Tech Draft: Path to an engineering career in Formula 1

Red Bull Racing Factory in Milton Keynes F1

Working in Formula 1 at any capacity is a dream for many who follow the sport from afar, amazed by the glamour and glitz it radiates.

But what is the reality? Here’s a guide to an engineering career in F1.

Over the years I have lost count of the number of times a parent has asked me how their adult child, studying engineering at the university, would go about pursuing a career at the pinnacle of motorsport

However, I can certainly remember what my response was every time.

Unless they are prepared for a hard slog with the high likelihood of knockbacks and failures, long hours in a factory with likely sub-par wages even if they do make it, along with a very low probability of ever making it to the holy grail of the race team; then don’t do it!

Now, that might seem harsh and negative, but anyone considering a technical role in F1 as a career will only be serving their own best interests by entering this pursuit with their eyes wide open, by acutely being aware of how restricted and ultra-competitive an entry into the industry is, and how demanding it will be if they are indeed successful in their endeavour.

In total, F1 teams employ somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people, depending on your source of information, and the operational bases are in Switzerland, Italy, and the UK.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that unless a potential undergraduate has a passport from one of those countries, the possibility of them working in F1 is already severely restricted because of work permit regulations.

However, in the case of passport holders from British Commonwealth countries who are under the age of 30, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc, work permits are possible for the UK.

Finding a job in F1 is not like it used to be 20 or 30 years ago, because as the public profile of the sport has risen, engineering careers in F1 have become highly desirable. As a result, the recruiting process for the very finite number of roles open at any given time are extremely competitive.

Unless the role is a more senior and experienced one, a successful candidate won’t be going to the track and must be prepared for a long hard grind at the factory.

Sure, the opportunity to work in an F1 engineering office would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at the forefront of the innovation envelope, but to start with, the tasks will be at a singular compartmentalized technical level.

Nevertheless, over time the opportunity to broaden and diversify experience will come. F1 factory engineering isn’t a 40-hour week, at times it’s a 6 or even 7 days a week role with up to 12-16 hours a day.

What about the pay? Those graduate engineers who started with the team 25 years ago were just made Technical Directors on £450K, but they suffer from hypertension, are divorced, and hardly know their own children.

A graduate engineer shouldn’t expect to earn much more than £35K, regardless of how well their thesis was graded by their professor, and how many hours a week they are working.

OK, so if by now I have failed to convince that a career in F1 is a bad choice, how about a bit of constructive advice to those undergraduate engineering students who still wish to pursue a career in F1?

  • Pick a relevant speciality as early as you can, hydraulics, fluid dynamics, composite structures, material science etc. Especially at entry-level in F1, engineers work in highly specific fields. Broader engineering opportunities come with time and experience.
  • Become involved in curricular or extracurricular projects such as Formula SAE, which provide a great opportunity not only to learn how to innovate and integrate but also to project manage and communicate as an engineer with stakeholders.
  • Lend your time at your local circuit to help a karting or Formula Ford team, or something like that. It is important to become familiar with the motorsport world, walk the walk, and talk the talk. These types of opportunities are great in understanding the basics of vehicle dynamics, trackside engineering processes, and race team logistics.
  • Study hard and don’t give up!

To aspire to have a career in F1 is enviable. If successful, it will be a tough gig, it must be a career-driven by passion for the sport, and whilst it might not end up over rewarding you financially, it will reward you in many other ways that are too many to mention.