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How to get into Formula One - a career guide!

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Part 1: An overview from a recruiter, by Nick Gerrell

Formula One. For many, the name alone will produce a frisson of excitement. The world’s most elite motorsport clearly thrills us with its glamour, competitiveness and excitement: last year, it boasted a global cumulative audience of over 1.7 billion.

But what is F1 like to work in as an engineer, and what do you need to know if you harbour ambitions to break into the industry? Over the next two blogs we’ll do our best to answer these questions.

In part one, I will write from my experience as a recruiter who has spoken to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of factory and trackside staff at all levels in F1. And in part two, coming soon, we’re thrilled to be able to provide an insight from the heart of the industry when we hear from two engineers at Honda F1 Racing itself. Huge thanks to the team and the guys themselves for their kindness.

So without further ado, the lights are out, let’s go!

 

What are F1 engineering careers like? Why are they so sought after?  

I admit I’m a bit partial, but many, many people want to work in F1 because it is quite simply the pinnacle of automotive engineering and, of course, racing. It’s a passion for a lot of people too. So for an engineer to be able to push themselves to the pinnacle of their profession while being involved in their passion – that’s a pretty big draw.

What are the popular misconceptions about F1 careers?

I suppose some people might assume that F1 is always glamorous, but perhaps not: even the casual viewer can’t fail to recognise the obvious hard work behind it. The extraordinary competition of F1 creates an ongoing arms race, which means the people in the industry work very hard, while it’s also difficult for the smaller teams to level the playing field.

So yes, F1 has its glamorous side that you see on TV: the bucket-list locations, the travel, the champagne lifestyle and the PR buzz. But it is hard, intense work over a long season with races across the world. It’s amazing but it can be gruelling. Depending on your role, jetlag, tough days and stress could be your bedfellows – but if you work in F1 you’ll be passionate about it, so it will be part of the job, and you will love it.

Is it hard to get into?

Of course it is. It’s hard because of the sheer numbers that want to do it and because you’ve got to be really good to get your foot in the door. The teams work to strict budgets so are very selective.  

The global appeal of F1 means the talent pool is massive, which makes it even more competitive. It also means the teams are often multinational; F1 is one of the most diverse industries I’ve seen.

What qualities do you need to work in F1?

You need to be hard-working, tenacious and resilient, and to have a positive mind-set. Above all you need to have a passion for F1. Trackside professionals within the industry talk of the “travelling circus” – they descend on a city, have a few days there then pack up and move on to the next destination. They have to be resilient and mobile. But whether you’re trackside or factory-based, you’ll need a lot of the same qualities because F1 has cycles of intense activity and effort wherever you are based.

What’s the “typical” route into F1?

For engineers within F1, there are two pretty well-defined spheres, each offering many different roles, responsibilities and duties requiring a broad range of skills.

There are the technical factory-based roles - the designers and analysis engineers who don’t travel but develop and design the vehicles.

Then there are the track-based engineers who are more mechanical and hands-on with the cars. They are reactive and keep the cars ticking over.  

There are various routes into F1 for these professionals. Successful graduates or postgraduates with really strong engineering principles will normally be in the top percentile of their degree and may have a Masters or PhD in a technical field. They are often hired in graduate intake schemes when F1 companies are recruiting the cream of the crop.

Their passion for the industry means they won’t have to be asked to go the extra mile; these people are often already living and breathing F1 as far as their life allows them to, such as by participating in Formula Student and so on.

In the same way that footballers can begin their career in lower leagues and work their way to the top, some engineers begin in other forms of motorsport such as endurance racing, rallies and F2 and work their way into F1.

Is it all about who you know?

A good network is valuable in any industry and I recommend that anyone in any industry today will only benefit from a great network. So sure, it helps – but it’s absolutely not the be-all, end-all. For many graduates or postgraduates looking to enter F1 as engineers, a great degree, additional experience and passion are the key.

Core F1 roles

If you think about an OEM (original equipment manufacturer – any company that produces parts and equipment, sometimes to be marketed by another manufacturer) then F1 is like that but with shorter lead times. F1 products need to be developed to pressurised timescales. Instead of warranty and durability, the emphasis is on speed, aerodynamics and performance. Otherwise, the same skillsets apply across “standard” OEMs and F1.

In technical, factory-based product development, that includes roles as diverse as design, analysis, testing, vehicle dynamics and so on. This is where the performance-related work happens across the whole vehicle. There’s a lot of visionary thinking and innovation here.

Trackside engineers are incredibly practical, able to firefight, be reactive to a changing situation and understand and resolve problems in a flash. These teams have to do a lot of their work in the moment and are drilled for short turnaround times.

Many of the managerial and directorial trackside professionals come from factory-based roles, but this is not always the case. 

What qualifications do you need?

With a broad number of specialist engineering roles available in F1, the key is relevance and quality. People often enter through excellent degrees, MSCs or PhDs in Mechanical engineering, electronics, dedicated university MSCs in Motorsport (such as the Cranfield University Advanced Motorsport MSc), aerodynamics and physics. Students with good mathematics degrees from elite universities, who also have modelling and analysis skills, can get in. A diverse range of degrees are considered relevant.

You don’t absolutely have to have a degree to work in F1. Some professionals are more purely practical, apprentice-trained and enter the industry with experience in different forms of motorsport. There can be vacancies for CNC machinists and mechanics in F1 teams which don’t require degrees. There are HNC apprentices who work their way up. It’s a broad industry that makes space for a wide range of skills. But make no mistake: whatever you do, if you want to work in F1, you had better be good at it!

Of course, there’s also a sizeable support function in each team: the operations people, the buyers, purchasing and supply chain, marketing, HR, IT and professionals. It’s a complete industry in its own right that has room for most roles.

What are the rewards of F1 careers?

Working at the pinnacle of engineering, with lots of camaraderie, great team ethics, huge highs, a fast pace of work and life and, potentially, travel.

The pay is generally good, too, and needs to be: industry professionals work hard, and as teams come and go, an F1 job isn’t perceived as a job for life.

What are the challenges and tougher elements of the job?

See above: those huge highs can have their corresponding lows. Getting into the industry is hard, and once you’re in, it can be hard to remain there. F1 is demanding, as you’d expect from an industry that hires the best and demands the best they have to give.

How do you get ahead in the industry?

Be passionate, work hard and learn as much as you can. Easy!

If you’re a graduate or engineer with dreams of working in F1, I’d suggest you do all you can to get relevant extracurricular activities onto your CV. By all means reach out to the broad motorsport industry to find out how you can secure some work experience. But the best advice I can give you is to get involved in IMechE’s annual Formula Student competition.

Most people I’ve met in F1 have been involved with Formula Student in some way. For the uninitiated, in very simple terms it’s a like a mini F1 where teams of engineering students from all over the world compete to design and build their own car and race it. It’s been helpful in bridging the learning gap between academic and practical engineering for students and in encouraging interest in engineering amongst young people.  

You’ll like a career in F1 if you are...

Passionate about F1, hard-working, ambitious, independent but capable of being a team player, resilient.

This job isn’t for you if you are…

If you’re not desperately keen to work in the industry, you’re unlikely to drift into it by mistake, so it’s probably unnecessary to tell people why F1 might not be for them.

However, if you’re a clock-watcher who doesn’t welcome the prospect of travel (for some roles) or periods of intensity in your workload, or the possibility of big highs and lows, F1 is probably not for you! It’s a fantastic career, and if you’re right for F1 you will welcome both the challenges and rewards with open arms.

Coming soon: Part 2 - The inside track on F1 careers from two Honda Racing F1 engineers! Don’t miss it.

If you have any questions about this blog or F1 careers, please get in touch with Nick Gerrell.