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 ?
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. This means doing them 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. However…
How To Balance 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.
What should you do for the best, right now, in this situation, given everything you could know?
It is tough.
I’d suggest developing a methodical approach. This involves getting good at designing experiments that give you information to better predict what is for the 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.
What is actually causing an issue is not always obvious at first. Plus, in the heat of the moment, it is too easy to assume.
Be a bit cautious – ok paranoid – about taking the first explanation that comes along.
To help with this, I’ve found it useful to try and develop a clear theory of what you think is going to happen.
You have an issue with turn-in understeer. If you go down on the front springs, what do you think that will do? What would you expect the driver to say next time in ?
Test Your Learning
Then test your new theory. Send the car out with the change. Critically, then also be open minded about whether the change “worked” or not.
Whether it worked or not, try to understand by how much the performance characteristics changed. This is easily overlooked. Often when people feel they have “nailed it” they move on but what if you went further in that change direction, would that give you even more?
It is ok if the change didn’t go as expected. You’re learning.
When working with your team set this expectation up at the beginning. Success is you learnt something, not you found the “perfect” setup.
The idea is always building up your bank of knowledge. Do this by taking good structured notes. Get the driver to play their part too – here is how to write good driver feedback.
Try not being happy unless you objectively know what 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 when looking to become a race engineer is to fit explanations to what’s happened. In other words “making stuff up in an authoritovitive manor.”
This happens most often when expectations were not set right, and then things didn’t go as expected. As a result, not always, but often, I see race engineers feeling a need to “save face” in front of their crew.
In my experience that erodes trust and 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, and therefore engineer, a better racecar.
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.
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…. including for tyre engineers.
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…… ?)
To become a race engineer you need to master your tyres.
In addition to my flagship Master Your Tyres course, I’ve some content here on the site 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.
Essential but immensely frustrating – especially for race 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 race engineering yourself, the driver is a tricky beast – as I know from first hand experience!
Getting the most from the driver is fundamental to becoming a race engineer, and is the sport. The best race 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 a race engineer, have to compromise potential car performance in order to achieve that.
Some engineers just won’t do it. To become a race engineer, a good one, you’ll need to compromise.
This is true at all levels of racing – a confident driver will get more performance from their car.
Work with the driver to understand what they are struggling with. Get them involved in the setup process. Act on their feedback. Aim to give them all the confidence you can, so they can get all the laptime out of the car.
Sounds easy. Honestly it is far from it. Every driver is different.
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.
Let us be clear. You don’t need data. People did fine before. But to become a race engineer these days, even at amateur levels, 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.
Think of data as anything that will affect performance. You can never have too much data!
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.
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. To become a race engineer 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, when you become a race engineer this 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.
Bonus – Get Club Level Experience
You might be focused on that well paid, glamorous jet-set life job in Formula 1. Why not, it is the pinnacle of motorsports. Many working in F1 have never worked elsewhere. But what can you do to become the best race engineer on the grid – not just a race engineer?
The traditional route to become a race engineer has been to start as a “data” or “performance” engineer.
Whilst the temptation is to want to jump straight into the main gig, it might serve you well in the long term to get some experience in a range of paddock environments – including club racing.
What you might learn trying to “race engineer” an amateur driver in the rain, under a leaking awning, at a windy race meeting at say Pembrey, will, more often than not, translates back to situations you’ll find in more plush paddock environments – imho.
I say this as there is also quite a bit of overlap between club and pro motorsports paddocks – given the largely freelance nature of the industry.
Getting club experience therefore serves two roles. Firstly, it is easier to get experience and race engineering responsibility at club events. Secondly, it gives you the chance to build your motorsports network – often the mechanic your working with at club level today, gets a decent job at a pro team tomorrow, remembers working with you and puts in a good word.
I’d recommend getting as much club racing experience as you can. It might not be requested on the job resume but when you get the big race engineering job, these are the experiences you can draw upon. Plus it is super competitive and good fun! (That’s why you want to do this right…?)
Ready To Become A Race Engineer?
To become a race engineer learn everything you can about racecar vehicle dynamics, but also be mindful of the previous points. The human points.
Do them well and I’m sure you will be well set up – pardon the pun! #nerd
Finally, here are some good books to consider buying, if you don’t have them already.
Hope this helps you.
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