Full speed ahead: motorsport industry career guide for graduate engineers

Written by: Evelyn Adams, Stephen Harris
Published on: 17 Mar 2015

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Source: Infiniti Red Bull

Why work in motorsport engineering?

It epitomises classic engineering and advanced technology

The roar of the engines, the smell of the petrol, the beauty of the designs: motorsport taps into the primal sensations that have excited engineers for generations.

Engineering today takes many forms but working in motorsport means you can get stuck into the classic experience of making a mechanical machine more powerful, efficient and effective, with the added bonus of a wildly thrilling end product.

At the same time, however, it’s also a chance to work at the cutting edge of technology, bringing together multiple disciplines from electronics to aerodynamics to software.

Motorsport firms often have big budgets – the sector spends a quarter of its income on research and development – and even bigger ambitions so have access to some of the best tools in the business.

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Source: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

It offers a serious intellectual challenge

Aside from its excitement, motorsport also represents some of the biggest challenges an engineer can take on. Motor racing is literally a matter of life or death and so requires ultra-high precision in its design and manufacturing. Plus the high speeds, high temperatures and strict rules create a unique set of constraints that motorsport engineers have to operate in.

“There are so many exciting projects and challenges for engineers that go beyond simply designing, manufacturing and engineering racing cars and bikes,” said said Clive Temple, programme director of Advanced Motorsport Engineering at Cranfield University.

“You will need to be academically strong where maths and physics are concerned. These two subjects are key to developing an understanding of engineering and then applying your engineering expertise in a practical way.”

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Source: Mark Thompson/Infiniti Red Bull

It’s a thriving, world-leading industry

Motorsport has now become known as the ‘jewel in the crown of British engineering’ contributing, £9bn to the UK economy – a figure that has doubled over the past 15 years, despite the recent global recession.

Last year, eight of the 11 teams racing in Formula One (F1) including McLaren, Red Bull, Lotus and Mercedes were based in the UK, arguably making it the global capital of motorsport engineering.

And around those teams there are 4,300 UK businesses operating in the sector, supporting not only F1 but also the many other motor car and bike teams that compete around the world.

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Source: Mercedes AMG Petronas

What exactly does the sector do?
Design, build and race cars is the obvious answer. “But there is much more to motorsport than F1,” said Temple. “There are all the component suppliers and manufacturers too. Interestingly, a valuable segment within motorsport is the historic side as borne out by the interest in events such as the Silverstone Classic and Goodwood meetings. And it’s not just on track and on four wheels. There is off-road and two wheel, even three-wheel motorsport.”

Anyone working in the sector also has the challenge of keeping the sport relevant, facing a fresh set of challenges, for instance, with a focus on energy-efficient technologies. “Opportunities are changing,” said Temple. “Take the Mercedes-AMG high- performance powertrains activity at Brixworth. These are now powertrains, not just engines as they were once described.

“There is the integration of energy recovery systems and the Northamptonshire-based operation is linked into the heart of Mercedes in Germany – driving its research and development. Environmental considerations are a real dynamic in motorsport with disruptive technologies to the fore. [Electric racing series] Formula E exemplifies this and so does hybridisation of Le Mans prototypes that run in endurance racing.”

Motorsport article image 3Source: KWSP
As a result, there is far more scope for engineering innovation. The 24 hours of Le Mans, for example, has an entry called ‘Garage  56’ in which a team does not have to comply with the standard regulations and so can develop a ‘concept’ car using new innovative technologies. Nissan did this last year with the ZEOD, and before that the Deltawing revealed its radical energy-efficient design that looks like a cross between a fighter jet and the Batmobile.

Innovation from designing and building a winning car is also used in other sectors. For instance, McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) is using some of the lessons learned from F1 in other industries such as healthcare, as well as other sports, such as cycling, rowing and skeleton. Meanwhile, Williams has taken motorsport expertise in energy-efficient technologies into sectors such as public transport.

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Source: KWSP

What kind of jobs are on offer?
For engineers hoping to carve out a career in the UK motorsport industry, there are a range of opportunities, from office-based jobs, designing and testing parts for cars using CAD/CAM software, to working in the supply chain, manufacturing complex and often secretive parts to race teams who require rapid turnaround times.

There is also a broad range of support and service roles, from developing fuels to creating IT systems that analyse and feedback huge amounts of data, to the maintenance and operations engineers who work trackside to keep the cars in top condition.

“The sector embraces a wide range of companies from the well-known teams to small but dynamic companies providing a plethora of engineering services,” said Temple.

In fact, around 35,000 people are not directly employed by racing teams, but work in smaller companies within the supply chain. “Often, the smaller the team the more responsibilities the engineers have as they have to do several jobs at one time,” said Gemma Hatton, a course representative for advanced motorsport engineering at Cranfield University.

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Source: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

And where are they?
Overall, the UK motorsport industry sustains almost 41,000 jobs. Many of them are in an area known as Motorsport Valley, which describes an area roughly 80 miles wide stretching from the south west of Birmingham through Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. There are also outlying firms south of London, in East Anglia and as far north as Leeds.

Larger teams, such as Mercedes and Red Bull, employ around 700 people in the area, while teams such as Force India have about 300 employees. There are also hundreds of much smaller businesses clustered around the country.

‘Motorsport is a niche industry, and once you are in everyone knows everyone or every team is linked to another in some way – it really is a small world,’ said Hatton.

‘My main advice to anyone considering a career in the sector would be to get yourself to racetracks, always do a good job no matter what that job is, never upset anyone because word spreads quickly and always say yes to any opportunity.’