Due to the current global uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 and the interruption to studies for so many students, we decided to reach out to the F1 family for some motivation and inspiration.
Here they share their experiences about their own route into the industry, and their life during lockdown.
– What is your name and job title?
My name is Gareth Gwilliam, I am a Composite Design Engineer at Renault Sport Racing
– Could you give me a summary of your job role?
My job predominantly revolves around the design of CFRP structures. This can range from specifying laminates (the layers of different materials; their sequence, orientation and fiber/resin type). Scheming larger assemblies down into parts which can actually be made. Designing inserts and cores within the structures. And finally designing tooling; this can be patterns and moulds or bonding fixtures to build up the final assemblies.
Because updates come along in chunks of different parts of the car you are often jumping in to help your colleagues with whichever area is most loaded at any given time, but you typically have a part that’s yours that others will help you with when the time comes. For the first 2 years I was “Mr Bargeboard”, and this year I was responsible for the frontal impact structure (nose)
– What did you study at University?
I studied a thick sandwich MEng in Motorsport Engineering at Brunel University London
– What did you want to be when you grew up?
My first love was aeroplanes, not cars.
I dreamt of being a Concorde pilot when I was younger; no doubt influenced by living directly under the flight path at Heathrow, at the time we could drive to the airport in 10 minutes, from my back garden you could see all the windows on the planes as they banked over after take off they were that low. I remember standing at Hatton Cross tube station one evening (which is just beyond their perimeter fence of the south runway) having been into central London, I must have been 7 or 8, and the evening Concorde took off. I remember the ground shaking as it thundered off above us above our heads. I actually grabbed on to a bus stop! That was me hooked.
Sadly after the Air France disaster in Paris and the subsequent ill timed return of Concorde which coincided with 9/11, Concorde’s service came to an end and so did that dream. I kept my interest in aeroplanes, but as my family moved elsewhere with few aeroplanes the passion lessened and cars came onto my radar.
– When did you know you wanted to work in F1?
I did a week of work experience working in a commercial aircraft maintenance hangar when I was about 14 – I realised in that week that there is an enormous amount of paperwork in civil aviation and the realities of just how long things take in the aerospace world started to dawn on me.
It was about that time that my interest in F1 took off. The Schumacher domination (that I’d mostly switched off for…sorry!) was coming to an end, Alonso had started beating him and then Hamilton broke through with those amazing first two years at McLaren. It was also a period of innovation in F1; you had shark fin engine covers, Dumbo ears, F-Ducts, weird and wonderful front wing concepts…..and some frankly ugly stuff too.
I suddenly had a thought while watching a race one Sunday, planes might not be for me, but someone must design these cars!
Not long after, I was picking my GCSE’s, by that point I’d already sat down with a careers advisor and decided what university course I was going to target, and what the best A Levels and GCSE’s would be to make it happen. I already knew I wanted to be an engineer, but now I had a focus.
– What other jobs did you have before your current role?
While at university I did a placement at a composite component supplier to a number of teams – that was interesting because I got to see similar parts for 3/4 different teams. You got a feel for the different design philosophies in play. I remember one team (with a big budget) made a front brake drum in 10 extremely complex parts and there was a lot of scrap, another (basically in debt a the time) had 30+ components in the same assembly but they were all simple to make. I learnt a lot, but the biggest thing I learnt was that I wanted to be designing parts, not just the tooling to make them.
After university I got a job working on the Honda’s American Indycar and LMP2 programs. I enjoyed this job a lot, but it wasn’t to be. Poor results for Honda meant the company I worked for ultimately lost the contract and I would be made redundant. I was made redundant 2 days after passing my probation, even my boss (head of design) was made redundant. Although he gave me an invaluable piece of advice – “when it comes to your job, always look after yourself in this business, because it’s unlikely anyone else will do it for you”. That’s not to say that people in this industry don’t look out for each other because they certainly do, but it’s a risky business and you must remember that whole businesses are sometimes only a single management board decision away from redundancy.
Tip number 1 folks, if you work in Motorsport, keep a couple of months wages saved away for a rainy day!
After this I was 6 months out of uni, not a lot of money in the bank, and a few F1 teams had gone under recently meaning lots of designers on the market and my CV wasn’t as good as theirs. I needed a job, and fast; I took a job I didn’t really know a whole lot about, it was totally outside of my area of expertise, I didn’t know how to use any of the software, I didn’t enjoy it, I wasn’t learning anything useful, I was struggling to survive on the amount I was paid, and I was working 60 hours a week in the “quiet” part of the year. I’d taken a job for all the wrong reasons; I could see staying wasn’t going to further my career, and it was slowly killing me. It all came to a head after about 3 months when I had an awful week where I’d been told to improve. I felt sick and had to take a few days off, had a family bereavement and then finally after all of that came back from the funeral and got sacked.
At that time I’d already been trying to find another job; I’d genuinely taken that job in the hope of sticking with it for a year or two, and then seeing what was around, but after just a few weeks I’d known it wasn’t for me. But without any money to fall back on, I’d had to try to stick with it to survive until I could find something else.
Not long after being sacked I was approached by a team I’d applied for, and ultimately got offered the job. I thought “finally I’ve got the chance to prove what I can do”. They wanted me to start just after the summer shutdown, but they didn’t get all the contracts sorted out before the shutdown. Not wanting to miss my big break I committed to moving house; I had to take the chance, ordinarily I’d never do this, but it was my dream job.
I went home to see my parents during that shutdown fortnight and had my feet up on the beach looking forward to finally starting my dream job. Only I didn’t. A few days before the shutdown one of the team’s driver’s backers pulled out, the funding dried up and ultimately the team decided they could no longer afford to hire me. I got the phonecall personally from the manager who’d hired me, he was humble enough to apologise in person and the team offered me a months wages knowing I’d already moved house which given their predicament was very generous and something I will always be grateful for.
I applied for loads of jobs after that, a scattergun panic, because when you need a job, you need a job. I’d set a date to find myself a job or I’d have to move back in with my parents as my money would have dried up. My parents live over 180 miles from Motorsport valley so realistically my hopes were drying up.
I’d packed all my things into my car ready to move back home the following day when I get a phonecall “can you start on Tuesday?”
That job was a step backwards away from component design and back into mostly tooling again, much like my placement. But it got me back on my feet and 12 months later I got my break at Renault.
– What was your biggest challenge?
Breaking into a team. It’s often said that F1 is very incestuous, and unfortunately in my experience it is.
I worked for 10 years to make my dream finally reality. Trying to get here I’ve had to battle being made redundant, being sacked and been days away from moving back in with my parents because I was out of work and money.
Many walk straight into F1 because they just happened to be in the right place at the right time or knew the right people to get a foot in the door particularly with placement positions, work experience or graduate roles. Experience is key, and until you’ve managed to work in a F1 team your CV drops down the pile.
It can be really demoralising being knocked back for every role you apply for; it makes you question your ability, knowledge and skills. It wasn’t until I finally made it into F1 that I realised I wasn’t lacking in those areas, in fact my time spent in the supply chain meant I had a much broader knowledge of materials and manufacturing than many of the people at a similar level in my role. Because F1 teams have so many specialists, those who’ve never been anywhere else have sometimes never had to make those decisions because in F1 there’s another person/department to do that for you.
I will forever be grateful to the people who took a chance on me, because without that break I wouldn’t have had the chance to prove what I can do.
– What’s the best thing you did to help get you to where you are today?
The truth is very few schools have the facilities these days due to cost cutting. When I was at school I’d be on the metalwork lathes or the mill at any given opportunity. The proliferation of laser cutters and CAD/CAM in schools has meant many teachers limiting the areas which might not score so well on their risk assessments or budget forecasting.
I’ve always been very hands-on, and I’m a firm believer that if you don’t understand how you can make it, you probably won’t do a very good job designing it.
So if you have facilities to get making stuff, messing around with bicycles, or even DIY at home with your family then do it. You’ll have a much better appreciation of the real world than many of the candidates you’re competing against.
The fact I knew how to run a lathe when I started university got me into Formula Student very early, this in turn got me my placement and ultimately my first job and indeed the job I’m in now.
– What advice would you give to people wanting to do what you do?
Think long and hard about it! Some days you will wake up really hating your job. You question why you put all that effort into getting here, was all the sacrifice worth it? Why haven’t I seen my partner or friends in ages? Why do I have to take 2 weeks off in the middle of summer if I like it or not? But if you really get a kick out of it there’s nothing else that comes close. So if you’re not certain, it probably isn’t for you.
Try to be humble and learn from everyone around you. To get into F1 you’re probably reasonably smart, maybe even “gifted” (or very fortunate) but remember that the same is also probably true for everyone else you’ll work with. This is particularly true of those who’ve walked straight in an F1 job from outstanding educational results without any real setbacks along the way; used to being the best, feeling above everyone and believing they know best. In truth at the start of your careers you’re now the least experienced person in a building full of people just as gifted as you, remember that, and start learning all over again because work isn’t the same as school.
– Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have had their studies interrupted and are unsure of how it will affect them in the future. Are there any words of advice or inspiration you can share during such a challenging time?
Every team up and down the pitlane is suffering from COVID-19, but the true visionaries within the teams are wondering how they can use this as a competitive advantage. Obviously most of the teams are working together for the greater good at the moment on healthcare related projects, and these have naturally been given maximum priority. But those of us who aren’t required in that fight are having to look at everything we do and how we can improve so that when this is over we are in a more competitive position than when it started. It’s only by putting in that effort when your competitors may have backed off that you can close the gap or pull a lead.
Take advantage of the time as best you can, try to learn new skills, use it to your competitive advantage, so when someone’s asking you “how did you do at school” your answer isn’t “I didn’t get to finish everything I should have done”, but is more “I proactively decided to make sure I’d covered everything I’d missed and I took the opportunity to learn more about something that’s always interested me”. Use your time wisely, yes have a break at some point, but don’t waste a good opportunity.
– How are you coping with the lockdown?
Generally, due to its nature, people in this business struggle to “switch off”. So whilst I’m taking the opportunity to have a bit of a rest I’m also taking my own advice and trying to keep busy and not waste the opportunity.
Thank you Gareth for taking the time to share your journey with us.