Life in the fast lane

It takes stamina and true grit, not to mention personality and passion, to make it as a successful motorsport engineer, writes Steve McCormack. The rewards for the dedicated are glory, riches and sleepless nights.

Motorsport represents the most glamorous end of the engineering spectrum whether its Formula One, rallying or the Le Mans 24-hour race.

The UK’s Motorsport Valley — an area extending from the south coast through the Midlands to East Anglia — is the premier production site for global motorsport. The sector employs upwards of 25,000 engineers. The size of companies varies greatly, from an average of 23 employees for specialist engineering firms, to 300 people for an F1 team.

The bad news is that a lot of people are enthused by the sport, so competition for jobs is intense. And, if you do manage to break into this elite, will it really be as attractive as it seems? Instead of glamour and excitement, will you instead find a world of relentless pressure and continual deadlines?

At the pinnacle of world motor car racing is F1, seven of whose 11 constructors are based in the UK, including McLaren, Williams, Jordan and Jaguar. Essentially, the same technology is also used in Indycars produced for the US oval-racing tournament by companies such as Penske Cars, based in Poole, Dorset.

Research and development is a key function of this sector, and, according to the Motorsport Industry Association, more than 20% of turnover is ploughed back into R&D. Add to this the stunning growth of the UK industry over the past 10 years, and the prospects look good for engineers from a whole range of disciplines wishing to make a career in the sector.

‘Ten years ago this was a relatively incestuous business,’ says Nigel Beresford, head of engineering at Penske Cars. ‘But it has recently mushroomed, attracting engineers from disciplines not traditionally part of motor racing.’

Today, most applicants have at least a first degree in a relevant subject. But there are some openings for non-graduates who have suitable experience. Some universities, such as Cranfield, are offering degrees in motorsport engineering. So it is possible to pick up a specialised first degree or to retrain to give yourself a better chance of entry.

A first class degree may provide a foot in the door, but employers are also looking for evidence of creativity and drive. ‘There are thousands of students on engineering courses in the UK, but we are not looking for someone who has simply gone through the academic engineering mill,’ says Beresford.

For these reasons, while motorsport companies receive literally thousands of CVs, the applicants rarely make the grade. In fact, the sector is experiencing a skills shortage, with 39% of organisations reporting recruitment difficulties.

To counter this, some firms are becoming involved in programmes to raise the profile of engineering in schools, supporting the creation of degree and masters courses in related subjects, and expanding internal training courses.

Being based in Motorsport Valley increases companies’ chances of recruitment, but also exposes them to poaching and a higher staff turnover. While some level of turnover is seen as inevitable, and even beneficial, it can be disruptive and costly, especially if replacements are hard to find.

Jaguar Racing, now in its second F1 season, is capitalising on the expertise of its more mainstream namesake to help satisfy skills shortages by allowing engineers to be seconded to the race team.

Dick Elsy, director of product engineering at Jaguar Cars had no shortage of volunteers for the secondments. Engineers were hand-picked to satisfy specific skills shortfalls and ensure their domestic arrangements (young children are a distinct disadvantage in this respect) and personalities were suited to the F1 environment. He hopes the experience will benefit those taking part and that the exchange of working methods and technologies will prove valuable for the two companies, forging closer links and integrating the F1 team into the larger organisation.

He recognises he may lose experienced engineers who catch the F1 bug and may not want to return to the mainstream. But, he argues, with its long hours, short lead times and quick turnaround mentality, the F1 environment doesn’t suit everybody. ‘It is speculative on our part — we stand to lose good people — but overall it will benefit our business and the F1 team.’

One thing everyone agrees on is that motorsport is not for those seeking a steady, predictable job. The right personality is crucial, and creative, hard-working team players who thrive under pressure are sought. ‘You have to meet deadlines: the race goes on regardless, so there is no hiding place,’ says Aylett. ‘Those who can’t cope tend to move on quickly.’

‘Ours is a sporting culture,’ says Sue Brown, human resources director at motorsport and automotive technology specialist Prodrive. ‘It is not just a job, it’s more of a vocation, one where you are well paid and well looked after.’

Salaries tend to be higher in the sector than mainstream engineering, reflecting the long hours and pressure on engineers working to deadlines. Some top F1 engineers earn in excess of $2m a year (average salaries are way above those in the ‘regular’ industry).

But Ben Bowlby, chief designer at Lola Cars International, sounds a note of caution. ‘Most engineers are paid an acceptable salary to work in this environment, so we can attract people from mainstream manufacturing. But it can be a close run thing on salary, and graduates are paid a little below the national average on joining. There is a lot of training and huge opportunities, though, plus a lot of freedom to develop.’ He adds that the industry’s flat management structure makes fast advancement far more common.

Lola, which designs cars for Formula 3000, Indycars and MG Rover’s Le Mans entry employs 35 engineering staff. It takes on three to five graduates a year to its training scheme, and Bowlby admits to being overwhelmed with applications.

It’s not surprising. Motorsport offers a genuine career alternative, with established companies offering career paths to rival anything in the mainstream. The global nature of the industry also means that successful engineers can easily transfer to overseas posts, particularly in the US.

Most vacancies are advertised in trade magazines such as Autosport, Race Tec or Race Car, or in publications such as The Engineer. But speculative approaches to potential employers are also recommended.

Evidence of an interest or experience of motorsport is an essential ingredient of a successful CV. Employers need to be sure candidates know what they are letting themselves in for. Likewise, experience counts more than youth, and mature candidates with the right background stand just as much chance of getting in. ‘A good guy is a good guy: age is no barrier to an experienced engineer,’ says Beresford.

Penske Cars relies on speculative approaches to fill its vacancies and never advertises for engineers. ‘You need a good engineering background and an interest in the sport, but you don’t have to be a racing anorak,’ says Beresford. ‘There are no barriers to anyone entering the industry. But you can’t be too proud to listen to other people’s ideas, and attitude and personality matter more than anything.’

On the web