Features - Technical
SEPTEMBER 2, 1997
How to become an Formula 1 Designer/Engineer
BY PETER WRIGHT
Of the many millions of people around the world who follow Formula 1 motor racing, a tiny percentage are sufficiently inspired by it to pursue their technical interests into a career in the engineering side.
How does a young, technically orientated boy or girl, inspired by the sound of a high revving racing engine, or by the artistry of Schumacher controlling a wayward Ferrari, go about reaching the peak of motor racing design or engineering - Formula 1? What sort of education and experience is needed to get on to the first rung of the ladder? What specialisation's are most sought after? How did those who are now at the peaks of their careers start? The answer to the last question does not provide much direct guidance:
Patrick Head (Williams) joined the British Navy.
Gordon Murray (Brabham and McLaren) designed machines for making plastic containers.
Rory Byrne (Benetton and Ferrari) was an industrial chemist.
Eric Broadley (Lola) was in the building trade.
Gary Anderson (Jordan) was a mechanic.
Nigel Bennett (Penske) was studying to become an architect.
But, all of them designed, built, tuned and raced specials in their spare time. Their day jobs funded their hobbies until this passion for racing cars took over and launched them upwards towards Formula 1 and Indy cars.
In the days when these men started in racing, it was still possible for one person to understand, and hence design, a Formula 1 car or engine. He could take any part of the vehicle, look at it and understand how it worked - or did not work. Keith Duckworth designed the Cosworth DFV, the most successful Grand Prix engine ever, virtually single handed. Today it takes a team of designers and engineers to create the technical "tour de force" that is a modern Formula 1 car. No single person can possibly understand all of it - aerodynamics, composites, electronics, control systems, materials, combustion, lubrication, transmissions etc. Specialists engineers research and develop each aspect and multi-discipline designers create the whole. The Chief Designer's or Chief Engineer's job is to guide and co-ordinate this team of experts towards realising a carefully optimised concept. He must be able to discuss details with the CFD or FEA specialist, and be able to interpret the mass of data from the car and engine. Most of all he must take all the inputs and information and make critical decisions, i.e. he must direct and manage the whole technical side of the business.
The leading Formula 1 teams have expanded their design, engineering and R&D departments in the last decade, as the requirements have expanded and large budgets have been acquired to finance them. They may be as large as 100 persons, covering all aspects of engineering:
Designer - Mechanical - Engine
- Chassis and suspension
R&D Engineer - Aerodynamics - Wind tunnel
- Vehicle dynamics
- Control systems
- Data systems and analysis
- Testing and test rigs
Production Engineer - Machine shop
- Quality control
It is not just the teams that employ large engineering departments. Engine manufacturers, tyre companies, fuel and lubricant companies, the FOCA TV organisation, TAG-Heuer, and all the specialist components suppliers such as carbon brakes, clutches, electronics, data systems etc have significant motorsport departments to support Formula 1 and the other major series.
With such a large and diverse set of technical disciplines involved in all forms of motor racing, it is difficult to generalise about what educational path an aspirant should follow in order to best prepare him/herself for a career in top level motorsport.
The personal attributes needed by an aspiring Formula One designer or engineer are:
Ability to work hard consistently
They cannot all be gained by education. However, the wrong education can negatively impact any one of these characteristics, reducing the natural level possessed by an individual.
With technical knowledge increasing almost exponentially, much of education is tending to concentrate on the gaining of knowledge at the expense of understanding. A recent survey of undergraduates entering British universities set a fairly simple trigonometry problem for them to solve. More than two thirds of them were unable to calculate the correct answer as they did not know the formula, and were not equipped with the understanding of trigonometry to enable them to work it out from first principles. We are flooded with information and facts via books, multi-media and the Internet. It is important to know how to find and interpret these facts, but it is not so essential to remember them as it is to understand them and their limitations. All too often the CV's of job applicants list all the CAD and CAE software that the person knows how to use, but this merely tells the interviewer how many courses they have been on. Details of software written by the applicant would tell much more about their understanding of the subject involved. Of course, just as a draughtsman used to have to know how to use drawing instruments and how to dimension and tolerance a component, the designer of today must be conversant with CAD and CAE. However they too are just drawing instruments, in the wrong hands they will generate bad designs. A good designer, who has never used CAD, is better than a bad one who knows all the CAD systems. Converting a good designer to CAD is a matter of attending an appropriate course, and practice. Converting a bad designer into a good one is probably impossible.
For this reason it is not really important which technical subjects are studied at school and university, as a person who has a good understanding of the basic technical subjects i.e. maths, physics and chemistry, will be able to learn the essentials of a particular specialist subject and apply his or her fundamental ability to understand a wide range of topics. Rory Byrne did not learn much about aerodynamics or suspension design while studying chemistry, but this did not stop him becoming one of the designers with the best understanding of what makes a Formula 1 car fast.
There are not many science or engineering subjects that are not relevant to motor racing, one way or another. Even biology can lead to sports medicine or human factors research. At the moment, atomic physics and cosmic science are not involved, but you never knowÉ
The quality of a degree or other qualification is important. The institution where studies take place should have a long term reputation for producing quality engineers and scientists. The qualification standards achieved will reflect the effort and dedication of the student. Since the mid-1980's Williams have been employing designers and engineers with good degrees. It is with this sound raw material that they have built up the top technical organisation in Formula One and the quality of their cars reflect this.
The first language of motor racing is English. This does not mean that in order to work in a team such as Ferrari it is not beneficial to be able to speak Italian. However, in any discussion or meeting between people from a number of different countries the language used will inevitably be English, and any participant not able to follow the discussion will be at a serious disadvantage. Conference proceedings and technical papers on motor sport topics are normally published in English. Anyone intending a career in motor sport must have a reasonable command of English, especially technical English, in order to be able to integrate with other people in the teams he works for. Some European countries, with a minority language such as Dutch, educate their children from a young age in a number of languages. The result of this education is that they are able to find work almost anywhere in the world.
When it comes to seeking someone for a particular specialist post, applicants with either a Masters Degree - which does reflect understanding and innovative thinking - or relevant experience will be the ones of most interest to the employer. After understanding, experience is the most important attribute. Many complain that they cannot get into motorsport without experience, but that they cannot gain experience without having a job in racing. Not true. Schools and universities that provide opportunities to become involved in real, practical, competitive, automotive projects are numerous. These projects, allied to the right academic courses, combine practical experience with theory, giving meaning to much of the course work. A competitive element sorts out those that like to work under pressure from those less suited. Formula SAE, which has been running since 1981 in the USA involving numerous American universities and thousands of engineering students, is a perfect example of an initiative that is producing many excellent racing car designers and engineers.
(Note: I am sure there is a suitable Japanese example of a University based, automotive competition that could be included here.)
Gaining experience outside college is mostly a test of initiative. Motorsport is broad enough and deep enough to provide many opportunities for those prepared to take them and those who will make sacrifices. All of the top designers, mentioned earlier, gained their experience by becoming involved in racing one way or another and at whatever level they could find. They "just did it", either at their own expense or for no remuneration. If the right qualities are present in an individual, they will be spotted eventually and someone will offer to pay for them.
The lower formulae in motorsport, leading up to Formula 1, vary in the experience they can provide. Some have fairly free technical regulations and provide opportunities to innovate in the design and development of the cars and engines. Unfortunately they are becoming rarer and are being replaced by the one-make formulae such as F3000. These formulae have almost no technical freedom and hence provide limited experience for designers, but they do teach race engineers the precision and discipline necessary to this job well. Karting is not just a school for drivers, it is also a good starting place for enterprising racing engineers, as all the fundamentals of motorsport engineering are there, in their simplest mechanical form.
The old apprenticeship system was not wrong - it imbued young engineers with a feel for materials, processes and the reality of making things work, that generally enriched them as designers and engineers. For example, an engineer who wants to become involved in composite design would benefit enormously from a period spent making composite tools and parts. The Jordan car reflects the years Gary Anderson spent as a mechanic - building assemblies and rebuilding them until they worked properly. His cars are wonderfully practical machines.
If you know what area of motor racing engineering you want to work in, then go and learn it from the ground up. The best designers can make every part they design, with their own hands.
Becoming involved in motorsport at any level starts the development of a network of contacts, many of whom rise up and spread throughout the sport. This network provides information about jobs that become available, usually long before they are advertised, and is a source of technical intelligence from other sections of motor racing.
Getting to the top in motor racing requires a great deal of hard work. Because it is a competitive activity means that there is never any reason to stop work - if you do a bit more there is a chance you will beat the person who has all ready stopped work. While the rewards can eventually be considerable for those who succeed, both financial and in terms of life style, it is more a case of long hours and little compensation on the way up. To be prepared to slog away, far from the well equipped factories, luxury hotels and glamour, requires a passion for the sport and the technology involved. This attitude to cars and racing is essential if a young designer or engineer is to survive long enough to rise through the ranks to Formula 1 or another of the top racing series. Detecting the right attitude is a major factor when interviewing potential designers and engineers - or indeed any potential employee. Colin Chapman used to say that in order to assess an applicant for a mechanic's or a designer's job, it was not worth bothering to ask them lots of questions - designers tend to be poor communicators anyway - just look in either the mechanic's tool box or inspect some of the designer's drawings. This would tell you all there was to know about the applicant's attitude, and his or her ability to do their job.
Two of the best young engineers I have employed did not respond to advertisements, instead they sought me out with the claim that they had decided they wanted to work for Lotus, and what could I give them to do. As long as they earned enough to live, they were not interested in how much they would be paid. Both developed into highly skilled and motivated R&D engineers, making big contributions to Lotus. Within five minutes of meeting them it was obvious that both of them were the sort of people Lotus wanted working for the company; after that it was just a question of finding them something to do to get them started.
Formula 1 is expanding at the moment. The top teams are recruiting designers and engineers. If you do not mind hard work under pressure, and are stimulated by seeing the fruits of your labours being put to the test within a few weeks or months of inception, this is a good career. Even if you do not contemplate being involved in motor racing for your whole working life, it is an environment that provides a wide range of contacts in related fields. It is also now recognised that successful motor racing engineers possess most of the qualities needed in all forms of engineering, engendering the right attitude towards problem solving and getting things done.
If you really want to be a racing car designer or engineer, go for it! I can guarantee you will not be bored.