Working as a freelancer in motorsport is great.
You get to pick who you work for, the team-driver-car combination that you want to work with, the events you want to attend and the championships you want to compete in. You are your own boss and have a lot of freedom. You can have as much time off as you like, and get pretty much all of the time between seasons to yourself. Great!
One or two caveats, however.
If you're not working, you're not getting paid. No one will pay you for taking time off. There is no holiday time, no sick pay, no days in lieu. No work means no money.
You can pick and choose who you work for, absolutely. But if you're too picky, you'll never work for anyone. This results in no work... see above.
So how do you go about making sure you have work, and that you are working where you want to be?
After a few years in motorsport you will easily see that networking is critical to survival. Who you know and who knows you will make or break a career, whether you are a freelancer or not. This is covered fairly extensively in the SOP Book. Also in the book are some ideas on how to improve both the size and value of your network.
The simplest way of finding your next role as a freelancer is to ask people you know. Ask those you have worked with in the past. Even if they don't have work, they will often know of another team who do. I have used this successfully many times. I keep a close group of competitors (I use the term loosely) that will often give me a head's up about work. As a data engineer, I have the advantage of being quite niche. This means the work is out there if you can find it. Often other data engineers will have been approached for work and they simply can't do it due to other commitment. Having a healthy relationship with your competitors means they will recommend you for those roles. Of course, you should always be prepared to reciprocate on this!
Another valuable source of work is from the so-called "cold approach". This means phoning or emailing a team speculatively asking if they require your services. This might seem somewhat sleazy, but a well written, personal and direct email is more often than not well received. By targeting a person rather than a team (so a chief engineer, team principle, team manager) you stand a far better chance of success than using an info@ email address. And even if you get a negative response from this, it won't necessarily be the end of the story. If your email is engaging and details your strengths, and the benefits you would bring to the team, it will be filed for use at a later date. Maybe they have filled their positions for this season, but next season is wide open. What's more, they might even put you in touch with a friend or colleague from another championship or team who requires your services. I spent around 3 hours composing an email and sending it out to the teams of just one championship. I received positive responses for around 75% of them. This means I am in a far better position to negotiate as I know the demand is there.
Third and final way of finding work is attending professional events. In the UK we have just had the Autosport International Show. This was an excellent opportunity for me to touch base with existing contacts, and also to meet new ones. I had productive meetings with people from all over the world - some of which I had never met before. The ability to put a face to a name is important. The ability to associate that name and face with a personality is even more so. At these events you are in sales mode, but you should be charming, charismatic and a whole host of other typical buzzwords that sell yourself without you having to try.
Finding work in motorsport is not difficult if you know how. Do some homework. Do some legwork. Get out there and find your next winning combination.
When you watch a Formula One race, it is very easy to believe that everything on those cars is optimised. That everything is the very best it can be. The pinnacle of technology and development.
You would be wrong.
Everything on those cars is a compromise. What sets Formula One apart from lower classes of motorsport is the compromises are being decided on by using the best software, the smartest people and most money. Don't get me wrong, a Formula One car is a truly amazing piece of engineering and is the very best it can be. But to believe that everything on the car is ideal is incorrect.
I'll use Formula One in this post as it provides the most extreme examples, but the principles and lessons can be applied to any form of motorsport. In fact, any form of engineering come to think of it...
On an F1 car, aero is king. If you work in F1, or intend to in the future, remember that statement. Aero is king. It takes precedence over everything else. This means that everything designed to be on the outside of the car is compromised to improve the aerodynamics. The most obvious example of this is the suspension system. Look how flat and thin the wishbones are on the cars. They are shaped like mini aerofoils so as not to disrupt the air flow by creating turbuence. The air moving between the nose and the wheel is destined to end up either under the car in the diffuser, passing through a radiator, or moving up and interacting with that giant rear wing. As a suspension designer, you would want your wishbones to be made of tubes, with uniform stress distributions and linear behaviour under bending. The aerodynamicists would throw that design out and tell you to try again. The result is a suspension system that has been moved away from the ideal. A compromise.
There are plenty of other examples:
The Exhaust - Length and geometry and designed in a way that best advantages the airflow at the back of the car. It won’t be optimised for engine torque.
The Wheels - Designed to reduce turbulence and calm down the airflow. Probably not the lightest they can be, but more functional.
Radio Antennas - Ideally, they wouldn't be there at all. The generous Aerodynamicists let you have a few centimetres in the middle of the nose cone. Radio transmissions have been known to suffer.
Don't think that the compromise is all one way however. Every compromise made also affects the aero package on the car. Suspension needs to hold the wheels on. Exhausts need to vent somewhere. Wheels need to spin. Radios need to transmit.
And the biggest bug-bear for any aero engineer - that pesky driver insists on sticking his head out right in the middle of the car. To help, they give him a fancy streamlined helmet, but wouldn't it be so much nicer if he wasn't there in the first place?
Remember as you progress through your career that you are constantly looking for the best compromise. You want the best for the car as a whole - not necessarily what's best for your little bit. Be patient with your colleagues and take the time to understand the implications that your changes will have on other areas.
Having the best suspension, exhaust routing, wheels, radio or helmet will not win a race individually. But compromise and get the best combination of them? Now you're on to a winner!
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.