Atlas F1   Into F1:
Starting Out

  by Will Gray, England

In a new series of articles, Will Gray analyses the different jobs available on the technical side of Formula One, finds what skills are required, and suggests ways for budding engineers to get their foot in the door

So how do you get into Formula One? Firstly, there is no easy route into Grand Prix motor racing. The important thing to realise is that you will have to be patient, and will generally not get straight into one of the eleven teams on the grid. It can often be a case of gaining experience at a lower level of motorsport before heading for the top of the tree. If you're looking to get into the engineering side, you will generally need good high school grades in Maths and Physics based subjects. Once you've got them, there are two options - work, or further education.

If you've had enough of studying, that doesn't mean you cannot get into motorsport. There are many routes in with qualifications below degree level - all you need is some experience and a slice of luck. For instance, the job of a Formula One mechanic is an exciting one, which doesn't require a degree level education. Working on the set-up of the car, mechanics will usually begin on the test team, then move up to race team with experience.

Travelling to the seventeen races can prove tough, and it is a high pressure, long-houred job. It is, however, very rewarding when things go right! When they return to the factory between races, the mechanics will strip the car and rebuild it, replacing worn parts and preparing for the next Grand Prix. If you want to be based at the factory, there are a number of other options. Teams employ machinists a-plenty, who generally manufacture all the metal items found on the race car - particularly with the teams that build everything in-house. On the composite side, a large pattern shop can be found at every team. Here, workers turn the engineering drawings created in the design office into moulds, which will be then used by the composite laminators to create the carbon fibre pieces.

This kind of work can also be found in the model shop, which builds the scaled down version of the car used for wind tunnel testing. Working here can involve a number of disciplines, particularly wooden mould making and carbon fibre lay-up. It also could involve time spent working at the wind tunnel, making any changes to the model required by the aerodynamicist during running. Inspecting parts and manning stores are also both essential jobs in the day to day running of the team, and there is, indeed, a wealth of options.

In years gone by, it was possible to join the ranks of a Formula One team as a mechanic or a team junior, and use this as a stepping-stone to the top. One such case is Jaguar man Gary Anderson, who set out as a mechanic and is now top technical boss with the upcoming team. Anything is possible, and this could still happen today, but the generally accepted route to the design office and beyond is through the halls of a University. Any top team requires a degree these days, but it is a question of which type. Although different countries have their own systems and classifications of degrees, most universities offer either a Bachelors (BEng) or a Masters (MEng). The Masters course tends to be one year longer than the Bachelors, and as such, it can offer more grounding in group project work, and in management. That is why it is rapidly becoming the more highly respected of the two, particularly in the UK.

The next question is what to specialise in. A Mechanical Engineering degree will get you far - such a course is generally a base for all of the engineering disciplines. For Aerodynamics, it is better to do an Aeronautical degree, and although many aerodynamicists have got where they are today on solely a mechanical engineering course, the diversity of degrees in modern times means more and more teams are looking to recruit from the specialist courses in each area. Another example of this is electrical engineering, which will also require an early specialisation to acquire the knowledge required.

A fairly recent addition to course titles is Automotive Engineering. These degrees are becoming the in-thing in the UK, as the specialisation that these courses offer attract members of the industry to become involved, and universities can build up good connections with the racing and road car professions.

Within a degree there is still a large opportunity to specialise. Through the choice of different course options, a mechanical engineering degree student can end up as a specialist in materials, for instance. This can also be achieved through the choice of a specialist individual project that, although courses differ from university to university, is certain to be required at some stage of any engineering degree. Filling most of one year on the course, the project would involve the choice of a specific topic to investigate, and the mutual benefits of an association with a manufacturer or racing team for this are clear to see.

The options within a degree are so vast that not even same-titled degrees will be the same. It is clearly worth checking that the modules available on the course are suitable to you, and is also important to check if and how the structure of the course allows you to choose these. Some universities can offer more in terms of options, and a growing number are taking part in a very important competition called Formula Student, which shall be explained in detail next week.

To a certain extent, the course content you require will determine where you will end up, but it is also worth a look at how respected the establishment is within the industry. In the U.K., the traditional 'best' is Oxford or Cambridge, but opinions are divided on this. Some teams suggest that the degrees from universities such as Southampton, Bristol, or the Imperial College, London are more relevant and useful. I shall not enter the debate on this, but merely state that the choice is highly individual. Whilst the mentioned universities are acknowledged as some of the best for Engineering, many have other advantages such as useful connections with industry. It is essential, therefore, to choose a course that suits your prospective employers, a course which caters for the area of specialisation you are looking to, and, most importantly, a course that suits you. Good Luck!

Next week: Learning to Work

Click here to read Part I of this series

Will Gray© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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