MAY 8, 2001
Desperately seeking the next generation of F1 engineers
THE UK motor racing industry is pretty strong when it comes to nurturing new driving talent, but when the plans were recently mooted to develop Silverstone into a unique center for the British motor racing training and development as one element of its long-term expansion as a world-class F1 venue, it was immediately identified that developing new driving talent was only part of the equation.
In fact, it almost seems as though developing the driver talent is the easy bit. Not surprising, really. It's high profile, prestigious stuff and every young kid who's tried his hand at racing a kart wants to make the sport his career. Equally challenging, however, is the need to ensure that the next generation of F1 engineers get the necessary breaks to give them access to the big time.
Look in the advertisements at the back of AUTOSPORT each week and you'll usually see a wide selection of posts on offer, both in F1 and with teams involved in other areas of international motor racing. But just how to do the established senior engineers go about selecting the youngsters who are most likely to last the course?
Mike Gascoyne, technical director of the Benetton Renault Sport team, explains that most F1 teams are plugged in to systems which enable them to monitor the emergence of young engineering graduates with the right qualities to succeed in the high pressure motorsporting environment.
"When I was at Jordan before I came to Benetton, we initiated what's called the Formula Student program whereby students at Cambridge University, Southampton University and Imperial College all selected their most promising engineers to build a racing car," he explained.
"That proved a great success. Here at Benetton we also have direct links to specific universities, so there is a pretty focused filtering system which enables us to keep an eye on the possibilities for recruiting future talent."
However, like Patrick Head at BMW Williams, Gascoyne admits that there are other qualities which he looks for in fledgling engineers, apart from their academic qualifications.
"We need them to show potential leadership qualities, including initiative and resourcefulness," he admits. "They've also got to be fairly robust characters if they want to subject themselves to the fortnightly schedule of the F1 calendar in particular. I don't really think this is a business for shrinking violets."
Patrick added; "I always look to see what they do in their spare time. If they are imaginative, self-starters who've had the initiative to do something out of the ordinary, they're probably more likely to have the qualities required than somebody, say, who collects stamps.
"But there is really no substitute for determination and the ability to plug away and keep applying for positions, no matter how many times you may find yourself turned down. You've got to have the talent, but also the self-belief."
Interestingly, when the McLaren team advertises for young engineers, you will as likely find those advertisements appearing in the classified columns of FLIGHT magazine as in the back of AUTOSPORT.
That comes as no surprise when you consider that McLaren's Managing Director Martin Whitmarsh grew up, in his own words, as a "plane nut" and held a senior engineering position with British Aerospace.
Rightly, Whitmarsh sees dramatic parallels between the aviation and Formula 1 racing industries. "The processes, the batch sizes, the ultimate pursuit of weight reduction and aerodynamic performance are all very comparable," he says.
"I grew up as an aircraft enthusiast, but composite materials was the subject of my final year thesis at University just at the time that carbon-fibre composites were being started to look at in F1"
Whitmarsh notes with a sense of amused irony that there was a view in aerospace circles "that F1 trailed the aviation industry in the use of composite materials, although during the 1980s it progressively picked up the pace to a much larger extent than the plane makers."
Moving from a division of the aviation industry where he had the responsibility of needing to generate around $375,000 per day of company income, to F1's culture of "we'll spend whatever it takes to succeed" was a not unpleasant transition for Martin.
He admits that it took a short time to make the transition from the aviation business, quickly falling into the frenetic and intense tempo of life in a top F1 team.
"Formula 1 cars always tend to be born in a lather of sweat in the early hours of the morning," he smiles. "The whole business produces such a contagious atmosphere that you quickly become embroiled in the racer's approach to it all."
And there, in a nutshell, you have it. If you're going to be a real success in the motorsports industry, you can have all the talent and qualifications imaginable. But also need a relentless fighting spirit, determination to overcome any setback and the sheer willingness to work round the clock whenever necessary if you're going to make your mark on this industry. Good luck!
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