Formula 1 has a fan base in the hundreds of millions around the world, and while many of us would dare to dream to become professional racing drivers, a mere handful of fans wind up pursuing a career in the sport’s seemingly less glamorous side: design and engineering.
The truth is that motorsport employs thousands of engineers and designers across a host of specialist disciplines, and the best will enjoy a well-paid career in a very exclusive club of professionals.
Surprisingly, most of today and yesterday’s crop of leading Formula 1 designers and engineers didn’t come into the sport with a specialist motorsport background. Former Williams designer Patrick Head started out in the British Navy, while acclaimed former Ferrati designer Rory Byrne was an industrial chemist. Gordon Murray started out designing machines that made plastic containers, and Ferrari’s Pat Fry started our working with consumer electronics.
These seemingly mundane day jobs helped fund their ‘spare time’ hobbies of building, designing or engineering racing cars. At some stage, their hobby became all-consuming affair and so a career in motorsport was born.
Today’s Formula 1 teams have a multitude of designers and engineers who are each responsible for individual areas that make up the entire Formula 1 car – the notion of a single man (or woman) designing an entire car or engine is pretty much dead and buried.
Beyond the individual teams, the engine manufacturers, tyre makers, fuel and oil companies and specialist component makers of clutches, gearboxes, brakes, hydraulics and electronics all have well-sized design and engineering teams on their books.
So how does a fan – blessed with a technical mind and an interest in engineering or design – set their sights on a full-time career on the pit wall or in the design offices of a Formula 1 team?
What sort of education, experience and academic certification tests does one need to accomplish to get their career aspirations rolling?
It’s probably inappropriate to generalise too much about what kind of educational path you should follow if you’re hoping to chart a career in top-flight motorsport, and not all of the skillsets can be gained through education alone.
A solid education is of course helpful, but what is critical is an ability to understand how to apply the knowledge they have gained in their education. For example, it’s all well and good to know a host of mathematical and physics equations, but if you don’t understand how and why their work, then you won’t get too far.
Many an aspiring job-seeker will flood the résumés with the tests they’ve passed and the software programs they know how to use, but that doesn’t pain a picture of their actual skills and expertise.
Certainly, the quality of your qualifications is an important factor in trying to get hired. Most F1 teams are looking for prospective designers and engineers with good degrees and practical experience in the lower formulae.
Many universities now run Formula SAE programs to give aspiring motorsport designers and engineers hands-on experience, coupled with a solid academic foundation, to help kickstart their career ambitions. Our own V8 Supercars writer, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, is a graduate of such a programme.
The initial career experience will involve long hours, and little if any pay in the junior formulae, and getting to the top of the motorsport ladder – as is the case with the drivers – involved an enormous amount of hard work. Ultimately, it will be the effort you put in that will determine how far you progress, and it will be your talent that will decide if you make it all the way to the top.