To become a race engineer is a fun but potentially intimidating journey. What do you need to know? The following question was sent in by a reader. Here’s my reply – 5 fundamental things you should know, but might not often hear…

Hopefully this article helps you too – whether you are looking for a career as an engineer in motorsports or are just looking for inspiration on how the pro’s solve challenges you might have too. If you are not already, be sure to sign up for my weekly email Ahead of the Curve and let me know what you think 😊

I would like to be an engineer down the road. I would like to start at the beginning and get a grasp on the basics. If I have a challenge it’s that I don’t know very much at all and would like to learn as much as I can!

Taylor

Thanks for taking the time to write Taylor. I’m not sure how old you are but if your aspiration is to be an engineer in motorsports then here are a few thoughts for you. 

5 Fundamentals To Become A Race Engineer

The following are 5 areas, pretty much in order, that I believe will help you in your quest to better engineer a fast racecar – and driver 😉

1- Experiments

Everything in racing really comes down to controlled experiments. This goes as much for the driving as for the engineering.

Number one on my list is getting good at doing controlled experiments, and with an open mind…

Racing cars – and drivers – are super complex. That on its own is ok and you can learn all the theory in time.

Competing Priorities

The issue is that, in the heat of the moment, when you need to make a decision one way or the other, oftentimes you have competing priorities.

I’d suggest developing a methodical approach and getting good at designing experiments that give you information about predicting what will work best.

The Best Engineers Are (A Little) Paranoid!

The approach that works for me, and which I’ve seen others succeed with, is to take your time to really understand what issue you’re facing first – it is not always obvious and easy to assume.

Be a bit cautious – ok paranoid – about taking the first explanation that comes along.

When you’re happy, develop a clear theory of what you think is going to happen if you do a change. Remember it is still a theory though… your hypotheses they’d say in academia.

Test Your Learning

To test your new insights, send the car out. Then be open minded about whether the change “worked” and, critically, try to understand by how much.

It is ok if the change didn’t go as expected. You’re learning.

The idea is always building up your bank of knowledge. Do this by taking good notes and structured.

Try not being happy unless you objectively know what you believe is going on i.e. if you did the same thing 10 times, would it give you the same outcome every time?

Caution Your Ego

A mistake I see people make is to fit explanations to explain what’s happened. This is most often when things didn’t go as expected. Not always, but often to “save face” in front of their crew.

In my experience that just leads to more confusion down the line.

People who are more scientific – however dull this seems – invariably end up with a better ability to predict what is for the best.

One way to do this is to set expectations ahead of time. You have a theory your change will work, but there is a risk it might not turn out as expected. And that’s ok because whatever happens you’ll learn something more about the car, driver and track.

Take a listen to this podcast show with ace engineer Jeff Braun. He explains this process really well – in a way that makes simple to implement in a non-pro race team environment.

2- Tyres

They’re black and round… and boring!

Unfortunately tyres are everything on a race car. This is because ALL the forces from the car are transmitted through them to the road.

Tyres are the most important tuning device on the car.

Tyres are also one of the least understood components.

Even when you get a handle on what should be going on, they will do unexpected things. That is either frustrating or an opportunity, depending on your perspective. (Hopefully you’re thinking opportunity…… 😉)

I’ve some content here in articles and spreadsheets you’re welcome to grab, including this short Track Tyre Tuning Guide that pulls together most of the fundamentals about how to get more performance from your tyres.

3- Drivers

Essential but immensely frustrating – especially for engineers 😊

If the challenge of getting the most out of the car is not enough, drivers make life a lot more challenging. Even if you are engineering yourself as a driver, as I know from first hand experience!

That is the sport though and so the best engineers are the ones who can get the most from their drivers.

That invariably means giving the driver a car they feel confident in.

All well and good, until that means you, as an engineer, have to compromise potential car performance in order to achieve that. Some engineers just won’t do it.

This happens at all levels of racing and is not restricted to amateur ranks.

Others come up with ways to work with the driver to understand what they are struggling with, get them involved in the setup process (through acting on their feedback) and then give them the confidence to get all the laptime potential out of the car.

Sounds easy. Honestly it is far from it. Every driver is different.

Here is a guide on driver feedback. Take a listen to episode 39 of the podcast for how you can apply the way they do driver feedback in Formula 1.

4- Data

What actually happened out there? Is the car healthy? Did the setup change work as expected? Where can the driver improve?

These are all questions of immense value that data can help you answer.

Lets be clear. You don’t need data. People did fine before. But now it is available, and so prevalent, you would put yourself at a significant disadvantage. If you want to become a race engineer you need to embrace the numbers.

Data Is More Than The Logger

Data need not be restricted to sensor measurements on the car.

Data can include:

  • lap times,
  • driver feedback,
  • visual inspections of the tyre surface,
  • onboard video of the driver in the car,
  • the weight and mass distribution of a car,
  • track topology,
  • weather insights,
  • and so on.

Become A Race Engineer Using Evidence To Understand

Data provides the engineer with the evidence to understand.

Data enables you to develop your theories on what to do for the best. It then helps you validate what is working and what is not – as you follow your methodical approach in point 1.

Not everyone likes data. Who wants to be hunched over a laptop when you’re at a race track with great cars and action on track?

The sooner you can get confident with acquiring, transforming (to something useful), and then analysing whatever data you can get your hands on the better.

There’s no such thing as too much data in motorsports.

Feel free to have a go at my data fundamentals course here and also this free one on using Excel. 

5- Vehicle Dynamics

Anyone engineering a race car will benefit from having a good understanding of vehicle dynamics.

This does not need to be super deep but it should be based on what people call “first principles” rather than hearsay. You’d be well served to have, at a minimum, a good understanding of all aspects of the car – suspension, steering, engines and aerodynamics.

The reason is that the car is complicated. Many things you might want to change to achieve one thing will negatively affect another.

This is where you approach in point 1 becomes so critical.

Aim To Simplify The Complexity

Having a good grasp of the previous 4 points will enable you to simplify what you need to do.

There is no getting around it though, engineering a race car will at some point mean some calculations.

Do The Best With What You Have

Just remember the goal is to come up with the best compromise you can, given your resources, driver and environment.

You can always do more, know more.

Ready To Become A Race Engineer?

Become a race engineer and learn everything you can about race car vehicle dynamics, but be mindful of the previous points.

Do them well and I hope you are well set up – pardon the pun!

Finally, here are some good books to consider buying.

Hope this helps! 😊

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