In pole position

Motorsport is the pinnacle of UK engineering, but how does a budding engineer get into the closed world of such a competitive business?

The UK leads the world in motorsport. It is a centre of excellence for high-performance automotive engineering, with an estimated 75 per cent of the global market. It has a wealth of motorsport companies whose precision engineering and advanced technology skills are increasingly exploited by the mainstream automotive industry.

In Formula 1 seven of the 11 constructors, including Jaguar, McLaren, Williams and Jordan, are based in the UK. British motorsport companies supply the majority of cars and components to US Indycar racing and other major racing formulas in the US. UK firms prepare cars for Hyundai, Subaru and Mitsubishi in the World Rally Championships.

But competition for those seeking a career in motorsport is cut-throat. Though this booming sector provides employment for more graduates and postgraduates than ever before, right up to Formula 1, the number of applicants still far outweighs posts. But paradoxically 39 per cent of motorsport companies report recruitment difficulties and skills shortages.

‘Although we are flooded with applications the calibre of the majority is just not up to standard. As a result it is difficult to recruit the right people at every level,’ says Tim Holloway, head of engineering at Jordan.

Special delivery

A way out of this paradox could be provided by a growing number of specialised motorsport courses – HNDs, degrees and postgraduate – now offered by universities. Most have been developed with the industry and are seen as a way of ensuring that UK motorsport companies maintain their pre-eminence via a pool of high-calibre engineers with an automotive bias and management potential.

The University of Central Lancashire runs a BSc course and HND in motorsports; Brooklands College in Surrey and Oxford Brookes University offer HND courses; and the University of Derby has an HND motorsports technology course. Oxford Brookes also has a BEng degree in automotive engineering with sponsorship available through companies such as Prodrive, TWR and Reynard.

Since 2000 Cranfield University has offered a degree in Motorsport Engineering and Management. The aim of this Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded MSc is to develop engineering and technical expertise in motorsport, and provide management development tailored towards the discipline.

Jordan takes on at least one motorsport graduate each year, usually through its involvement with the Formula Student programme. Traditionally engineers employed by motor racing teams were expected to be able to turn their hands to most things, but in today’s more sophisticated F1 environment Holloway says people are drawn from different backgrounds for specialist roles within the team. ‘Graduates from specialist racing courses tend to be more practical and we target them for certain roles, like those in the design office, while other openings, such as in vehicle dynamics, tend to suit people with a purely academic background. We are spreading the net more widely to recruit the right people.’

Holloway believes the specialist courses have ironed out initial teething problems, and most now have the right syllabus. ‘Initially many tried to cover too much,’ he says.

His advice to those considering a career in motorsport is to decide first where their interest lies – on the theoretical or practical side – then choose a first degree accordingly. On balance, says Holloway, top-flight academic students would still be advised to undertake a conventional engineering course first and pick up practical experience later.

Cranfield’s course was set up with close co-operation from industry and has a steering committee of industry figures headed by Sir Jackie Stewart. Course director Dr Jeff Alcock says, ‘The aim of our MSc is to take the most able applicants and make them more employable by motorsport companies. If you like, we provide the key to unlock the motorsports sector.’ Of last year’s 22 graduates 75 per cent have found placements with relevant firms.

The majority of Cranfield’s entrants still join following conventional engineering degrees, with a few starting after automotive engineering courses. On balance Alcock believes that the best advice to anyone considering a postgraduate qualification en route to a career in this sector would be to obtain a traditional engineering degree at a good university and endeavour to get a first or 2:1. ‘In the two years of our MSc programme so far none of the successful applicants has had a first degree in motorsports,’ he says.

However, while many of these courses are highly thought of, not everyone is convinced of the depth of knowledge imparted. ‘Some courses seem a bit loose around the edges,’ says Mark Bideleux of specialist recruitment consultant ACR Solutions. ‘While some courses are very good, others do not seem to teach maths and science to the same level as you would expect in a traditional engineering or science course.’

Similarly, courses are structured differently. ‘Some HNDs are very practical, and are geared to produce race technicians and mechanics rather than design or development engineers,’ says Bideleux.

But Dr James Balkwill, course leader at Oxford Brookes, disagrees. He is convinced that, far from lessening the depth of knowledge of graduates, accredited automotive degree courses can enhance the quality and depth of the skills required by industry. ‘As a course accredited by the IMechE we teach the basics to the same level as any mechanical engineering course, but then go further into specialist areas such as aerodynamics, chassis dynamics, powertrain engineering and automotive electronics.’

He adds that three-quarters of graduates from Oxford Brookes go directly into industry placements. Through its contacts with industry the university can also provide third-year placements for students to gain that vital industry experience.

Accelerated salaries

Others warn that though a relevant first degree may provide a foot in the door employers are also looking for evidence of creativity, drive and enthusiasm for the sport. Proof of an interest or experience of racing is a crucial element of a successful CV. Many gain experience through involvement in racing as a hobby, taking part in the Formula Student programme or obtaining work experience with relevant companies.

For those who do manage to storm the citadel, one thing everyone agrees on is that motorsport engineering is not for those seeking a steady, predictable job. Ideal candidates are creative, hard-working team players who thrive under pressure and who are not put off by long hours.

On the other hand, salaries tend to be higher in this sector than elsewhere in engineering, reflecting the long hours and pressure to work to deadlines. Graduates may earn less than average at around £14,000, but the industry’s flat management structure makes fast advancement far more common and salaries rise quickly. Engineers in their early to mid-30s tend to be on £40-50,000.

According to the Motorsport Industry Association, motorsport offers a genuine career alternative for engineers, with sound, established companies offering career paths to rival anything in the mainstream. Successful engineers can move easily to overseas posts, particularly in the US, and motorsport experience is seen as a valuable addition to any CV.

Sidebar: University challenge

The Formula Student competition to build and race single-seater racing cars attracts 16 university teams from the UK, Germany, North America and Mexico. Organised by the IMechE and sponsored by major industry names, this event is considered by many as an ideal way to gain valuable experience of the sector.

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Sidebar: A very British sport

According to the Motorsport Industry Association, around 40,000 people are employed in motorsports, with 25,000 in engineering at research, design engineering and production facilities. The sector has an annual turnover of £2.9bn. Companies range from an average 23 employees for specialist firms to 300 for an F1 team.

Around 70 per cent of the £4.8bn industry is in ‘Motorsport Valley’, which runs from the south coast up through the Midlands and into East Anglia. It is a global centre for production of performance cars, chassis, engines, brakes, suspensions and transmission systems, telemetry and other products, with a complete range of services and facilities.

Employment in the industry has risen by 260 per cent over the past 10 years, drawing in engineers from disciplines not traditionally part of motor racing, such as electronics, aeronautics and composite materials.

Around 75 per cent of single-seater racing cars are British built; 80 per cent of F1 races in the past decade were won by British-built cars.