Understanding the motorsport industry

Big Fish and little ponds

When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a racing driver. Not just that, I wanted to be a Formula 1 driver and I was going to race for Ferrari…

raikkonnen ferrari
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I might not quite have made the racing driver bit but I have worked for some of the greatest names in motorsport in my career, a fact that has given me a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction.

Don’t narrow your goals too much

The central theme of this website has been the question “How can I get a job in F1?”. Whilst that is still the most common query I get, I also hear many people saying “How can I get a job at Red Bull?” or “What do I need to do to get a job at Mclaren?”. I just have a word of warning about being too specific.

Whilst it is fine to have personal favourites, if you are serious about working in F1 then you need to keep your options open. Red Bull might be the most successful team of recent years but will it still be in 3 more years? If you were offered a job at Marussia F1 would you not take it? There are pro’s and con’s to working at front running teams vs working at the less successful end of the grid.

Are the “best” teams actually the BEST teams?

Who doesn’t like winning? I’m a hugely competitive person and love to win in whatever I do. When you work in Formula 1 however there are a lot more factors to consider as to whether or not you enjoy your job and you get the most out of your career than whether you work in the “best” team or not. This is especially important when you are just starting out. There will be plenty of time for winning later, and the most important thing now is getting your first job and establishing yourself as a Formula 1 person.

Take a team like Mclaren for example. They might have around 600 employees and may take on graduates and apprentices in a number of different areas of their business each year. Each department however only looks after a very small part of the racing car and you are not likely to get involved in other areas as they have specialist people in each division. Each employee gets a win bonus and takes pride in the team’s undoubted success.

marussiaf1
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Marussia on the other hand might only have 150 employees. They only take on new people as and when they need them but with so much to do a new employee is likely to be given much greater responsibility and therefore end up making a much larger contribution to the car and team. Success for them is much more modest but even a single point scored over a season could be as satisfying as a championship would be to McLaren.

The advantages of being a big fish in a little pond
Although most people would naturally aim to work at one of the teams at the front of the grid my advice is to seriously consider concentrating your efforts further down the grid, at least at first. Why? Well there are several reasons.

There is less competition. For every 20 people who apply for a job at McLaren, only a handful will apply to work at Marussia. You would be amazed how much teams further back on the grid struggle to recruit quality people. They still get a lot of applications of course but as people trip over themselves trying to get a coveted place at Red Bull you could really stand out if you make a good application to Marussia or Caterham. Once you have a job in F1 you have made it into an exclusive club and getting your second job is an awful lot easier.

Secondly, you might learn more. As I mentioned above the small teams need 1 person to cover several jobs and may even move people about to cover skills shortages during different busy times. When you are in the business of learning this is the best way as you get put in at the deep end. You’ll come out of that as a better engineer. The downside is that there may not be as many experienced people in your group to learn from but this is an inevitable flipside.

Thirdly, you can further your career much more easily by being a big fish in a small pond. Many of today’s technical directors have reached the places they are today by working their way to seniority in a small team, learning as they go and then spring boarding across to a top job in a front running team. Working your way up through the large teams from the very bottom is extremely difficult these days.

Adrian Newey made a name for himself working at the very underfunded March / Leyton House team in the early 90’s with a car that often failed to qualify but within 2 years he was chief designer at the all conquering Williams-Renault team and has never looked back. James Key, Sam Michael, Mark Smith, Mike Gascoyne and others cut their teeth at what is now the Force India team(previously Jordan), I could go on but even if you don’t want to be a technical director or chief designer, the same principle applies and you can build the broad foundations of your knowledge and your career away from the bright lights in a more flexible environment.

Be prepared for frustration
Inevitably there are downsides to working at the smaller and less well funded teams. The primary risk is that these teams are less financially stable and their very existence is not guaranteed for more than the next 12 months. This risk lessens as you move further into the midfield but its a fact of life in motor racing and no team is immune from external market forces.

The void between the big teams and the small teams is often most in evidence when looking at their factories and facilities. The McLaren Technical Centre in Woking is probably the most modern and impressive facility in world motorsport and is designed by a famous firm of architect. Many other teams bases are located in dull looking industrial estates alongside haulage firms or supermarkets, hardly the glamour you might expect.

Salaries at the smaller teams may also be short of what the larger teams are offering but if you can make progress in your career more quickly by following that route then you should soon be on a par or moving beyond your more static colleagues. As with all things in Formula 1, it is what you make of the opportunities that you get that counts.

Further reading

Please take a look elsewhere on this site for other help and guidance on what you need to do to work in F1. The FAQ section should soon be up and running and should be the first port of call to answer many commonly asked questions.

You can also follow me on Twitter @Work_in_F1 or on Facebook.

Best of luck and see you on the grid someday.

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