F1 Testimonial #1: Paul Fitzgerald, former Mercedes AMG F1 Engineer
Paul shares how he managed to get a graduate position at MAMG F1 without Formula Student experience, and a few insights from his experience at both Mercedes F1 companies - Chassis (Brackley) and Power Unit, aka HPP (Brixworth).
The path to a career in Formula 1is different for every person. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer on how each person can go about it, but hopefully an insight into my path helps.
My journey is one of the less normal approaches and it’s something that I’m happy to share. On top of this I will give a bit of an insight to the different areas I worked in, with the main focus on Aerodynamics.
The best point to start is my university degree. I had always wanted to be an engineer (Formula 1 engineer to be precise) from a young age, and I followed that path in University by studying Mechanical and Manufacturing engineering at Dublin City University. In my final year I began to apply to a number of Formula 1 Team’s graduate programs, including a new team to the grid – Mercedes GP (formerly Brawn GP).
I managed to get an interview and start the program all within the space of 3 weeks. I need to note now that I think I was one of the only people in the interviews that didn’t take part in Formula Student – I have no doubts that it helps to get you into the industry, but it is not the number one driver (pun intended). I moved from Ireland to a small town called Brackley in the midlands of the UK.
Why I was given the chance
I believe the reason I got offered the place on the program was down to 3 key points:
My background was different – I was incredibly lucky that my degree had a specialism in Manufacturing, and Mercedes were looking for an engineer to work with their manufacturing department.
I prepared – I spent several days doing my research and to be able to discuss interesting topics that were challenging Formula 1, especially around Manufacturing.
I was honest – I didn’t go into the interview pretending I knew everything about engineering and the sport. I was confident but didn’t push to the point of being arrogant. Most teams want to see intelligent young engineers with a passion for the sport and that are easy to get along with.
My first years at Mercedes AMG F1
My experience in the sport was excellent. I knew going into the graduate role, that manufacturing was at the bottom of my list in terms of career paths I wanted to follow. I felt that accepting the role, I could then push to move to other departments in the future. I was correct.
For me, like a lot of other budding engineers in the sport, I wanted to work on the race team. I worked in my normal Manufacturing role, altering designs to ensure parts could be manufactured as well as working with our manufacturing department to create processes and procedures to help speed up manufacturing time - Every second counts on and off the track!
Over the space of the 18 months that I was on the program, I managed to move from Manufacturing to R&D design and I also got to work with the race team as part of the factory based performance engineering team.
R&D design is more a role of testing parts than research. It comprises of designing rigs and assemblies that will give as close to real life forces, wear and tear on the car parts. On top of this work, I got to work with the drivers and the race team each race weekend – this was through pestering (nicely) a few members of the race team until they let me in! Some of the tasks were as monotonous as transcribing what the drivers were saying while on the circuit, in case the Engineers missed it, to more interesting work like comparing racing lines of each driver and compiling information to send directly to the drivers. Thankfully I believe the transcribing is dead and a software does it automatically now! It’s a fantastic area to work in, but you won’t really see the race at all since you’re so busy during it!
Working with the race team is one of the highlights of my career, but I began to realise that the work level required was extremely high. Even though I enjoyed the role, there was little balance in terms of having a life outside of work. So I began to move away from the idea that it was somewhere I wanted to pursue my career in. I made a decision at that point in about 2012 to focus on being a design engineer.
Moving to Mercedes HPP
Due to a now dead rule called the Resource Restriction Agreement (RRA), that put a cap on head count in each team, I wasn’t able to get a full time position in the Brackley chassis team. I had made contact with the Aerodynamics department that I was really interested in focusing on being an Aerodynamics Design Engineer, but was told they were at capacity, but would give me a call if the RRA was dropped.
Through some networking, I managed to get a roll as a contract designer with Mercedes High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, working on the new Power Unit for the 2014 season. I worked with HPP for about a year, developing charging units for the batteries, testing units for the electric motors and supporting the design team with development parts. Luckily, in this time, the RRA was scrapped. I got a call from Mercedes Aerodynamics and was offered a job.
Working in the Aero department at Mercedes AMG F1
As I worked in Aero for the longest part of my career and over the most dominant years a team has ever experienced in the sport, I thought an insight into the development program would be interesting.
You may think (like I did before entering the sport) that the aerodynamic development of an F1 car is an exact science, with little waste of parts and a high return on ideas. While this can be the case sometimes, it’s not always that way.
The Wind Tunnel model
The wind tunnel model is a different beast to the actual racing car. For one it is a 60% scale model, with a huge amount of rapid prototype (3D printing) plastics. The core of the model is a large steel and aluminium frame, which is a big difference to the carbon monocoque in (what the aero department call) the full size car.
Wind tunnel testing of the full size car is no longer allowed in the regulations, so teams run a scale model (max size allowed is 60%). Here's a brief video with some more detail from the previous Head of Aerodynamics (now Technical Director) Mike Elliott:
The Aero development cycle
A standard wind tunnel development session will involve multiple designers and aerodynamicists developing hundreds of parts. Every 4 weeks or so, the cycle begins again developing hundreds more parts. Believe it or not, from these hundreds of parts, only a handful may remain on the car. This is due to the complex nature of these cars, a small change in one area of the car can change a development direction completely.
Component legality is one of the driving parameters in the field of Aerodynamic Design
The detail and effort required for developing parts is monumental. Designers will work with the aerodynamicists to create the desired shape of the parts required. The CAD representation of the desired shape will initially only be an infinitely thin "skin" representation of the part known as a surface. These parts need to be legal, the legality is outlined in the technical regulations that is posted annually. The legality of the part is one of the toughest areas to master and design around, it will determine how a part is modelled in CAD and ultimately it is the driving force for the shapes created.
Once the surfaces are modelled, they will be sent to CFD to determine if they behave as expected. There could be days of work left in this to tweak the surface to get the desired results. We could end up with 5 or more "options" of these parts, these options all may look promising in CFD, but due to the limited modelling available these parts need to be proven in the wind tunnel.
As soon as the aerodynamicist gives the go ahead, the designer will jump back into the picture and turn the surface into a part. Depending on the structural requirements, the designer will determine the materials, how its connected to the car, and so on. Dealing with 60% scale parts is a different and extremely challenging role versus the parts on the full size car. Space for fixing the parts to the model is reduced, turnaround time for parts is 4 weeks from concept to on the model, multiple concepts will be run - will they all be easy and quick to change? Will they require changes to other parts to fit? These are just a small sample of the many challenges a designer faces before even looking at down force and resonance loads.
The designer will work closely with the production team in planning out sessions to ensure parts are delivered on time. Once parts have been manufactured, a huge amount of work is still to be carried out. The model tech team work on shifts to process parts. They will ensure the surface of the parts are flawless and painted, fixings are added to the parts, they check fit on the model and help in designing change plans for each session.
The complexity of the parts of a Formula One car are rarely appreciated
A lot of people see all the cars as the same. Looking at the photo below of the 2018 Mercedes (W09), if you think of each individual part as being developed separately, you can get a feel for how complex a aero development program is:
Once the parts go on the model for wind tunnel testing. The wind tunnel will be used for a few days, with a program in place to test specific areas of the car. This session is led by the aerodynamicist, with extensive support from the design engineers, to make sure the session runs as smoothly as possible.
Only a few parts may produce the exact results that were hoped for. These parts will be a compass to lead the direction of the next wind tunnel session. Then the cycle begins again...
Hopefully all this is has been a helpful insight into a few areas around the sport, and could be a great way to try an tailor your approach to getting into the sport by seeing where my skills got my “foot in the door” so that I could move to areas I wanted to work in the most.