19yr old Rachel McGrath has just completed her first year studying Aeronautical Engineering at Loughborough University, and is Co-Founder of Formula Careers. Here Rachel shares her experience of F1 work placements, her first year at University and her hopes for the future:
~ What’s your name and where do you come from?
My name is Rachel McGrath and I come from Cheshire, UK.
~ What would your dream job in F1 look like?
I’m a perfectionist, I’ve always loved analysing things – for example, it probably sounds very over the top, but at the end of each academic year, I make a list of things that worked for me over the year, and things that I need to change for next year to be better and achieve better results. Because of this, the two areas I’m really interested in are Aerodynamics and Strategy. In Aerodynamics, I love the idea of using CFD and the wind tunnel to validate my theories. When I went to Toro Rosso, I was able to do a CFD analysis myself and I absolutely loved looking for all the little changes in the airflow between the new and the control design.
I didn’t really think of doing strategy until I went to McLaren, where they ran a race simulation for me and the other person I was doing work experience with. I absolutely loved doing that, and since then during F1 races I’ll look at all the lap times and analyse them to see if I can tell in advance when a driver’s tyres are dropping off, or whether they’re likely to overtake the car in front, or whether the new tyres they’ve put on are working for them.
~ Tell us about your passion for F1 and how it all started
I started watching F1 regularly in 2012. One day during the summer of 2014 I researched Adrian Newey’s path to F1. I found out he did Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Southampton, so from there I had a look at the degree content for Southampton and a few other Universities, including Loughborough. It’s a degree that is based around Maths and Physics, and I had always been more interested/done better academically in scientific subjects over creative subjects. Because of this, I decided that I wanted to follow his path and work in F1.
It sounds cheesy, but F1 has changed my life. Before deciding on this path, I struggled with confidence, self-esteem, motivation, etc. Doing work experience, joining Dare to be Different, starting Formula Careers, and getting into University have improved me as a person and have instilled within me confidence and determination that 6 years ago, I never knew I could have.
So many people in the industry have taken time out of their days, and sometimes weeks, to help me. I’d love to show them that their belief in me was worth it.
~ What have your study choices been so far?
At GCSE, I took the core subjects (including triple science), French, German, Resistant Materials, and ICT. I was encouraged to take two languages by my teacher at the time, and I’m glad I was because I’ve loved learning languages since then – for example, I’m learning Italian at the moment. I chose Resistant Materials and ICT because there was no specific Engineering GCSE at our school, so they were the closest I could get.
At A-Level, I studied Maths, Physics, and Further Maths. Maths and Physics are essential for Aeronautical Engineering degrees, but I struggled between choosing Chemistry, Further Maths, or something like Product Design as a third subject. I spoke to people in the industry – some said to choose a subject that I enjoyed because Maths and Physics would be so hard that I’d need a ‘break’, and some said to choose Further Maths, because it’d help at the start of University. Although I get weird looks when I say it, Further Maths actually ended up being a break from Maths and Physics for me because I loved learning new and interesting concepts, like differential equations and complex numbers. Also, we take a semester 1 and semester 2 Maths module at Loughborough – in semester 1, I had already learned every topic and in semester 2, I had learned 2 out of 4.
I’m currently studying an MEng in Aeronautical Engineering at Loughborough University. At the start, I had a shortlist of Cambridge, Southampton, Loughborough and Sheffield. I almost immediately decided against Cambridge because I wanted to specialise from the start, and one of the reasons I chose Loughborough is because I personally prefer a campus to a city University, and I much preferred the atmosphere around Loughborough. It really feels like I’m part of a family there, which you don’t get in many Universities.
~ Tell us about your work placements
My first work experience was in the winter of 2016 with Bentley Motors, during the mandatory week of work experience most students have to do in Year 10. My high school was one of the local schools that they let students do work experience from. Although it was interesting, it taught me that I definitely want to do a computer and/or theory-based job rather than a practical job. I worked on the engine line, where at the time they were making engines for the Continental GT, Bentayga, Flying Spur, and the Mulsanne.
MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS FORMULA 1 TEAM
My second work experience was with Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team in the summer of 2017. At the time I was struggling with motivation and joined Dare to Be Different, where they connected me with Dr. Kathryn Richards, a Wind Tunnel Test Technician at Mercedes F1. She has helped me an enormous amount over the past 3 or 4 years, and one of the things she helped with was getting work experience.
I started off in the model shop, and then towards the end of the week I spent time in the wind tunnel and Kathryn took me on a tour around it, which was really cool. I learned a lot about how the wind tunnel works, and just generally how an F1 team works. I also got to talk to quite a few women in the aerodynamics department who were so inspiring.
TORO ROSSO (ALPHATAURI)
My third work experience in the summer of 2018 was with Toro Rosso, in Bicester. I secured this work experience through a really helpful contact I’d met through LinkedIn, who is an Aerodynamicist there. Similar to Mercedes, I spent the first 2/3 days in the model shop, and then spent the rest of the week sitting next to my contact and making notes on practically everything he did.
As I’ve mentioned above, he let me do a CFD analysis of my own, which I loved doing and gave me really valuable experience that I will be able to work from in the future. I really recommend writing notes about everything you did during the week, because I still have the notes I made on my computer and there’s information in there that you can’t learn from a degree, you can only learn from experience, so it’s handy to keep that information safe.
My most recent work experience was with McLaren Racing in the summer of 2019. I saw work experience places being advertised on LinkedIn, so I applied and then a month or so later I got an acceptance email. McLaren put us in different areas every morning and afternoon. Some of these areas were the Simulator, Inspection, Systems/Electronics, Strategy, Aerodynamics and Design, and in our spare time we were given laptops where we could practise using CATIA.
I found myself getting there earlier and finishing later just to practice (because who knows when I’m next going to get that opportunity). During this week I kept a diary of everything I did and learned, just like I did at Toro Rosso.
~ Tell us about your experiences with your first year at University
The modules I took this year were Thermofluids (a mixture of Thermodynamics and Fluid Mechanics), Engineering Mathematics 1 and 2, Engineering Materials, Engineering Mechanics, Computing, Elasticity, Aircraft Systems and Performance, Risk Analysis, Introduction to Aircraft Design, and Manufacturing, Technology and Management. Out of those, my favourite part was probably the Fluid Mechanics section of Thermofluids, because it felt most relevant to what I want to do in the future. We did a section in semester 2 called ‘Flow of a real fluid,’ and I loved learning about things like laminar/turbulent flows, calculating the thickness/length of boundary layers and flow separation.
It’s been simultaneously the most challenging and the best year of my life, but I definitely haven’t changed my mind about wanting to work in F1 in the future and I couldn’t recommend Loughborough enough!
~ What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
Something that not many people know about me is that I have anxiety and OCD – it’s something I’ve been struggling with for about 10 years now. During stressful times like exams, they are heightened to the point where my chest will constantly feel tight, I won’t be able to breathe, and my brain goes so foggy that it’s impossible to think. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to revise, even if I had all the motivation in the world (which I’d like to think I have!). Over the years, I’ve learned to start revising earlier, so that when the mental health problems hit, it doesn’t affect my exam performance as much, but I still tend to get lower results in exams than in past papers, so it’s something I’m still working on.
~ How do you feel those challenges will help you to be a better F1 team member?
It’s definitely taught me a lot about organisation. When you can’t think it’s handy to have a pre-made to-do list, so you don’t have to put extra thought into what you need to do. To stop myself from getting overwhelmed, I like to break everything I need to do down in the smallest chunks because I find it encouraging and motivating to tick things off. For example, for University, I will write in an Excel spreadsheet every single tutorial sheet, past paper and set of notes for each exam, and in Word I’ll make a to-do list for every day leading up to the exam. Within that I will leave a few days out so if one day I can’t complete the to-do list, I know I still have time.
I’ve had these issues for 4 years and 7 exam seasons now, and I turn up each time and try to do the best I can. I know that illness and disease (the main trigger of my anxiety/panic attacks) is something that can come up in any conversation, and often does, especially recently with Covid-19 – but I don’t shield myself from the world to avoid it, I just learn from every panic attack how to cope with it better. I’d like to think that this determination will help me a lot in the future.
~ What’s been your biggest success or proudest moment?
Getting into Loughborough! After all the stresses of A-Levels, it was such a massive relief. Also, every time someone messages me saying how much Formula Careers has helped them.
~ What advice would you like to share with future students?
- Get as much work experience as you can! As I said above, there are some things you will experience that you can’t learn from just a degree.
- Take every opportunity you can, even if it’s out of your comfort zone.
- When preparing to go to University, take time on your personal statement, and make sure it’s as good as possible, even check it with people in the industry if they are willing. I got a total of 5 grades below what I needed to get into University, and I’m convinced the reason I was still accepted was because of my personal statement.
- Connect with, take inspiration from, and learn from as many people as possible. I wouldn’t be where I am now without people in the industry I’ve connected with.
- Don’t give up at the first hurdle. You won’t get anywhere near University, let alone F1 if you do.
- This is more of a revision tip, but keep on top of your notes and make your revision tools (like flashcards) as you go, so you don’t have to worry about it during exam season.
~ How are you coping with the current pandemic situation?
Seeing as I’m a student rather than being in a full-time job, and lectures have always been available online, I’m not being affected much. The only changes really are being at home instead of Uni and having no social life anymore! It’s definitely given me more time to learn new things and build new skills. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m learning Italian and I’m also learning how to use OpenFOAM, an open-source CFD software.
~ Who has been your biggest inspiration, in or out of F1!
Lewis Hamilton. His motto, ‘never give up,’ really resonates with me and it’s something I think about every time I encounter a setback. He has faced countless setbacks in his life, but his determination to be an F1 driver and win races has taken him to 6 world championships. Determination and belief in yourself can take you anywhere.
Thank you Rachel for sharing with us, and good luck for the future!
You can follow along with Rachels journey here: