Adrian Newey, one of F1’s greatest ever designers, openly admits he had a quick route into the sport – but while it’s tough to get in these days there are still ways for young designers to get noticed.
The motorsport engineering world is very different now to when Newey was a graduate. Back then, a wealth of different racecar constructors, both in F1 and in junior categories, meant that there were plenty of openings for younger designers to learn a holistic view of design.
What used to be design teams of two or three are now made up of tens or hundreds of people, rich in resources and all tasked with focusing on small areas of the car, working together to deliver the final product.
Newey did a graduate degree at Southampton University and, having focused his final project on motorsport aerodynamics, he already had some unique experience to use as a springboard to get into F1.
“At the time, motor racing was not a recognised industry and job opportunities were scarce,” he said in an interview with the University. “F1 teams only employed a handful of engineers. I did the milk round, applied to all the teams and, just when I thought I would have to consider other options, I was offered a job.”
Very quickly, he was in a starring role at Leyton House March and soon he was poached by Williams and given a prominent position in the team.
Such a fast track to the top these days is impossible – and even getting a foothold in the sport is tough.
When I was studying engineering, also at Southampton, we would send CVs off if the post week after week to all the teams on the grid in the hope they might have opportunity for some work experience. You were lucky if you got a rejection. Most would simply ignore your letter completely.
In the end, I managed to initiate what was the first real long-term student placement, with Jordan.
Gary Anderson was the man who helped set it up – and it is he who is now helping the latest generation of F1 design hopefuls with the F1 in Schools programme.
The route to F1 is now far more formalised than in Newey’s day.
F1 in Schools – which holds its annual finals in Austin this week – is a simple concept, with teams involving students from nine to 19 tasked to design a 21cm long balsa wood car powered by a compressed air cylinder, to race as fast as it can down a straight 20m track.
The standard next step towards F1 engineering is Formula Student, which was a fledgling operation when I was involved in it back in the late 1990s, but is now a well-established global competition.
It was born out of Formula SAE, which is also now well established in the US, and is a major team project in which participants design a racing car from the ground up, build it themselves, then race it in a year-ending competition.
This and spin-off projects mean that there are now initiatives that engage students from all around the world.
This ladder structure – much like the racing ladder to F1 – offers a clear route into the sport, but just like aspiring racers there are far more engineering hopefuls than places available.
Nowadays, however, many F1 teams offer structured work experience, placements or scholarships to the best engineers.
Last year, Red Bull offered ‘the ultimate summer job’ with internships in aerodynamics, electronics, marketing, IT and procurement. To apply, candidates had to put the CV away and take on a series of interactive online games. The title-winning team also offers 12-month placements, while his year their partners Infiniti went one better and offered two yearlong scholarships – complete with salary, accommodation and a car!
Mercedes has offered roles within their engine division with ‘year in industry’ opportunities for students and a two-year scheme for graduates – also helping them by giving extra hands on deck in the busy build-up to the 2014 design changes.
Further down the grid, the importance of seeding young engineers is just as important.
Force India and Williams both have formal ongoing programmes that offer work experience for younger kids and engineering placement positions for university level, as well as open opportunities for production apprenticeships.
Williams offers up to 10 paid university placements every year and also runs a ‘taster week’ for secondary schools every July, giving 10 lucky students an insight into life working in an F1 team.
Both F1 in Schools and Formula Student have both now passed proof of concept, as there are now a number of engineers in F1 who have come through each programme.
And so, it seems, F1’s engineering future is at least in good hands...