I finished university several years ago full of enthusiasm and confidence. My degree was strong, my knowledge base solid and my vision of the future crystal clear. However, my first assignment in my new job role opened my eyes to just how little I really knew about the motorsport world.
Having worked for Cosworth Electronics for a matter of weeks, I was sent to support a World Record Attempt for a twin jet turbine engined speed boat. Not the formula cars I had worked on throughout university. Not the closed wheel monsters I was familiar with from weekend work. Speedboats.
Now don't get me wrong, speedboats are cool. This particular speed boat had over 6000hp and was over 15 meters in length. Despite its carbon fibre hull, the catamaran still weighed 3 tonnes. This thing was a colossus.
The boat was so far removed from anything I had learnt about during my studies, and was not something I had even considered when it came to motorsport. Suddenly, I felt way in over my head.
I spent the 2 days prior to the run getting familiar with the beast. I traced wiring through the hull. I plugged in my laptop and offloaded datasets, settings and logged data. I scrutinised every aspect of the boat that was accessible to me in an attempt to understand the task that lay ahead of me. I kept in constant contact with more experienced engineers back in the UK, and slowly managed to take a bite out of the huge elephant. I was fortunate that support from Cosworth was fantastic which really helped things.
Then came the big day. A world record attempt was on the cards.
A fear of overshooting the stopping zone at the end of the course meant dragster style parachutes were attached to the boat. Unfortunately these deployed prematurely due to the intense g-forces. On that failed run, the boat made 210mph. TWO HUNDRED AND TEN MILES PER HOUR WITH THE PARACHUTES DEPLOYED. This indicated that the parachutes in fact would have very little affect, and so were removed for run number two.
Despite a nasty accident of another boat during the event, the pilots throttled on from the staging area and brought the speed up. All the way to 244mph. A new record.
My part in this endeavour was small. The boat had been set up prior to me arriving by a colleague and I was really only there to monitor for errors. But I was still a part of it. The feeling within the team, with the pilots, the engineers, the mechanics, was euphoric.
I had survived my baptism of fire. And am a far better engineer for doing so.
Carroll Smith felt strongly that every apprentice, every mechanic and every engineer that worked on a race car should have attended a driving school prior to doing so. The reason he thought this was a good idea (and even included in his own apprenticeship programs) is it is the best way to gain an understanding of how a car behaves. Learning about understeer or oversteer or balance or aero effects from a text book doesn't mean you know what understeer, oversteer, balance or aero effects actually are. You cannot have a kinaesthetic feeling for what they actually do to a car.
Gaining experience in how a car behaves will set an engineer apart, especially early in his or her career. Drivers, for all the skills, are not necessarily engineers. I have worked with numerous drivers over the years and there are some who strive to have a thorough understanding of the car and the laws of physics, and then there are those who drive on feel and can struggle to communicate what the car is doing, or even what they want it to be doing. If you, as their engineer, can decipher what it is that they want and need from the car, then you are going to earn your pay at the track. If you can understand elaborate hand motions and wishy-washy language from a driver who is not an engineer, you are doing very well.
Understanding how a car really behaves, in the real-world, transient conditions found on a race track does not come from university lectures, college classes or 2 inch thick text books. It comes from experience. It comes from taking the time to throw yourself in to the experience of racing. In all likelihood, no one will pay for you to learn to drive fast. You'll have to fund it yourself. Although as your experience and network grows, you're more likely to find someone who can help you make it happen a little cheaper. If you get the chance to start translating what a driver is telling you in to a real world take it. It will be incredibly valuable to you as an engineer, and it will probably be a lot of fun…
One of the main draws of motorsport is just how varied your career can be. I have countless friends from university and from the working in motorsport that belong in every engineering discipline imaginable.
One of my closest friends from university works as an engine designer. Although he rarely gets to a track, he has a passion and a talent for Computer Aided Design. He is visionary and works towards progressing the engine technology in race cars. This will ultimately have a direct impact on road cars.
And he loves his job.
I have a friend who specialize in chassis development, working with 6 poster kinematics and compliance rigs. He finds the tiny nuances in a racing car and help reduce the variability in the dynamic performance. The detail to which he can look in to your chassis and suspension is unbelievable.
And he loves his job.
I have a friend who works with tires. Yes tires. She can tell you exactly what your car is doing out on the track by looking at the sticky rubber stuff. Her ability to read the behavior of the car and explain what can be done to improve it is remarkable. Its a black art that she is well on the way to mastering.
And she loves her job.
Specializing in motorsport should not be something to shy away from. Quite the opposite is true. Specializing opens up the world to you and your skillset becomes far more desirable. When you start out soak up all the knowledge you can, and use that knowledge to decide where you want to concentrate. Do you want to be a designer? Do you want to be an aerodynamicist? How about a race engineer? Or a strategist? Maybe you would like to work in hospitality or public relations? You could perhaps go in to driver coaching, chassis development or engine tuning?
The list is literally endless.
Pick a specialism that appeals to you and apply yourself to be the best you can be at it. Become the person with a reputation in the field of your choosing. If you try to be a master of all trades, you will fail. No one ever is. It is the people who are good at their niche that really excel in motorsport. It is only by specializing that you will be able to freelance; no one hires someone who claims to be able to do everything!
I am a data engineer. And I have plenty of friends who are also data engineers. I get to work with a huge variety of cars and teams, finding the secrets to performance in the squiggly lines on our laptops. I get to travel all over the world to help teams decipher what the black boxes on the cars are trying to tell them. I have worked on boats in Missouri, motorbikes in France, hypercars in the UK and I'm not close to being done.
And guess what?
I love my job.
Find out more about Specializing in Motorsport in the Starting on Pole book, available here.
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.
Tom is an engineer working his way through the motorsport industry, sharing stories, anecdotes and lessons to help new engineers coming through the ranks.