Before your first trip to the the track you may have a lot of questions about exactly what you should be bringing. On my first excursion trackside, I massively over estimated the equipment I would need. Not wanting to be left without something essential, I brought pretty much everything I could.
This was a mistake.
I ended up with a heavy and cumbersome bag, that I had to drag to and from the track for 3 days, and used pretty much nothing from it.
Below is my revised kit. This kit does vary slightly depending on which championship and team I am working with, as well as the likely issues I might come across. Remember that I work as a data engineer, so the contents have been tailored to that role. There are however, a few universal essentials which I have marked with asterisks...
1. Maglite - a proven torch, used by the militiary and police forces around the world. Hard wearing, waterproof, great on batteries and comes with spare bulbs. Great for investigating those annoying wiring issues tucked behind a dashboard or deep in an engine bay.
2. Multitool - This comes to the track in my bag but generally lives in my pocket. Pliers, screwdrivers and knife allow you to tackle a host of issues. Having it close by means this can happen quickly.
3. *Custom Ear Plugs - These are moulded to my ears. You can get them as simply noise cancelling, or with inbuilt speakers to work as earphones as I do. Expensive, but working around race engines is noisy work. These will help protect your hearing through the years.
4. *Suncream - Don't forget this. You will regret it for weeks!
5. Multimeter Leads - When diagnosing electrical issues, I like to know that my fault finding equipment is up to scratch. These Fluke multimeter leads are some of the best you can buy.
6. Multimeter - As above, buy the best you can afford. Theres nothing worse then chasing a problem will faulty equipment. My fluke multimeter is used frequently to track down electrical gremlins.
7. Wire Repair Kit - Being able to quickly fix damaged wiring will make you very popular amongst the team. Get the car back out ASAP with a well stocked repair kit.
8. Laptop - A good laptop is the bedrock of being a data engineer. I have a custom one built by PC Specialists. The one in the picture is a little on the heavy side for my liking, but has not let me down functionally. I also use a Microsoft Surface at times. Whilst not perfect for data analysis due to the smaller screen, no Ethernet port and only a single USB port, it is much lighter and thinner. I tend to use the Surface for non-track work (such as writing reports... or articles.)
9. *Sunglasses Case - Your sunglasses will spend a lot of time in your bag. Keep them in a sturdy case so as not to damage them!
10. *Sunglasses - Good sunglasses will help you in all seasons. The low sun in winter and relelntless sun in summer - both can be comabtted by good quality sunglasses. The ones in the photo are Oakley's but I have used RayBans in the past. The important thing is comfort - you might be wearing them for hours on end.
11. *Clothes - A spare change of clothes is always in the bottom of my bag. Clean underwear, socks, and a T-Shirt mean you can survive over 24 hours at the track without becoming offensive and unhygenic. A plain white t-shirt is shown in the photo. This can be used as an undershirt. Alternatively, a spare team top can be included.
12. Hard Drive - Backing up data is important and something I endeavour to do frequently. Always be careful bring remote data storage devices to the track through. They contain lots of goodies the competition would love to get their hands on!
13. Ethernet Kit - Sometimes you won't have what you need to communicate with some elctronics on the car. An ethernet kit will really help here. It also lets you link up laptops and servers with the team and can aid data sharing.
14. Laptop Charger - Self explanatory. Don't forget this! You won't last a morning as a data engineer.
15. *Watch - I use a Casio G-Shock whilst at the track. Its rugged, reliable and radio controlled so it's always spot on. I tend to avoid bringing expensive chronograph watches to the track as I think that is asking for trouble. The risk of scratching your expensive Swiss watch is too great!
16. *Track Pass - You won't get in to the paddock without one. They also make great momentos, especially early in your career. Mine either lives in my bag, or tied on to the belt loops on my trousers/shorts. I never wear this around my neck. You don't want anything that dangles as things easily get caught in all of those spinning hazards around the garages. You should keep it on your person throughout the day though.
17. *Toothbrush - If you're working overnight, brushing your teeth in the morning has a strange way of waking you up. It seems to shock your brain in to thinking its the morning and therefore time to be awake. It also rerfreshes you and gets your ready for the day. The one pictured is a disposable one from an British Airways flight.
18. Screwdriver - This screwdriver has 4 different heads and provides a complete range of flat and phillips. Again useful to keep close to hand for those quick changes and repairs.
19. Ruler - Measuring things now and then is a necessity. Keep this in your pocket just in case. It weighs nothing and takes up virtually no room.
20. *Pens - Plural. Have a few in your pockets for jotting down notes or marking things. They are also great to have to hand if your driver is caught without one when asked for an autograph.
21. Permanent Markers - Useful for marking sensors and wiring, or the position of components before and after a run. Always have one in your pocket and a couple in your bag. Again, useful for autographs if your driver is caught without.
22. Torch - A spare torch just in case. This one is lighter and smaller than the MagLite, but not quite as robust. I tend to keep this in my pocket with the pens and ruler.
23. USB Sticks - The same warning applies here as to the harddrive. Use with caution. They are useful for moving data within the team but never leave them unattended or with data actually on them. They are not "backup" storage. Use, but with caution.
24. *Business Cards - You never know who you will meet at the track. It's always worth having some business cards with you. Suppliers, team managers, event organisers, drivers... there's always interesting people around that it is worth introducting yourself to.
25. Mechanical Pencil - My preference over as pen simply because it is waterproof. You won't want your notes becoming illegible due to rain. See "Moleskin Notebook" below.
26. Moleskin Notebook - I take notes throughout the day in a notebook which I refer back to at a later time. These notes are used to create post-event reports and to analyse recurring issues. These notes are become your "Book of Knowledge" and will help you understand problems as time goes on.
27. Carroll Smith - Engineer in You Pocket - A fantastic flipbook that will help diagnose chassis and balance issues for the car. Great for race engineers and data engineers alike. Its always in my bag, although not used frequently.
28. Engineer's Data Book - Just a very useful basic engineering principles pocket book. Not essential, but I have referred to it in the past.
29. Zeus Table - If you ever need to use the lathe and milling machines at the track, this set of tables provides all the design for manufacture information you will need. Again, not essential, but very useful in the right circumstances.
30. *Phone Charger - USB phone charger with a removable USB cable. Great for charging phones and cameras, you will also be popualar amongst team mates for sharing. Pay attention to the style of plug - the one pictured is for the UK, but I have multiple depending on the country I am visiting.
31. *Backpack - Finally somewhere to keep everything. The backpack should be sturdy and accomodating, without being too heavy. There is little point slimming odwn your kit only to put it in a ludicrously heavy bag. Spend some money and get a comfortable one!
This list is not extensive, and as mentioend, changes depending on the event. It also has evolved over time and I would expect your's too aswell. Don't worry too much when you start out - the team will have the majority of things you need if you don't have them with you. As you progress in your career, it does appear much more professional to have your own kit and equipment.
Would you have the courage to argue with your boss? To question their methods or query an order? I did… and it paid off!
Moral Courage: The courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences. Courage is required to take action when one has doubts or fears about the consequences. Moral courage therefore involves deliberation or careful thought.
The Le Mans 24 Hour race is quite possibly the most famous motorsport event in the world. The heritage, prestige and publicity is only rivaled by the Daytona equivalent or the Monaco Grand Prix. It is a BIG race.
Me and some colleagues were there supporting various teams along the pitlane when my boss called me to his garage. He had a task for me. He wanted the engineer’s laptops to be updated to the latest software version.
Now in and of itself, this is not a particularly strange request. New software was frequently created and it fixed bugs and offered new features, all of which is generally very favourable for engineers in motorsport. However this particular request came at 10am on race day. Just 2 hours before the lights were due to go out. So, I questioned it.
I raised my concerns with my boss, but was dismissed on the grounds of “its new, its better”. Still uneasy, I asked some colleagues. They all agreed that an update of all of the engineers' laptops this close to the race was asking for trouble and should not be done. Finally, I spoke with the engineers. I received a resounding “No way!” from them. So as far as I was concerned, it was settled.
I went back to my boss and explained that no one thought this was a good idea and I was not comfortable being the guy who broke the engineer’s laptops for Le Mans. I refused to do it. I did compromise and offer to update the assistant engineers’ laptops – my boss wasn’t happy with this but I left him little choice. He decided that he would do the engineers’ laptops, and I could do the assistant engineers’ ones. And so we set off.
Laptop 1 – Wrong operating system. New software simply won’t install. FAIL.
Laptop 2 – Correct operating system, but out of date drivers. Software installs but doesn’t run. FAIL
Laptop 3 – Correct operating system and correct drivers. Software installs and runs. Existing settings for the software are all lost and render the laptop unusable for the race. FAIL.
Fortunately, the engineer’s had pushed back again against my boss and refused to let him install on their laptops. I reverted the laptops I had touched and left the garage.
The team ran absolutely fine for 24 hours without any laptop issues. The old software was flawless and they finished the 24 hours.
This anecdote might seem like I am insubordinate or defiant. Disobedient even! But I am not. I just like to know why I am doing something and like to be aware of the repercussions of my actions. Had I not questioned the course of action, the software would have become a serious sticking point for the team. They would have been at a disadvantage and not been able to react to issues quickly.
If you have the confidence and genuine concerns, never be afraid to question those above you in the hierarchy. A good manager will welcome CONSTRUCTIVE criticism and be prepared to explain the reason behind a course of action. If they listen to your concerns, you might even show them an area they had not considered and be the hero of the day.
Motorsport is won and lost by tenths of seconds – if you have time, help your team to find them!
The blame culture is an unfortunate reality of the modern world. People are always trying to decipher where fault lies and how the perpetrator can be punished for whatever the wrongdoing may be. Wether that be in losing a job, being sued, or simply being demonized, the blame culture can be seen.
There are a few industries that do not use a blame culture. Certainly not one as most would recognise it. I'm going to focus on the Aerospace Industry.
When designing and manufacturing an aircraft there is always a significant safety factor built in to each and every part. Everything that is essential to keeping that aircraft in the air and in control will have resilient and redundant systems operating to maximise safety. From the person who first puts the design down on paper, to the person who installs the part, everything is done with safety in mind. The reasons for this are obvious - if something fails, people could die. A lot of people. Hundreds of people. So safety is paramount.
We all know though, that accidents happen. And whilst most aircraft accidents are caused by pilot error, mechanical and electrical failures claim responsibility for a large number of incidents in the air. Whether that be a design flaw, a component failure or even improper maintenance, accidents do happen.
How the industry reacts to these incidents is what is most remarkable. There is no witch hunt. No head hunting. There is simply a drive to understand why the failure was allowed to happen. Why was the pilot allowed to make the decision he or she did? Why did the service engineer fail to correctly install the component? Why did the part not fail during testing?
What happens is the industry team up and redefine their operating procedures. They do everything they can to prevent a re-occurrence of the failure. They don't blame the pilot or the engineer or the design. They blame the process that those people were following. The process was flawed.
Even deviation from that process is seen as a process flaw. People should not be allowed to deviate. They should be prevented from doing so with checks, double-checks and triple-checks. Work should be signed off by multiple people. This is one of the main reasons for having a co-pilot. He is not there simply to watch whilst the pilot is asleep or eating. He is there to question a course of action.
So what, you might ask, has all this to do with motorsport?
I have worked with dozens of teams over the last few years. Sometimes there is a traditional blame culture. Sometimes there is an aerospace style one. Sometimes the people are blamed. Sometimes the process is blamed.
In your careers, I urge you to work towards the latter. Fixing the process rather then fixing the people is one of the fastest ways to increase the reliability of your car and of your team. The teams that blame people will have a high turnover, which in turn means talented engineers are forced away simply due to a blame culture. With them, they take knowledge and intuition. Team morale is lower. Reliability is lower. Respect is lower. There are no positives.
Fixing a process on the other hand means those closest to the issue are around to help resolve it. They can redesign the process themselves to prevent future failures. These might not only be mechanical failures - communication, and strategy might also suffer with an inadequate process driving them.
Strive to strengthen any team you are in. Don't blame the people; blame the process.
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.