If you came up to me a couple of years ago and asked where I wanted to be working in the future there was only one answer: a design engineer in Formula 1. I wanted to graduate from university, dive straight into the design office of an F1 team and get stuck in – the idea of climbing the ladder and reaching the top ranks of a top team such as Ferrari or McLaren was exciting, even if I knew the dream would take years to achieve.
I admire those who are already at the top of the engineering pyramid in the sport. Adrian Newey, Paddy Lowe, James Allison and Ross Brawn to name a few who have cut it at the top of the pinnacle of motorsport. I wanted to replicate their success and have a profound impact on F1 and motor racing in general. You could argue that I, or anyone else who has the same ambition and drive, can still do exactly that. However I have been slowly taking backwards steps to see the bigger picture and I am realising that perhaps this is not possible in the way the engineers above have achieved.
Hundreds of people make up F1 teams in this era. Take Mercedes as an example: Over 500 people work on the power units alone, plus a further 500 on the chassis. Rewind 30 years ago and this number was perhaps 50, budget depending. This naturally means that anyone walking into the sport now will have a tougher time making a name for themselves than they would have done previously. Yes, F1 is a team sport, but who doesn’t want to be at the heart of it, driving development forward and leading a team into the history books?
As someone rightly pointed out to me a few days ago, not everyone can be a chief designer. You can be a very intelligent person with a great attitude and not be chief designer. I worry, though, that I would not get the opportunity to fulfill my dream in modern Formula 1 purely because the chances are smaller than ever in becoming, say, a chief designer. Although F1 provides more jobs than ever before and that getting a job in the sport is highly more likely than even 10 years ago, I don’t just want to make up the numbers.
Please understand that I’m not trying to say I am the next visionary in motorsport technology. I don’t tinker with cars over the weekend, I don’t design front wings in CAD during my spare time and I don’t perform a full CFD analysis of my model cars in high speed airflow after a day of lectures (although I did try a hair drier-wind tunnel setup with food colouring for flo-vis – it didn’t work). I love engineering, though, and I believe that I have a better knowledge of motorsport than a lot of similarly aged students to myself.
This leads me on nicely to a recent struggle of mine – getting a year in industry placement. The plan was to do a year in industry between my second and third years of university, returning afterwards for a further two years to complete a Masters (MEng). I may have come out of secondary school with A-level grades of BBC but I was confident that – given that I had shown the ability to go out of my way to learn more about technology in motorsport via this blog and that I had decent work experience on my side – I would hopefully get a few interviews and a placement at the end somewhere.
I applied to 16 companies. I eventually got rejected from all of them. I had one telephone interview with one company, and aside from that nothing. Some companies send out online tests to start the filtering process, which are reasonably difficult/irritable and are (mostly) irrelevant to engineering. I passed two out of the three tests I received, only to be put aside afterwards.
There are thousands of students who applied to the same placements as I did, so the chances of me getting one were slim anyway. But I was still completely baffled. In fact, I only know two people who got placements for next year. And I know a lot of engineering students. I didn’t just apply to the big companies (e.g. the F1 teams, Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley, Rolls Royce) either, so I really was miffed.
I have since asked for feedback on my CV and an example covering letter (if you’re in motorsport employment please leave me a contactable email address in the comments below as I would really appreciate your thoughts) which I am eagerly anticipating. If my application was crap then I’ll hold my hands up and accept that. However I can’t help but feel as if my A-level grades were the most prominent factor in my failure to get a placement.
Unfortunately A-level results are the only real gauge of your intelligence on your CV. They say experience accounts for a good application but I don’t see any evidence of this. It doesn’t matter what grades you’re achieving if your friend’s dad’s cousin’s son is the CEO for x company, if you know the right people experience really isn’t hard to come by. Incidentally, my work experience at McLaren GT came about through a friend of mine. I also put on my CV that I got a 2:1 in my first year of studies. Considering that most of the application briefs quote ‘must be obtaining a 2:1 or higher’ I figured this might persuade the companies to look at my most recent/relevant work rather than my A-levels, but I guess that didn’t work either!
I felt a lot of pressure to achieve during my final years at secondary school and in hindsight it ultimately led to underachievement from my side. My grades weren’t bad by any stretch but I knew I wasn’t going to get into Sheffield (my first choice uni) once the exam period was over. My attitude towards exams was completely wrong to start with. I’d sit down in the exam room and look around knowing that there were people in there that would come out with a higher mark than me. I’d grown up alongside some seriously smart boys and girls, which I suppose put me in a mindset of settling for being just below the top tier. It didn’t matter how much revision I put in, the early mornings and late nights, because my mind was not where it should have been to extract the best out of me.
Going to Swansea University has changed my life since leaving secondary school. For a variety of reasons I have found a new belief in myself, confident in my ideas and how I tackle problems. I am on track for a first in my studies this year. I have since come to terms with not getting a placement year and feel pretty good about it – it’s one less year studying and a step closer to implementing my ideas into the real world.
Which brings me back to jobs in Formula 1 and why it isn’t suitable for me anymore. I once told my dad that I wanted to don McLaren’s teamwear and head into work every morning alongside my colleagues ready to tackle the challenge that is seeking more performance from the car. He replied something along the lines of, “What about wearing a suit and tie and standing out from everyone else?”. At the time this simply didn’t appeal to me but now it couldn’t be more appropriate.
I still very much love Formula 1 (most of the time, if they’d sort out all of the political bollocks we’d all be happy!) and motorsport, but for me the dream job isn’t in it anymore. If I decided to work in F1 now, would I feel rewarded? Someone has to design the Pitot tube stacks, the wing mirrors, the rain light etc., obviously. But given the amount of people in each team at the moment, how long will those people be doing those sort of tasks and not really going anywhere? To me life is about progression and the thought of standing still is quite scary. Even being at university feels a bit frustrating as I am still technically at ‘school’, just like I have been for the past 15 years!
I have a huge interest in hybrid technology and its implementation into modern society. Part of me wants to start a tech company. Another part of me wants to look at jobs in Formula E and see how that progresses. In fact, for the first time in a long time, I don’t have a burning desire to go after something. At first it sounds a bit aimless and not very inspiring. On the other hand, it represents freedom and an opportunity to explore other territories. Green technology in the automotive industry is rising and I’d love to be a part of it.
So for now I’ll continue what I enjoy doing, which is looking at the technical side of motorsport and writing about it. I don’t know where my career will take me once my studies are over but if anything I am more excited than ever. For all I know I could end up in F1 afterall…
Please leave any comments that myself and other students might find useful about jobs in motorsport and life in general!
Thanks for reading!