Today, engineering principles are taught in universities globally, and we enjoy a number of computer aided resources to design and simulate the real world. And no, there is nothing wrong with that, as knowledge spreads farther and faster. However, we forget about building stuff with our very own hands.
For this reason, I recommend every student to get involved in the Formula Student team at their university, or simply start one if there is not one yet. In fact, as of 2020, I think FS (Formula SAE in the US) is not an option anymore, but a must.
FS is an amazing competition in which students design, build and race their own formula car, which must respect technical and sporting regulations, similar to Formula 1. This represents a challenge that forces students to reflect on learnings from lectures, and apply these learnings to solve real problems - problems that can be touched and fixed with their very own hands.
As you would expect taking part in FS is not an easy task, and long days and nights are not rare as participants must develop their car without forgetting coursework and exam commitments. But this is a necessary investment that will pay dividends in the future.
2 - Technical skills are important, but do not forget people skills
Some engineers are incredibly bright. There is no doubt that these engineers will develop skills that will be sought after by wealthy employers, will go on to build successful careers and work on some incredible projects.
One very important aspect everyone must remember, however, is that in spite of how brilliant you are, you will always work with other people. People with emotions, feelings, and their own personal problems.
In a world where you can rarely go alone to succeed, any jaw-dropping technical skill set or ability will be worth close to nothing to any employer if the person is not able to work collaboratively and as part of a team. This is particularly important in Formula 1, as engineers are required to work long hours in pressurised environments.
The very best engineers will realise that combining technical abilities with people skills that motivate and extract the best performance out of people - ability to build and maintain relationships, emotional intelligence, empathy - is a receipt for success. These people will go on to become Heads of Departments, Chief Designers, Technical Directors, and so on.
If you are an aspiring Formula 1 engineer serious about getting into the sport, my advice is that you should acknowledge that this is important and begin to expose yourself to team dynamics to experience working as port of a group in pressurised environments. Again, FS is a great resource to develop people skills.
Lack of people skills will make you fail in an interview. Therefore, people skills are as important as technical skills.
3 - Find your dream role within a F1 team, and be convincing
Formula 1 is competitive, and interview rounds are not an exception. I have already discussed that you must possess the right technical and people skills to be considered for an interview.
There is another aspect that be taken into consideration.
You are probably finishing your engineering degree, you are young and bright, but inexperienced too. And this inexperience, at times, can manifest in the form of hesitation towards the goals one would like to achieve. Sure, you want to work in Formula 1, but this is not good enough.
Let's say, you have applied for a Graduate Aerodynamics Engineer role within your dream F1 team, and you are called in for an interview. Some of the first questions you will be asked will be something like this:
a) Why Aerodynamics?
b) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
On question a), you have invested many years of your life to develop in this field and you might already have some kind of answer. But remember, this is a Formula 1 team. You must give a convincing answer for that specific role. Regarding question b), here the interviewer wants to understand your long term goals and development ambitions. Will you perform at your best during in the long run? Will you be loyal to the team for many years to come? Are you committed to improving the team (remember technical and people skills) to guarantee they succeed? How?
These questions may seem simple to answer for someone passionate about F1, but interviewers come across thousands of applicants that are extremely passionate and do not make it because candidates fail to provide the objective answers. You must differentiate from the rest.
In order to give convincing answers to these questions, you must understand and feel that this role is for you, you are 100% sure of this, and you have a story, and a long term development vision that involves that specific job position in order to succeed. And this story must fit within the interests of the team you are applying for.
How can you be so sure of something you have never done before?
You would never say you love parachuting if you have never practiced it, right? No, you would not. So how can you be convincing in answering you want to work in Aerodynamics for the next 5 years?
There are techniques for this. I recommend becoming familiar with the concept of Meaningful Learning Cycle. The cycle consists of a number of steps which are curiosity, triggered by an external motivation, exploration, experience, learning and satisfaction. Passion is the ingredient that will make sure you go through the cycle full of energy even if you fail or encounter obstacles on the way. I will not go deeper on this, but I have linked this article that will help you understand the concept and increase your chances of success. By the way, this technique works for anything in life.
Once more, FS is the perfect forum to go through this cycle.
4- Understand how a Formula 1 team works
Following the topic of being convincing discussed in point 3, you should not only be aware of your own ambitions, but also the ambitions of the team, globally - likely to be to win championships, and locally - for each department. What I call global ambitions are public, and are easy to find doing some online research, reading articles and interviews. However, local ambitions are trickier, and first you must understand how a Formula 1 team functions.
F1 teams are seamless machines that never stop and must produce quality outcomes (think about outcomes from projects related to CFD, WT testing, Composite materials engineering, FEA structural analysis, R&D and verification tests, etc) and employees are the important pieces - organised by departments, that make these machines function seamlessly.
You must differentiate yourself from other candidates. Therefore, understanding what are the departments, roles in a team, as well as the challenges they face and their ambitions, will set you a part from the rest.
Let's take the case of Aerodynamics department. Aero is one of the biggest departments in a F1 team. The main reason is Aero is the largest contributor to lap time performance, therefore it enjoys of plenty of resources in terms of both people (engineers, technicians) and toys for engineers (wind tunnel, simulation softwares, quick turnaround manufacturing facilities). The role of an Aero department is to provide aerodynamic performance, which is tracked by the number of "aerodynamics points" - a dimensionless metric used to track aero performance - that it adds after each wind tunnel session (cyclic).
You can derive two important factors: Aero must produce 1) results in form of aerodynamic points, in 2) a limited time cycle.
My advice here is, treat 1) and 2) as two separate work streams. Do your own research, talk to experienced F1 engineers and try to understand what can be done to tackle the challenges presented by problem 1) and by problem 2). Once you have put some bits of information on paper for both 1) and 2), combine them together and see what is the interaction between them. Do your own analysis, think about improvement opportunities and creative ways to tackle these.
Notice, 1) refers to technical aspects, whereas 2) refers to operational aspects. They are all important and relevant for any Aero F1 engineer, in any F1 team.
This exercise must be done for the role you are applying for. I have illustrated it for the case of a Graduate Aerodynamics Engineer, but also applies to a Graduate Composite Engineer, or any other role.
5 - Education remains a critical factor to make it to F1
Only the best make it to Formula 1. What best means for this particular case I can cover in a separate article, but you can get a sense of the meaning if you have made it thus far.
What is clear is that education play an important role in preparing people for any job, and this is relevant for F1 too. However, here is my cents on education and getting a job in Formula 1.
There are always exceptions, but F1 teams normally recruit from UK, German, and Italian universities that are considered target. By target, I mean universities that have a long track record at producing students who are good at solving challenges that F1 teams face. If you are a student from one of this universities, you are on the right path.
However, if you are studying in a different part of the world, it is likely that you will need to complement your Bachelors degree with a specialist MSc (or PhD if you wish to continue on the research side) from a UK, German, or Italian institution. From my experience, ideally you should look at the UK simply because there are more F1 teams there, a bigger network, and naturally more chances.
Unfortunately, the cost of education in the UK sky rocketed during the last decade. The best MSc's, from unis like Cranfield or Oxford Brookes, will give you with access to F1 recruiters, but you must be prepared to commit to an investment north of €25k (tuition fees plus cost of living) for 1 single year. This can be a hard stop to many talented people.
There is also another dimension to the problem. Which is that, although these institutions do have a track record in preparing international students for F1 jobs, professors with real, hands-on experience in the industry are scarce, or inexistent. The majority of them have a brilliant academic record, but there is a clear experience gap. On top of that, I hear cohort sizes have been increasing considerably in recent years, which can jeopardise the quality of the education students receive.
The two problems combined - the increased financial pressure imposed on students and an education structure that can present some weaknesses - result in a reduction of the quality of the talent pool available, less people with the right skills to successfully satisfy the needs of Formula 1 teams - and having worked for Mercedes AMG F1 for almost 8 years, I know this is a real problem.
Here to fill the gap
With the aim to fill this gap and improve the supply of talent to Formula 1 and the wider motorsports industry, I have launched the Motorsport Academy, within the wider project of The Motorsport Engineers Network, a private community of F1 engineers.
The Motorsport Academy is the online educational platform filled with motorsport engineering courses, provided by instructors with hands-on, real experience working in Formula 1 teams and other top motorsports categories.
The platform is aimed at those students looking for specialist education at par with UK institutions when it comes to opportunities and chances of success, but without the financial resources to spend a year studying in the UK. It is also a good resource for students who are unsure about pursuing a career in motorsports, and need a final push to be convinced.
There are already 3 courses available, one which is free of cost and two that will cover general aspects of a Formula 1 team and race car aerodynamic concepts respectively.
I am interested!
If you are interested, I invite to first enrol in our free course. If you have any questions, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message below and we will get back to you as soon as I can.
We have every resource necessary to provide access to education for every person on the planet; we just need to commit to enabling it.