For the next few weeks, Formula Careers takes a deep dive into the world of Women in Motorsport.  We shine a light on the amazing work they are doing, and the route they took to get to where they are today.

Interview by Izzie Holman
Wait? Girls Like F1 Too?

Christianna Petsa

Senior Associate Finance Partner, McLaren Racing

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

My job title is Senior Associate Finance Partner for Production. I oversee production, supporting the Financial Director for all the investment projects that we undertake and the day to day financial data that they might need. It’s a lot of analysis and I’m encompassing both the operational and the finance side. At the moment it’s an interesting period for F1 because of the introduction of the cost cap, a lot of changes are going on and finance is under a lot of pressure, especially now we are at the end of the year. So, there are a lot of challenges, but I’m really enjoying my time at McLaren so far.

What does a working week look like for you?

It changes every week. Pretty much every day is a different day at McLaren. You start with a plan, but there is always something that happens that means you need to change everything you were doing to solve a problem, it’s so fast paced, you cannot even imagine – nothing stops. Even during the weekend, we are busy because of the races, but it doesn’t feel like work when you really love F1 and you want to provide the team with whatever they want whenever they want. So, it’s prioritisation of the tasks at the beginning of the week and then at the end of the week it’s feedback on how the week went and if we achieved what we wanted to.

What is the best thing about your job?

To be able to work in F1 is a dream for me so I cannot pick one thing, all of it! I’ve always been an F1 fan since I can remember. I don’t feel like I’m working, especially during the weekend. When you work in a typical company sometimes you feel demotivated, but that’s never the case at McLaren because you have the races during the weekend and if it went well you want to do even better and if it didn’t go well you are motivated to work harder. So yeah, it was a dream for me and now that I’m working here, I want to do the best that we can and hopefully we will win.

What did you study at school/college/university?

My bachelors is in Business Administration, which I did in Greece and then I came to the UK to complete my studies, so my masters is in Finance. I graduated from LSE and then I found the job at McLaren and that’s how I decided to stay in the UK. It was a dream for me to work in F1, I found the job, and our team is great.

What work experience/extra curriculars did you do whilst you were studying?

While I was studying in Greece for my bachelors, I took part in the Erasmus scheme in Denmark. When I returned home, I joined Erasmus Student Network which helps Erasmus students and became president of the organisation, at the same time as this I was volunteering at AIESEC. So, I was very active in terms of the ‘academic’ organisations. And then when I graduated, I continued my volunteering activities by joining an audit committee. Through that experience I was able to find my first job in consulting, working in management consulting and then I moved to a job at Deloitte. After that I decided to complete my studies and come to the UK. I never took extra-curricular activities to boost my CV, it was more like I really liked the activities. I gained a lot of soft skills and met a lot of people, created a huge network. I was representing my uni in Europe as well, so I met a lot of friends all over the world, so when I decided to move to the UK it was quite easy for me because I already had friends. All of my experience from consulting played a huge role to get the job at McLaren.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to do what I am doing now. My dream was to become a CEO, so hopefully I will be able to become a CEO one day. I’ve always wanted to be able to change something, make a difference and to be able to make a difference you need to have a position where you can influence things. To influence and change the world for good you need to be very well equipped, so I’ve spent since I was ten years old until now just trying to make myself better, improving everything, soft skills, my knowledge, how I’m treating people, how I work with others. My goal at the end of the day is; if I can help someone, I’m going to do it.

Where does your love for motorsport come from?

When I was five or six years old, I remember sitting with my family, they were F1 fans, so they were watching the Monza GP and I was listening to the noise of the engines and wondering what it was. I was really curious about knowing what the noise was and then I sat there and watched the entire race, I was so fascinated. After that I watched every race, I don’t think I missed one. Motorsport is like it’s not only for guys, you can like motorsport and be a woman, the speed and adrenaline is the same for us too! It’s not like other sports, in order to love the sport, you need to learn about the sport, the regulations, why things are happening. In order to win a race, you need to have a good strategy, it’s not only luck or having a good driver. Even if you have a good driver, if you don’t have a good car, you cannot win. So, it’s a team sport, not many people realise that, there is a huge team behind them supporting the driver to win the race. For me that’s the best thing, the team.

Who’s your racing hero?

Kimi Raikkonen. It’s because he’s real, he’s himself, if he doesn’t want to answer a question, he doesn’t answer a question. He likes racing, everyone said he was too old to race but he didn’t care, he’s still here and will race next year as well and he’s a great guy and a great driver, always trying for the best. I don’t really like the person who always wins, I like seeing people trying to get something, and I think Raikkonen was the best example of that. I think it’s a good example for everyone; if you try hard you will get results.

How did you get your job with McLaren?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in the UK, so I wasn’t seriously looking for jobs but then one day I decided to see what was out there. I found the job at McLaren, but I didn’t think I would get it because it was F1. But I just applied and then Richard (Draisey, Director of Financial Strategy & Transformation) called me to have a phone interview. After we had that first interview, I was praying to get the job because I could understand that Richard was a really good guy. The way he approached me, he was not too formal, not too informal, it was the right balance.

I was looking for an environment like that because it’s difficult when you are a foreigner to feel part of the team. That’s what I like at McLaren, I’ve never felt like I wasn’t part of the team, or that something was different for me. They even include Greek questions if we have pub quizzes! So, then we had another interview, the second round, which involved me going to the MTC. That’s the best experience that I’ve ever had in my life; entering the MTC and seeing all the cars in the boulevard, I couldn’t stop taking photos. Then I know I had to get this job!

So, I met Richard there and we had discussions about how McLaren sees the future and what they want to achieve and how my role would fit in the plan. After leaving that interview, I was thinking this is the best job for me, I felt that I had the knowledge and the skills to help the team achieve what they wanted. It was the same day that Richard phoned me to tell me that I got the job. I was celebrating for two days; I couldn’t believe that I had finally gotten my dream job. I called my mother, she never watches Formula 1, and she asked if I was becoming a driver! Now, after a year she never misses a race, she became a McLaren fan! I’ve never regretted my decision to join McLaren, it’s great.

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

My biggest challenge was the switch in company dynamics between the companies I was working for and McLaren. McLaren is not only a company, it’s a team, we are racers so the criteria you use to make decisions are not the usual ones. In a typical company you invest if you have money, and don’t if you don’t, but at McLaren you decide based upon what is best for the team. Everyone works together towards one decision without worrying if it’s within their role to do so.

We are one team; we are deciding for everyone’s good. So that’s a huge challenge because you don’t want to get it wrong, you need to be sure that you are sure of what you say. At McLaren, even if you are young you have the opportunity to present to the executive team, like Andreas (Seidl, Team Principal) and Zak (Brown, CEO). That’s a huge opportunity for someone like me, that’s a huge challenge to be able to stand in front of them and present what you think is the right thing and persuade them that that’s the case. So, every day is a challenge.

How do you get past that challenge then?

Again, it’s the environment, it kind of pushes you in that direction. When you feel safe that saying something wrong won’t lose you your job, you start saying your opinions more freely. Sometimes you’ll say something wrong because you don’t know how the team operates, but you learn, and the next time you’ll say something that’s more appropriate for the team. After a year you’ll find yourself in a position where you are saying things that others hadn’t considered. That’s great, that feeling that you feel when you actually helped is great.

So, you keep going, that’s how you get past it?

Yes. They are helping you to adapt very quickly, and you can see yourself developing. I have worked in other jobs and I didn’t see that. The development that you get at McLaren is really quick, you can be a professional in two or three years having full knowledge of the operations and be able to make suggestions for change. In another company you’d still be a junior analyst, that’s a huge gap.

What has been your proudest moment?

My proudest moment. To be honest, I don’t think I can pick one! I won’t be able to forget this year. We thought that we were going to start the season in a great position, and then Covid happened and we were struggling, as every company and person was; not to get coronavirus, how we can adjust everything to work from home, the production.

Then we participated in the ventilator challenge, so that was quite intense, knowing that you were helping people, you’re saving lives. We were working 15 hours per-day for three or four months it was crazy. You could see how tired everyone was, but no-one was complaining. Even the people that weren’t part of the core team, that were supporting us, so much love was going around. Then we started the season and having three races in a row is a huge challenge for the entire company.

So, I cannot pick one moment, there were consecutively challenging situations that we had to deal with. But I think how we dealt with everything as a company and being able to challenge for our position in the championship in such a year was a great achievement. I will always be proud of what we achieved this year.

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

I think the best thing I did is that all the decisions I’ve taken in my life, from what I was going to study to which country I’m going to live in, which company or industry I was going into, they were my decisions. I didn’t let other people influence me or tell me what I should do or how I should reach my dreams and goals. Even if I made a mistake, it was my mistake, and so I’m not going to regret anything that I did. That’s why I keep striving for improvement and development because I wanted to, I didn’t feel obliged to. I don’t survive I live. I joined McLaren to live, not to have a job.

What advice would you give to young people wanting to work in F1, or motorsport in general?

My advice is to try. Because I was in the position where I didn’t feel I was good enough to join an F1 team. Part of my perception was that they were like superheroes, working all day and night, but everyone can join a team if you find an opportunity. If you want to work in F1, try to learn about the company, I think what earned me the job at McLaren was my knowledge about Formula 1. As it’s such a unique industry, if you know about the industry you have an advantage. It’s the same I think for every job, whoever is hiring needs to know that you are the right fit, so if you go to the interview and say I know who I am, this is how I can help you to achieve what you want to achieve, you have a pretty good probability of getting the job.

What advice would you give to students worried about opportunities disappearing because of the pandemic?

So, I’m going to be honest, we cannot say that nothing has changed and everything is fine, it’s not. I’m from a country where we’ve had a financial crisis for the past 10 years, so what I have to say is that it will be tough, there will be fewer opportunities but there will be some, so everyone needs to be ready to grab one. You don’t know when or why something will come your way, but you have to grab it, that’s the only way, you have to be prepared.

Spending time studying hard during university is so hard, but no-one should feel that this will go to waste because you didn’t get something like an internship. If you didn’t get an internship, you might get a graduate scheme or a junior role later on. You just have to keep searching knowing what you want and persuading someone that you can help, that’s it! I didn’t have an internship and I didn’t join a graduate scheme; I chose not to do an internship during my bachelors because I didn’t like the companies that were on offer. Everyone told me I was crazy!

In Greece we had a financial crisis, unemployment was so high, but I chose not to do something that would have given me opportunities because I didn’t like it. I was waiting, and at the end of the day I got a junior role because somebody believed in me. So, you never know, just keep trying and you will get there.

What has been your experience as a woman in motorsport?

I think for me it’s not only being a woman in motorsport, it’s being the opposite gender in a male-dominated industry. I think it’s the same if you are a guy and work in marketing for example, you probably feel the same. We know there are differences in all industries and sometimes you feel that people don’t fully understand what you are trying to say, but if you give up and say ‘oh I’m a woman and they’re men, they don’t get it’, you don’t get anywhere. Instead of trying to label everything, just be people. Even if you were not the only women and there were say 10 of you, you might have the same conflicts, it’s not because of race or gender or age, it’s just every person’s perceptions.

At McLaren we are trying really hard to boost equality and diversity in the company, so we are very serious about this and I told you before I never felt that I wasn’t part of the team and that is very important, especially if you are working with engineers. So, it’s like if I’m working with engineers and I’ve never felt that I’m not part of the team that says a lot.

Have you got any other advice?

I think in general my advice for everyone is don’t be afraid to do things that you want to do, because you think that you are going to fail or that you’re not good enough. Just choose whatever you want to do and somehow you are going to make it. 100%.

Thank you Christianna for sharing your journey and advice!