Formula Student is a tremendously success initiative. Since its introduction in 1998, the number of participants and the profile of the competition has increased exponentially with the event now attracting wide press coverage and a paying crowd. In terms of being a training ground for future F1 engineers however, is it now a victim of its own success ? In this post I’ll explain why I think you need to be very careful about Formula Student and how to avoid the same trap as so many aspiring students of F1.
Formula Student – A great idea
Formula Student has its history, like so many things, in the United States following in the footsteps of the hugely successful Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). It is essentially a competition between universities and colleges where teams of students design and manufacture single seater racing cars to a strict set of rules. Those same teams then run their cars at a Formula Student event, putting it through a variety of different tests in order to find the overall winning vehicle. There is a considerable amount of prestige that comes with winning Formula Student.
Formula Student was not around when I studied for my degree but I remember feeling very jealous when I learned that university students would get to design and compete with their own single seater car as part of their studies. What a perfect way to learn and demonstrate your skills to a potential motorsport employer!
Many engineering degree courses are heavily theoretical and mathematics based (for good reason mind you) and so the opportunity to “get your hands dirty” is, or was quite rare unless you were lucky enough to know someone who owned a racing car. Formula Student has changed things and brought that opportunity to great numbers of students who would not otherwise have been involved. Formula Student has no barriers to entry and is open to anyone who chooses to attend a university or college which enter the competition. Formula Student may be small scale compared to Formula 1 but the process, mindset and competitive aspects are incredibly similar. There is no doubt about it, Formula Student is great preparation for working in F1.
The problem with Formula Student
Formula Student may be a great idea and a great competition but unfortunately there is very one big drawback to it. The experience and training it provides might be great, but I and many other F1 recruiters are not always 100% convinced about Formula Student anymore. Why is this you might ask? Well, to put it bluntly, so many people are doing it that it just doesn’t make the big difference that it used to. A little harsh perhaps but let me explain a little more.
When I recruit, I’m looking for a standout individual. It is one of the most important decisions I make in my job. I look for people who do well at school and in university examinations but as well as that I look for someone who has the initiative and drive to work without supervision and to innovate without being told. Many people say that they can do this, but in truth only the very few actually can and it is this skill and personal attribute that often sets apart an “F1 person” from a more ordinary recruit. The difficult bit of recruiting is finding those people amongst the pile of otherwise ordinary CV’s.
If I advertise for a graduate, I will get a lot of applicants responding just because it is F1. It is a lot of applications to get through and so I have to skim read just to save time. Of those I read I would estimate that somewhere between 50% – 75% will have been involved in Formula Student in some way during their studies. Many base the majority of their application on it. The problem with that is that by the time I have read the 100th application about Formula Student I tend to get a little bit bored. It might be good training and a good experience but the plain facts are that if you don’t make the most of it and show me how you have learnt from it then I just won’t pay that much attention to you. If everyone is doing it there is a danger that there will be nothing unique or interesting about it and that unfortunately reflects on the applicant too.
This might be a harsh assessment of the situation but I think it’s pretty close to the truth. The facts are that you cannot simply rely on Formula Student to make you a standout candidate for F1 without showing me what it has taught you and why you made more of it than other candidates. Just being an anonymous member of a Formula Student team does not mark you out as an innovator.
Standing out from the crowd
I was lucky enough to go along to the Formula Student competition at Silverstone a few years ago. Students get to use the (old) F1 pit garages to work on and display their cars & project material with visitors able to walk around and talk to the students when they are not competing.
Some of the cars and displays are truly impressive I must say. I spoke with several groups to ask about their cars and how they worked. Some students were clearly 100% involved and very eager to explain why there cars had been built the way they were and why they believed this to be an advantage. It was great to see.
In contrast however, a great number of students seemed rather disengaged from the whole project and did not show the same enthusiasm. It was rather disappointing. One group in particular had a great display about how they had developed their engine and worked with external suppliers to maximise its performance but in person were unable to explain even the simple fundamentals of their design. This experience left me wondering how many of the students are simply along for the ride and don’t actually get involved a great deal. The average Formula Student team is quite large these days and I imagine that it must be quite easy to hide in the shadows and let others do the work. The cynical part of me thinks that many students do it just to add to their CV and don’t really make the most of the opportunity it presents. When I see Formula Student on an application these days I am not easily impressed unless that candidate can really tell me what they have contributed and why.
To stand out from the crowd, to rise above the mediocre you have to do something special. Formula Student can easily be the platform to let you do that but only if you have put something special into it and made it your own. Some FS teams can have 30 or more members so even within that team you need to stand out never mind when you consider that you are competing against so many other teams at the same time. I keep coming back to this theme but you need to get out there and do something out of the ordinary and make me or another recruiter sit up and take notice if you want to get into F1. Formula Student itself is so common now that it has served to simply raise the bar and lift the standards that we expect and so you also need to move further and push yourself further as a result.
Don’t rely on others – get out there and make it your own.
Keep in touch
The 2014 season is well underway now and despite reservations about the sound of the new cars and doubts about the new technologies I think F1 has proved that it can still provide as much thrill and excitement as it has at any time in its history. I’m already working on our 2015 car (can you believe it?) but should have time to keep the blog up and write about some relevant topics.
If you want to keep up with those future posts you can follow my blog using the box just below this post, and join my ever increasing band of merry followers ! I’m amazed how many people have been keeping up with my ramblings, we might have enough to start our own team soon ! Why don’t you join in?
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Best of luck and here is to a good result in Spain in a few weeks time.