Composite Design Engineer
Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team
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 Won and I’m a composite design engineer at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team.
— Could you give me a summary of your job role?
I mainly design composite parts for the race car and tooling to make them. As a group we cover everything from structural parts like the monocoque, to a tiny winglet. We work closely with the Stress group to validate and optimise our parts and laminates. Depending on the car area, we also work with other groups on things like packaging.
— What’s the best thing about your job?
I would say it’s the people. If you ever experienced a group project in school where not everyone was pulling their weight, you know how difficult and demotivating it can be. It’s the exact opposite at work. Everyone is just as motivated and driven as me, if not more. So, although the job itself can be demanding, we have a supportive and enjoyable working environment.
Walking into the building every morning and seeing F1 cars in the flesh isn’t bad either. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe this is what I do for a living!
— What did you want to be when you grew up?
Depending on my childhood “phase”, either a paleontologist, air force pilot, astrophysicist, Doctor Engineer Won, or… The common theme being I was deeply passionate about whatever the topic was at the time. I would read all the books (pre-internet days) I could find about the topic until I could name every dinosaur or jet fighters.
— When did you know you wanted to work in Formula 1?
Probably later than most people in the industry. Working in F1 wasn’t even on my radar until after I had graduated from university and worked for several years.
As a kid growing up in South Korea, I loved cars and airplanes and went to every auto show and air show. I also liked to watch the highlight reels of F1, Dakar and WRC on TV. I knew I wanted to be a scientist or an engineer, but never, ever thought that a career in motorsport was an option, because it simply didn’t exist in the world around me. It was quite literally beyond my imagination.
Fast forward a few years, and my family had immigrated to Canada. While in university, I joined the sports car club and spent a lot of time doing autocross/track days and working on my cars. I wasn’t much of a driver, but it was exciting to meet others who shared my passion for cars and racing. Through this network, I discovered a local company that manufactures modular racing wheels and aerospace components. I did my final placement term there and returned to work full time after graduation. I thought I would try this “motorsport” thing before getting a real but boring (to me) engineering job in oil and gas or something similar.
It was a small company of 3 or 4 people at the time, so I had wide ranging responsibilities, from cleaning and operating CNC machines to managing the production schedule, which was a great learning experience. However, as much as I enjoyed the job, it became evident that there wasn’t much room left for growth in this field in Vancouver. I had to choose between finally getting a “proper” job or continue pursuing motorsport. I chose the latter, but decided that if I’m doing this, I was going to give it my absolute best shot, meaning somehow relocating to the UK. I had known about motorsport master’s courses in the UK since my undergraduate days, which seemed like the perfect first step to get me closer to the heart of the industry. I even read that you could get straight into F1 after that! You could say this was the moment F1 stopped being a dream and became an attainable goal for me.
— What subjects and courses did you take?
I took all the usual science and math classes in high school. We were also required to have a certain number of art credits, so I took “3D art” (as opposed to 2D, i.e. painting, which I’m terrible at) just to fill my timetable. Little did I know that all the sculpting and wireframe work I did in this class is basically what I do now at work every day! So, eat your veggies and take your art classes too.
In university I studied materials engineering. I focused on advanced materials such as composites, ceramics and nanotechnologies as I found them more interesting than materials processing. Another course I found fascinating and relevant later in working life was failure analysis. I liked the way it teaches you to look at the whole system and break it down to logical bits. A bit like CSI – Engineering. Super cool.
Finally, I completed my master’s degree in motorsport engineering at Oxford Brookes.
— Did you do any work experience along the way?
I spent a co-op placement term at the R&D centre of a steel mill and another in my department at the university, in addition to the aforementioned motorsport company.
The steel mill was my first taste of working in a large production environment, where health and safety was top priority. I got to operate high tech equipment like Scanning Electron Microscope and EDX, in support of multi-million dollar global operation, which was amazing for an engineering student. But I didn’t enjoy having to wear a hard hat just to walk into buildings, even far away from production areas. In fact, I swore off any job in an industry that requires wearing one, based on this experience. Perhaps I should revisit this.
I also worked as a research assistant within my department. I was given a lot of freedom to plan my work as long as I delivered the results on time. I learned a lot about time management from this experience.
I want to point out that mostly what I learned through these placements was what I didn’t want to do for a living. I think this is as important as knowing what you do want to do, and work experiences are a great way to figure it out without too much risk.
— What has been your biggest challenge?
To continue believing that I can make a career in motorsport. Not getting into F1 straight after my master’s was a bit disappointing. But I soon realised there was much more to life in motorsport than just F1 and started to look at it like any other career path – work hard, keep your eyes open for opportunities and see just how far you can go.
— What’s been your proudest moment on your journey so far?
It was the moment the team secured the 2018 F1 Constructors’ championship, which was my first. Beyond the amazing feeling of being a world champion, it felt like a vindication of the past decade of chasing dreams and all the hard work. I also felt like it was the best “thank you” I can say to my wife and my family who sacrificed so much to support my career.
— What was the best thing you ever did to help you get to where you are today?
As mentioned, I interviewed for but didn’t get the graduate position at an F1 team after Brookes. Once I had regrouped, I took a long view of my career and focused on doing the best I can “right now”, while keeping one eye on the long-term goal. Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and former commander of the ISS, wrote about his childhood dream to become an astronaut in a country that didn’t have a space agency at the time. To paraphrase him, he plotted the course from where he was to where he wanted to be, and identified the things he could do that will get him get closer to the final goal, starting with a glider pilot’s license. Not to compare myself to one of the greatest living Canadians, but I too took many calculated intermediate steps to get to where I am.
I started small and local, then went back to school to better prepare myself. Next came a job at a composites supplier where I learned a great deal about composite design and manufacturing, where I could really apply my academic knowledge. Then I set out to join a factory racing team in which to expand my design skills, which took me to a WRC team in Germany. Alternatively, I could have taken a higher paying job at another composites supplier, but I thought this lateral move wasn’t the right direction towards my goal. Finally, I had an opportunity to join Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1, no doubt based on all my previous experiences. I would also say my approach is an on-going mindset. Being ever self-critical, after my first championship win, I wondered if the team would have done just fine without me being there. Probably. This motivated me to work even harder the following year so that there was no doubt that I made a difference, at least in my mind.
— If you had to choose one person who’s had the biggest impact on your journey so far, who would it be and why?
That would be Daryle, my boss in Vancouver. He is a racer himself, having driven professionally in Japan, so he understands not just the passion, but also the blood, sweat and tears required to survive in this industry. He has shown me that no one should be above doing whatever is needed for the business, the team or your colleagues to keep moving forward. I have been trying to emulate his work ethic which has served me well throughout my career.
— 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?
I understand that it’s difficult to stay focused with all the interruptions. I graduated from university in 2009, a year after the last global financial crisis, into a barely recovering job market filled with a backlog of the previous graduates still searching for their first job. So I can somewhat relate to how the current generation must feel.
Remind yourself that you are essentially investing your time on studies now for your future. High school was relatively easy for me, but I definitely underestimated the effort required to do well in university, and my marks were distinctly average. This is pretty much the only thing I would do differently if I could. When you’re fresh out of school, you don’t have much to show other than your grades. Good grades can give you a solid start in career which makes the rest of the journey that much easier. On the other hand, if you’re satisfied that you’ve done all you can, then try not to worry too much about things that are outside of your control, like the pandemic or the ensuing global meltdown. It just means you might have to take a slight detour, but your approach to career and life in general shouldn’t have to change.
— How are you coping during this period of lockdown?
I have been taking it easy with some side projects and volunteering time on Covid-19 related work.
— Any other advice you’d like to share?
For those who are not from the UK or Europe: location matters. Figure out how to be closer to the industry. Perhaps one day we can all work from home across the globe, but sadly that’s not the case quite yet.
Thank you Won for sharing your journey with us!