Grace Johnson – Former Design Engineering Intern and Materials Science Research Student at Renault Sport F1

Izzle Holman recently caught up with Grace to chat about her internship with Renault Sport F1 and her experiences as a woman in engineering.

Izzie Holman
Wait? Girls Like F1 Too?

What is your job title, and can you summarise your responsibilities?

I am currently studying for my master’s in mechanical engineering at Edinburgh University. For eight months of this year I was a design intern at Renault F1, now, I’m currently completing my final year master’s project with the team in the Material Science Department. In my design role at the team I worked in a couple of different departments within the design office. I worked in the composite team, where I would work on laminates.

I also worked in the power unit integration department where I worked on quite a few different projects. That was quite a diverse part of the team, there were some designs for mounting systems or things to do with the power steering, certain jigs for aligning sensors and stuff like that. My project is to do with surface preparation for adhesive bonding, so I’m going to be researching different types of preparation for different types of materials and then running tests at the factory in Enstone and finding out the best way to do things.

For my benefit, as someone who doesn’t know anything about engineering, is it usual that engineering students have the opportunity to do research projects with F1 teams?

I think it’s more because I had done the placement with the team. Definitely at Renault they do take on a few students each year to do a project, but I think they often do already have some experience with the team. I know at my university, they like to push students to do a project within industry or to do a project that maybe you propose yourself so when they suggested this to me, I thought it would be a really good opportunity to ask Renault if I could do it with them.

What does a working week look like for you?

At the moment my working week is lectures and studying and my project with Renault is officially meant to be a third of my time. So, certain days of the week I might dedicate to reading or research. At the moment I just keep in touch with people from Renault; send them work that I’m doing or thoughts that I’m having on the project. As it’s only right at the start, there’s not too much, there’s still planning to do before I start running actual tests. Once I know what things I might test and the procedure that I’m going to take, then I will be taking trips down to the factory and carrying those out.

What’s the best thing about your job?

For the design intern role, I think my favourite thing was, especially when the races started, being able to work on the faults. So, we’d have race faults after a race weekend, the design office would get a big list of them and they’d be distributed out to different people.

So I’d be given a part that something had gone wrong with, or it wasn’t working how it was meant to, and I’d have to discuss with people and figure out what was the best way to fix it, the best way to maybe redesign it. Or if there wasn’t enough time to redesign it, because it might be needed for the next weekend, then maybe you’d think of a way that it could be modified by the race team; so you’d tell them, “we’re going to add this to it and these are the steps you are going to need to take”. Or if it is a redesign, I’d work on a new CAD model for it. It was always really exciting how fast things could really happen.

I’d spend a few days on a design and then send the design off to get made and it would be manufactured over the weekend and then by the start of the week they’d already sent it off to the race team, and then it’s on the car at the next race and it just seemed mind blowing how quickly that would happen. I guess, if you’re not in engineering, you might not appreciate that speed but if you know the engineering industry that is incredibly fast. I think with my role now my favourite thing is working in research and development; I think that’s an incredible part of engineering. I feel like it’s not really spoken about to younger people, I didn’t really know about it too much until I got into my studies more. It’s cool being able to work on new science.

I think with a lot of research and development roles it’s not just computer based, because with design roles it’s often very computer based. With research and development you can do both; running tests and putting things in big machines and seeing what happens when things break, looking at the data and reviewing it and making cool graphs. It’s a nice mix of hands on engineering as well as computer stuff.

What did you study at school/college/university?

So, I studied maths, physics and art for A Level. I did think that I was maybe going to study architecture, but I found my way to engineering instead, it seemed a bit more exciting.

How valuable do you think your Formula Student experience has been?

I think Formula Student is absolutely incredible. I didn’t know too much about it until I started university. I went to some university open days and noticed the Formula Student teams, and then, when I joined Edinburgh saw that they had a team. It just seemed like a no brainer to me, I was never someone who has been really into motorsport, but I thought that building a race car was just…why wouldn’t you do that in your spare time, it seemed so exciting to me. So, I decided to join the team and I think it’s just a very good experience to have throughout university.

To be able to spend your spare time, where it’s not only really fun, but it’s teaching you just as much as your actual degree does and it’s giving you different skills to what your degree does. You also end up working in an incredible team of like-minded people, who end up becoming your best friends. It definitely prepares you for the future I think, that team environment is very similar to what F1 is like. Definitely a very good experience.

The last role you had for your Formula Student team is Head of Sponsorship and Outreach, which isn’t a very technical role. What made you go from chassis team manager to Head of Sponsorship and Outreach?

I spent a year in the chassis team and then a year as chassis manager, and I think after those two years it had been a lot of engineering with studying engineering and pretty much all of my spare time in the Formula Student team. I just thought it would be a really useful experience to see the other side of the team, and you gain different skills from that. I think with roles on the Formula Student team, I’ve always thought that, if I think I would be one of the best candidates on the team to do that job then I should apply for it. In that moment I thought that I could do that role quite well.

I’ve always been quite into marketing and photography and stuff like that, and I thought that I could really push that into the outreach part of the role. Also, the sponsorship of the team is just so incredibly important, we can’t really do anything without the money. I thought it would show me that other side of engineering that you just don’t see if you stick to the technical roles.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I think I had quite a few different things I wanted to be. From a very young age, maybe five or six, I actually wanted to be a pilot. I think it was just because I absolutely loved going on planes, whenever we went on holiday, the most exciting part was being on the plane. To be honest, I think I’m still like that now, I still love flying. But again, I think because I grew up and went through school and had different subjects that became my favourites the dreams changed. Like I said, I did want to do architecture at one point, I have always been quite interested in art and design.

There was a point where I thought I would possibly quite like to be an artist, but I think I thought that I would like to be able to still do maths and science. I thought I would get bored of just doing the art, it needed some maths and science behind it. So, after thinking I wanted to do architecture, I actually found my way to civil engineering, I thought that would be a way to add more maths into it. Then after quite a while of thinking I’m going to do civil engineering, I attended a mechanical engineering talk; I think it was kind of just by accident filling some time on a university open day, and I absolutely loved it. I was like ‘this is the most exciting thing’. So, then I decided to do mechanical engineering.

Where does your interest in motorsport come from?

I guess my interest in motorsport now has just come from Formula Student, though I think my opinions on motorsport in general are contrasting. I do love the sport in a sense that the engineering is so exciting, and you don’t really see anywhere else where it’s so cutting edge and fast and also so rewarding like being able to see what you have worked on actually running almost each weekend. But then on the other side, I’ve always been, a bit of a tree hugger, a green fingered person. So that doesn’t always fit too well with F1, but I am hoping, I know that they’ve introduced quite a few new sustainability rules and goals that the whole industry is working towards, so I am hoping that in the next few years those do come into fruition. So yeah, I think in general I like motorsport just because I’ve spent so long doing Formula Student.

How did you get the intern role with Renault?

So, I guess it was because of Formula Student. Last summer while I was actually at the Formula Student competition at Silverstone, the Head of Technical partnerships at Renault often attends and obviously the F1 teams know that the students that do Formula Student are then very suited to work in F1. So, he attended the competition and I got to talk to him and after I’d met him and exchanged details I applied for a role. It took quite a while to get offered the position, I think it was a few months later he offered me a design intern position.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome that challenge?

This is like a proper interview question! I think across each working environment I’ve been in, because I did a summer internship last summer as well and I’ve done like a couple little placements, I think it’s always been having the confidence in myself. There was definitely one project at Renault where I’d worked on a design and then sent it off and then a week or two later it came back and there were problems with it. I remember I felt so guilty, I was like ‘oh my god I’ve done such a terrible job’. I apologised to my colleagues and managers about it and said ‘sorry, I should have done a better job’. The people I was working with, they told me afterwards ‘you don’t need to apologise for anything you have done, this happens, it’s a learning curve, you don’t do things perfectly all the time, and that’s completely fine, we’ll just review it, fix what went wrong and do it again’.

So, it’s having that knowledge that you don’t need to do everything perfect first time and not feeling like you have to apologise for anything you have done. As long as you are doing your best, you should always know that that’s good enough. So yeah, I think it’s taken me quite a while to accept that and overcome that. I think a lot of, I’m not sure if it is just women, it might just be anyone entering the industry, put a lot of pressure on themselves because it is quite a stressful environment F1. It is very fast, and I guess everything you do does have a performance benefit when the industry is so competitive. You just have to make sure you’re not pressuring yourself too much, I think.

What has been your proudest moment?

I guess, people might say this a lot I’m not sure, but it definitely did feel like a big moment when I got the first part I designed on the car and I got to see it on TV. That did feel very surreal and also quite stressful because you’re watching it and think ‘oh my gosh I hope it doesn’t break’! It’s not something I ever thought that I’d do, I never thought that I’d have a piece that I’d made on an F1 car, so yeah that was a very proud moment.

What has been the best thing you did to get where you are today?

I think it’s mostly throwing myself into opportunities. I think throughout university, and even when I was younger, when I could do something I would go and do it. I’ve always been a very ‘live in the moment’ type of person and always wanting to keep myself busy and have fun all the time, so when opportunities have come up, I’ve always just done them. That was, I guess, similar to Formula Student. When I saw that I was like ‘that looks exciting, let’s do that’.

I did a summer school in China a couple of years ago and again, when I saw the opportunity for that I was like ‘that sounds incredible, let’s go do it’. It means you just end up picking up these incredible experiences, they don’t even necessarily need to be ones that are career developing or they don’t need to be engineering experiences, it’s just having all these experiences that develop your team work skills, or your communication, or just something that is fun and making memories I think is probably the best thing I’ve done.

What advice would you give to other young people who want to work in F1 or in motorsport?

I think I’d probably say, go study engineering and join a Formula Student team. Working in F1 is a difficult environment and you might not actually like it, but I think experiencing something like Formula Student is actually very similar and if you enjoy that, then you would probably enjoy F1. I think people probably need to test the waters first beforehand, it’s not all fun and games. It can definitely be quite a stressful job, but also a very fun job.

You were a student doing an industrial placement during the pandemic, how was that for you?

Covid definitely did very much impact my placement. I had two months working pre-covid and then we went on furlough for two months, and I did stay near the factory, in Oxfordshire. And then in June we started working again, so then we worked a bit from home and occasionally we would be working in the factory; so, for three months I worked partly from home, partly from the factory. It was difficult having that break and also having to work from home when you’re an intern is very difficult. When you’re trying to learn and pick up all these design skills it’s difficult when you’re by yourself, definitely a challenge but I enjoyed it anyway.

Have you got any advice for other students who are worried about opportunities during the pandemic?

I’d say still try and apply for internships, try and get experience. But don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t happen, because it can still happen in the future. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be successful during the pandemic because it’s obviously very difficult to do so. If you can’t then work on something else, maybe start your own project. I have a friend that, one summer she couldn’t get an internship, so she started researching her own project by herself and I thought that was incredible. So, I’d say keep trying to apply to places but don’t stress it if you can’t.

What has been your experience as a woman in motorsport?

So, my experience has been a little bit up and down, but I think that’s also engineering in general, not just motorsport. I think there are issues in the engineering industry. At multiple places where I’ve done internships or placements, I have experienced some level of harassment or I felt that there’s been some situations where I’ve maybe not had the same level of respect as my male peers. I think F1 and most engineering companies, they are pushing to make sure that women do feel comfortable, and I know definitely at Renault they did have a very good system in place that if something happened you can report it and talk to people about it. But there doesn’t seem to be too much conversation about how to actually prevent these things from happening, we maybe shouldn’t be thinking about how to fix it after it’s happened, we should be thinking about how we stop this from happening.

There are quite a lot of campaigns about promoting young women to choose engineering, but there’s very few conversations had about how we retain women in engineering. I think even though, probably 95% of my experience in F1 and in engineering has been so positive and most of the people I work with are incredible, there’s always just a small minority that end up making a working environment uncomfortable for women, and that ends up pushing women out of the industry. I read something recently, a study that had been done, about new engineering graduates and how long they stayed in engineering after they graduated. It was either six months or a year after graduation, it turned out that more women leave the industry than men do. So, it shows that there is something in the industry that is making women want to leave it. I do love engineering, but I think a general change needs to be had about ensuring that the working environment is safe and comfortable.

Do you think that the negative experiences you’ve had would lead you to stop wanting to be in the engineering industry?

I think there’s been moments where I have possibly thought, ‘is this definitely worth it?’, but then at the same time I don’t ever want to feel like someone’s pushing me out of something that I love doing. I would much rather be the person that stops this from happening to other people, tries to work on preventing this kind of attitude from continuing, rather than someone who just gives in and says no this is too much for me. So hopefully things change, I definitely think I’ll keep trying to push through it.

Have you got any other advice/things you’d like to say?

I think I’d just say in general that mechanical engineering is so much fun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen, with me and my peers at Edinburgh on my course, I’ve never seen a group of people studying one degree and almost everyone absolutely loves the degree. I think it’s very common when I meet other people studying other things, you often meet quite a lot of people that don’t necessarily enjoy what they’re doing, or have some issues with it. But I think with mechanical engineering I feel almost in general everyone likes it, it’s such an interesting course to take so I would really recommend, especially women, to take mechanical engineering.

Thank you Grace for sharing your journey and experiences with us!