Understanding the motorsport industry

The job role of the Formula 1 designer

My Work in Motorsport blog is a collection of tips and advice for people who want to get a job in Formula 1 or other motorsports.  I have worked in motor racing for almost my whole career and want to help other people onto the ladder.

In this post I try to describe what a typical Formula 1 design engineer’s job role is and important tips on what someone needs to do to become an F1 designer.

F1 Grand Prix of Germany - Practice

The Formula 1 team members that you see on television are generally mechanics, race engineers, strategists and team managers.  This small group of individuals make up only a small fraction of the staff of a Formula 1 team.  A modern F1 team’s core business is not actually being a race team at all, they are actually focussed on the design and manufacture of racing cars.  A modern Formula 1 car is made up of completely bespoke parts, designed with only that one car in mind and the design and technology that goes into the cars is the greatest asset and secret of the teams.  The team of design engineers behind the F1 car’s concept and detail design are a highly prized set of experts who are rarely seen at races but form one of, if not the most critical part of the team’s function.

Each team will have its own “Design Office” comprising of somewhere between 25 and 150 designers.  These designers between them will produce the detail drawings of each and every individual component that goes to make up the complete car assembly.  Each part is specified in precise detail, the material it is made from, the manufacturing process and any heat treatment processes, it requires.  The detail drawing will show each dimension and measurement of the parts, and important sizes are toleranced a handful of microns (1/1000th of a millimetre).  Very few parts of a modern Formula 1 car are ‘bought in’ these days, other than nuts and bolts, and so each part of the car must be individually designed and made to order.  This is typically of the order of 10,000 parts for each vehicle – a lot of work !!

catiacomponent

Traditionally this job was done on a drawing board in pencil but now almost exclusively this task is carried out on a computer aided design (CAD) software such as CATIA, ProEngineer or Unigraphics.  Each part is modelled in a 3D environment which can also be used to build up virtual assemblies of mechanisms or even the whole car if the computing power allows.  Many of the advances in aerodynamics in recent years have only been possible because of the ability to package essential mechanical components of the car very tightly together.  The 3D CAD systems make this much easier than using a 2D drawing board and so car designs have become much more advanced since their use was introduced.  Despite this, Adrian Newey, arguably the most successful F1 designer of all time still uses a drawing board in order to visualise his aerodynamic designs and so the old art form still remains.  The CAD system is very capable and complex but it does not make the user a good designer and a fundamental understanding of design and draughting is still essential in this role.  It is however a very creative job and a fantastic reward to see a design that you have dreamt up and worked through to a finished product racing in Formula 1.  There are not many careers where you work is shown on television every 2 weeks !

Most new designers these days are degree educated in mechanical engineering or similar disciplines.  A good grounding in engineering fundamentals allows the designer to make judgements on the size and strength of the components and the suitability of a material for a particular purpose.  There are still many F1 designers who do not have degrees however and these are often some of the most gifted and capable as they may have many years of previous experience in manufacturing or assembly of parts.  Someone who shows a flair for ideas and understanding of mechanisms on the shop floor can still aim to be a designer if they so wish.  Whilst a good education is a valuable asset, many of the skills required to be a successful Formula 1 design engineer cannot be learnt from a lecture or text book and it takes a long time to gain the necessary experience.  Design is essentially an art form.

The best designers are the prize possessions of the teams and senior personnel can command very high salaries indeed, perhaps more than £100,000 per annum in many cases.  Starting salaries are however much, much lower and it is not untypical for graduates or placements to be very poorly paid.  For those who can prove themselves in the design office environment, this will quickly change but competition for those chances is very high and so the teams are not obliged to pay well.  To get a job as a junior design engineer is very difficult and getting the right CV, education or experience is critical to making your application stand out from the masses.  Contrary to what many people believe, it is not necessary to understand the inner workings of a seamless-shift gearbox or to be able to recite the theory behind double diffusers in order to get a job in F1.  Far more important than that is the ability to work hard, to show initiative and to apply logical thought to a problem.  Demonstrating these personal skills will be key to your application and CV and involving yourself in activities where you can develop and practice these skills is critical before you apply to one of the teams.

In future posts I hope to expand more on what kinds of skills F1 team managers and senior engineers are looking for from their applicants and what the do’s and dont’s of a good job application are.  In my next post I will run through the role of the F1 race engineer and what skills this very different job requires.  Feel free to comment or ask questions about anything I have written here or any other job roles you wish to me to describe.  Its a very busy time for us with the new car about to launch but hopefully I will get some spare time to write.  The new season is almost upon us which always one of the best times of the year and some good inspiration to follow those dreams of your F1 career !

Good luck.

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