Educational routes to motorsportUnderstanding the motorsport industry

Career Changers – moving to F1 later in life

Much of the focus of this blog has been on school, university and making the early part of your career in motorsport. The majority of you have had a clear passion and desire to get a job in F1 from an early age and so this is the most natural way to try to fulfil that goal.

A number of you however are considering F1 at a later point in life, perhaps after discovering your passion after you have started work in another area or in other cases having a second try having been frustrated by the difficulties of breaking into racing the first time around. Either way, heading for F1 later in life presents some unique challenges but also some distinct advantages that you need to be aware of before you set out on this journey.

A young man’s game

F1 has traditionally been a young man’s game. The danger inherent in the sport (as sadly we have been all too recently reminded) typically meant that in the 1960’s and 70’s drivers had relatively short careers. This was either because they suffered death or serious injury directly themselves or once they had fulfilled their career ambitions they felt the risk was too high to justify long term involvement. As safety has improved, driver’s careers have lasted longer but the intensity of the schedule and the pressure of racing still favours the young.

I’m assuming by reading this far however that your ambitions behind the wheel are over and your aspirations for a career in racing are either on the pitwall or at the factory. The drivers might be getting older but does this pattern affect the rest of the team and is it practical to change careers and move into F1 later in life?

First thing is first, old or young, getting involved in F1 is never easy. F1 is a career that takes consistent commitment and convincing any potential employer that you are serious about your career and are in it for the long haul rather than just the glory is one of the toughest parts. So many people SAY that they are committed but actions speak louder than words your experience, results and work history will be the only way that you can PROVE that you have the right stuff.

As a career changer, you’ve reached the first hurdle. When I advertise for a vacancy in my team, I can often see that a graduate or a person early in their career has had a tunnel vision-like focus on motorsport through their hobbies, school subject and university course and I can easily be convinced that this person will give 110% to further the team’s and the car’s performance. This is a definite plus and if they have the academic results and communication skills to match then I will definitely consider them for an interview.

If you decide you want to change to F1 later in your career it raises inevitable questions in a recruiter’s mind about why you have left it so late and are you likely to be as committed as somebody who has never deviated from the path. Will you decide in a few years time that it’s not for you and will you switch back to your origins, career? Have the work ethics and commitment required by your existing job conditioned you to a more comfortable way of life that isn’t compatible with life in a high pressure environment like F1? Questions like these are inevitable unfortunately and like it or not, you will be subject to more scrutiny that a younger job seeker and will have more to prove before you get the opportunity to show what you can do.

Experience counts for a lot

You may be starting on the back foot but there is some good news in that you will have more work experience and life skills to draw upon in order to put your case forward than most school leavers or graduates. Academic performance is important in many roles but real life experience and in the job performance are more critical to F1 teams. Fresh graduates or school leavers are left frustrated if they do not have sufficient extra-curricular experience to show how they perform outside of the classroom and much of what I teach is how to get out of the compulsory education environment and explore your creativity and independent thinking. As someone who has already forged a career for themselves you will have the instant advantage of being able to demonstrate your skills and prove your suitability.

Here you will come to your second hurdle. Formula 1 and motorsport in general are not very typical workplaces. They do not fit the 9-5 commitment model and there are only a few careers that demand as much of you as racing does. You may have plenty of work experience to show but if it is in an environment which is significantly different from motorsport then it’s relevance will be greatly diminished. In the worst cases that time served in another industry can actually tarnish your reputation and confirm the initial doubts about your suitability to racing. It’s a harsh truth but not all work experience is good experience when it comes to F1.

The reason that F1 teams require either fresh work placement students or experienced motorsport staff is because it is very hard to work out at interview that somebody is suited to working in racing. Hiring the wrong people is costly for small companies like F1 teams and so there is a safety in hiring from within the industry or taking on young experienced people and moulding them to their way of working. The problem with older staff moving into F1 later in life is that there is a perception that it is much harder to teach an old dog new tricks. You may think that you have what it takes and be prepared to throw yourself into a new role but the team does not know you very well and there is a huge risk associated with taking a gamble on you. If you are up against someone with previous motorsport experience or a younger candidate then you will have to do a better job than them of convincing the team that you are the right person for the job.

In a fast moving and competitive environment in F1 there are only a few comparable industries where skills are readily transferable. In my opinion these are (not exclusively but to give you an idea) :

  • The military
  • Startups or small companies of less than 50 people
  • Motorsport supplier companies
  • Sports/performance industries such as athletics, cycling or rugby
  • Software or computer tech. companies
  • Aerospace

This is not an exclusive list of course but it’s aimed at giving you an idea which areas are most likely to be relevant to motorsport. You may have noticed that I have not included the general automotive industry in that list and this is very deliberate. The subject matter, cars, might be the same but the pace and technology are very different and I think it is very common but surprising to many that the general automotive industry is not looked upon favourably in motorsport. I have included Aerospace at the bottom of that list because although project cycle times are very long and slow in that industry (a bad thing), the technologies and techniques which is uses are actually much more relevant to motorsport than those used in the automotive industry. I’m not saying that you can’t crossover from other industries but the less relevant your experience the taller the task will be and the more additional work and sacrifices you will have to make in order to succeed.

Taking a step backwards

Career progression is natural desire for most people because we believe that as our experience and abilities grow then we should be rewarded with more responsible positions and a higher salary or better benefits. Most companies use this progression ladder to retain valued staff and keep them interest and motivated. As long as you stay on the same or a similar career path then this progression comes relatively easily for most people and you are happy or satisfied at least.

When it comes to career changers however the rules become slightly different and this progression you were following might have to come to a halt or even reverse, temporarily at least. As we discussed earlier experience is only of value if it is relevant to the new career that you are heading for and so up if you are considering a career change you may have to be prepared to step backwards at first in order to re-align yourself with an appropriate experience level or salary grade. Easy to say but this can be hard to swallow especially if you have dependants or a family to feed. Pursuing your own career goals and ambitions must at this point be balanced with the requirement placed on you as a provider and this can present a significant hurdle.

In my book “How to get a job in Grand Prix Racing” there is an entire section dedicated to volunteering and offering your services for free in order to build up experiences relevant to motorsport. When you are young, without a steady income and have no dependents or significant outgoings then it is possible to give up your time to invest in your future career. Many people think it’s somehow below them but the really ambitious ones will see how easily a voluntary position can grow into a promising career opening.

As a later career change however this possibilty is much difficult. The commitment to family or bills to pay mean that it is much harder to forgoe a steady income or lifestyle than it is when you are young. There is nothing to lose when you have nothing to turn your back on but if you are walking away from a steady or even successful career then you need to be much stronger in your own mind. This is a true test.

Even if you do not volunteer (I would seriously consider it in some capacity at least) then you will need to be prepared to take some kind of pay cut or loss in seniority. Until you can build up that bank of experience and respect you will be the junior once again and that can be hard to swallow.

Natural progression

Despite all of the above warnings and pessimism, there are some roles that you can step into as part of your natural career progression. This is not likely to apply to many, if any trackside roles but several factory roles can just be part of your natural career movements company to company if the right opportunity comes up. The less motorsport specific your target role is then the more likely you are to be able to benefit from this. Typical roles I am thinking of are software engineers, accountants and IT or human resources people. This might be good news but only for a selected few because in any team these roles make up a very small percentage of the total workforce and as a result the opportunities will be very small in numbers. Anything is possible but once again you’ll have to work at it.

For any career changer, I would read the general advice that I give here on my blog and in my Kindle book and then sit back and consider your options. The most important thing to do is understand the motorsport industry, the types of roles available and think about how you might appear to a motorsport recruiter. The more knowledge you can have of how things work in racing the better as it is often a very different environment to what you are used to or indeed how it appears on television. My best advice to you is to consider something outside of Formula 1 first, perhaps at a motorsport supplier or another constructor before setting your sights at the top. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to consider only where you are now and the end goal of F1. There are many, many places in between and for both career changers and fresh school leavers alike there are a wealth of opportunities and stepping stones along that journey. Look beyond the crowds, do your learning away from the hype and pressure of the premier category and you will soon find that knowledge, experience and contacts can be collected much more easily. Not sure what I am talking about? Well then, you definitely have some learning to do so make a start and get to know your enemy.

Without a doubt, changing careers is always a difficult and brave move but aiming for a late entry into motorsport is likely to be particularly challenging. There is nothing to stop you however and Formula 1 teams are always looking for unique and ambitious people who can potentially give them an advantage over the competition. You could easily be that unique advantage. By building up the right skills and by selling yourself in the right way you can carve out a niche for yourself and enjoy a successful and fruitful career in racing.

Good luck and I hope to see you on the grid someday.

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4 thoughts on “Career Changers – moving to F1 later in life

  1. Yet again cracking advice, offered by one who has the insight of being on the inside track. I know of a number of former students who changed careers and now work in F1. Some went straight into F1. Others went via other companies such as Alcon Components and Xtrac. As ever look beyond F1 as well as inside F1 to realise your ambitions.

  2. Thanks for the inspiration. Working with software as a self-employed consultant I run into the 9-5 mentality at customer site. Sometimes I get frustrated, not only do they leave job unfinished, they seldom want to learn new things and it always somebody’s else fault that they can’t do a proper job. So besides my interest in the sport, I find it stimulating when the job is impossible and failure is not an option.

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