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?
What is your job title and can you summarise your responsibilities?
My job title is Head of Quality and Manufacturing Engineering. My job is to bridge the gap between our engineering teams and our manufacturing and operations side of the business, trying to interlink the two so we make sure that we manufacture things in the most efficient way possible and manufacture things correctly. While also taking feedback back and forth; there are times where an engineer might design something but actually its really hard to make and if they could just tweak something slightly then we’d get the best optimised solution across the business, rather than the best design solution but then it’s really difficult to manufacture. We want to try and make it the best it can be through the full end to end process, so that’s what my teams look after.
What does a working week look like for you?
You’ll probably get this a lot – it’s really difficult to ever know because we’re always working on multiple projects, our area is predominantly continuous improvement, so we’re looking all the time at the ways we do things currently and then how we make it better. There could be some rush jobs if something’s gone wrong in manufacturing and we’re trying to get parts to the track, or something might have broken and we need to understand whether it was a quality problem so we can find out what the issue is and make sure it’s not present on other parts. So there is some responsive stuff depending on what we’re manufacturing or what issues are there at the time, and then there’s lots of ongoing stuff where we’re analysing processes, looking at end to end manufacturing and seeing what we can do to improve it long term as well.
So it’s an HQ role rather than a trackside role?
Yes, it’s all factory based, so all my teams are based in the factory. And then my role particularly is, I have quite a big management function, so I’ll do a lot of mentoring my team, checking in with them, making sure that they’re okay and helping them with whatever problems they’ve got.
What is the best thing about your job?
Oh there’s loads of stuff! I love the management side of my job, I love seeing people grow and develop. But I also love the problem solving, and the nature of F1 means that that’s fast paced. The issues that we see, we get to be able to implement the fixes or find the solutions quite quickly, and then see them working only within maybe a few weeks rather than it taking months or years to get changes through.
What did you study at school/college/uni?
Maths and sciences were my strengths, I never enjoyed anything where I had to write an essay. So that was always going to be somewhere that I headed and for A levels I took maths, physics, chemistry and I ended up taking art as well so there was always a bit of me that liked the creative side. Then at university I went on to study material science. When I was studying the sciences, I really enjoyed the bits about understanding how the world around us works and how the things we use function as they do, the things that you can physically see. I never really enjoyed the quantum level physics, where you were dealing with particles you couldn’t see. Things I couldn’t visualise I really struggled with.
Materials science covers those areas of science you can see and touch, understanding for example why your touch screen works as it does and why the materials around you are used to manufacture the things that they are. That really appealed to me, so I studied materials science at university. Having then done it for four years, and really enjoying it; I had loved the learning, and wanted to try to use it in my career, so I started looking for job to use my degree and ended up getting a graduate job at Mercedes High Performance Powertrains. So going into Formula 1 but on the engine side rather than the chassis side. I did 6 years there and then moved to Williams where I’ve been for four years now.
What work experience or extra curriculars did you do whilst you were studying?
I wasn’t the best at doing a lot of that. I did bits and pieces, like a couple of weeks of work experience at Pilkington Glass in their R&D department, doing testing to understand what a Materials Engineer might do in a practical job. Other than that I actually just did lots of different jobs in my holidays, so I spent lots of time working at summer camps in America in my summer holidays. So just throwing myself into meeting different groups of people and being part of a team. Although I probably never knew at the time, I think it kind of links to working in Formula 1 because it’s such a team environment, you have to all work together so much and you have to throw yourself in to whatever challenges arise, making sure that you’re a key part of the team. It’s all similar to working at a summer camp abroad, although it’s not directly related to what I do in my day job.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t know whether I ever knew what I wanted to be. I think I considered a few options; I think at one point I thought I might be a doctor, my parents definitely thought I might be a doctor because I never had a problem watching all of those hospital programmes on the TV, I was never squeamish and obviously I love science. I remember teachers suggesting engineering to me as a career choice and I think at that point in time I was like ‘no I’m not going to be an engineer’, though I’m not sure why I didn’t like that idea. So it’s quite ironic that that’s what I’ve ended up being, and I love it so much. I think at some point I thought I might be a policeman, but I don’t think I ever had a dream goal, I think I always just worked to the next thing, even at university I don’t think I spent much time really thinking about what I wanted to do. I took a year off after uni and that was when I really focussed on applying for jobs. I think I’ve always focussed on the place I’m at now rather than thinking too far ahead.
Where did your love for motorsport come from?
I’m probably not your typical person for working in Formula 1 because I had no real interest in motorsport before I got into it. My first real experience of it was going to what was Honda at the time and then became Brawn and is now Mercedes on a university trip. At that point I just saw motorsport as cars driving round a track and didn’t really get it. When I then had that trip and saw the amount of technology, people and work that went in behind the scenes, that made me more interested because I realised the amount of engineering and work that had to go into going racing and since then I’ve always been more interested in that side. I have been to the track, and it was a great experience, but I definitely love the factory aspects more and that kind of problem solving.
Once I’d worked in Formula 1, I realised it’s definitely a great fit for me. I’ve never been someone who can sit still for very long and long term projects just don’t really appeal to me, so that fast paced nature, lots of short projects, managing lots of stuff all at the same time, that’s where I definitely feel like motorsport is for me. So it’s the nature of the work, rather than necessarily the love for the cars driving round the track, but I know I’m weird. I always recall my first interview for Mercedes, when my then future boss said to me ‘you’re the only person who didn’t write on their application form about a passion for Formula 1’, I just said to him ‘to be quite honest I don’t have one but I’m interested in the technology and getting to use my subject’ and he was fine with that clearly because he gave me the job.
What other jobs have you had before your current role?
I started as a graduate with Mercedes High Performance Powertrains in the materials team there. That was a purely technical role performing failure analysis, materials testing, looking at what else we could use to make things lighter or stronger. I did that for six years and then moved to Williams to lead the materials group and that developed into a Head of Materials role. I ran the small team doing similar things to my previous job but getting a bit more involved in some of the more strategic decisions for example what technologies we wanted to invest in and where we wanted to move things forward. Then last December I got offered and took on the role that I’m doing now. I’d been managing a small team and knew that I wanted to head more into the management side, I also wanted to see if I could play a bit of a bigger part collaborative working and making sure we got the two sides of the business (Engineering & Operations) working together as best as possible. Within the materials area we did quite a lot of working with some of our composite manufacturing team and especially the R&D side of it and from there I could see the real benefits of making sure that everyone was working together. I was hoping for an opportunity to do that a bit more and then this one came up, so I’ve moved out of doing the real technical day to day work and more into a management role.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome that challenge?
There was a project that I was the lead on that went a little bit wrong and didn’t work as expected. We had done lots of testing and thought we’d covered everything, but what you end up being as a Materials Engineer in Formula 1 is never an expert in anything but getting involved a little bit in lots of things. So when you then start dealing with something that’s quite complex it’s possible to miss something. Even though the project I was working on had been signed off by my boss and other people, when something went a bit wrong with it I took it quite personally, I kind of beat myself up that I’d missed something and it hadn’t gone right. I let that get to me a bit too much and for too long, I got too worried about it and let it take a lot of my focus. It wasn’t until I managed to open up and have a conversation with my boss that I really got through it. It was about understanding that we’re not perfect, we are potentially going to miss something; but in my head I was kind of saying that someone was blaming me and everyone was thinking that it’s all your fault and actually there probably was no one thinking that at all.
I had to sit back and think we did go through as much testing as we could but we missed this thing that we probably would have never known about, and actually no problem is insurmountable and we’re all working together as a team. The team is there to help you to fix the problem, so you’re not all on your own; its likely that everyone’s had something similar that’s happened to them.
In the end I think it was good to go through it because I think it’s helped me learn and develop. Having been through it once, if something goes wrong on a project I’m working on again I think it’s now easier to make sure I get back in the headspace of knowing it’s not all my fault this time round.
What has been your proudest moment?
I’m always really bad at remembering. I think in some ways it’s having the confidence to start talking to my line managers and other senior managers in the company about what I wanted to do career wise. I knew I wanted development and I was starting to want to look forward but wasn’t really sure where to start.
One of my old managers had once said to me ‘no-one’s a mind reader so they can’t know what you’re thinking and so unless you’ve told someone don’t think they know’. It really struck me that I thought I knew what I wanted to do long term, but did anyone else? So I pushed to start having a conversation with him about what I wanted to do, and what the long term plan could be. The job that I’ve got now is as a result of those conversations, I thought it was more likely to be a couple of years down the line rather than within a couple of months of having that conversation, but I think it was just timings with different managers changing within the business.
Linking back to the original statement, when I said to him what I thought I wanted to do he was like ‘I would never have expected that’. That kind of then really struck me that you can’t just sit there and wait for someone to come along with an opportunity because they may not be seeing what you think you’re showing. So finally having that confidence to sit there and go ‘I think I am good at what I do, I can make a positive impact and I think other people see that’ and then actually having those conversations with my manager and other senior managers which led to the job that I’m doing now is one of my proudest moments.
I guess it’s easier to think of something when you’ve just started out and it’s the first thing you’ve worked on..
Yes definitely, when you’re managing lots of different things you can often just see what’s still to do, not what you’ve achieved. When I was at HPP I joined at the time where the V6 engine was literally a blank sheet of paper. So very few people will have got to go through that whole process of blank sheet of paper engine design, through all of the testing, all of the development, all of the work that went into it, to then see it racing the first-time round. There’s some parts on the engine which I got to work on, complex assembly parts, and having those all go together, and we changed the supplier and actually bringing them in and having them work properly was quite incredible at the time.
What has been the best thing you did to get where you are today? I feel like you might say having those conversations…
Yes, it probably crosses over with the last question. I think in some ways moving to Williams as well. It was a tough call at the time, and I remember I was really lucky because I got to have a conversation with my mentor about deciding whether moving was the right thing for me. I remember him saying to me, ‘write a list of all of the things that are stopping you going and work through them and the one thing left I bet you will be your own confidence and thinking you can’t do the job but actually that’s the reason why you need to move’. In hindsight I would never have had the confidence to do it without him and actually going and doing it, you then prove to yourself that you can do it and you can do more than you think you can in your head.
Did you get recruited to go to Williams?
I applied. I wasn’t really looking for a new job, I was quite happy where I was but I had done 6 years but I was probably not being as challenged as I wanted to be and I wasn’t sure about future progression. It just came up and because I worked with Composites when I was at HPP, but then I also worked on metals performing failure analysis and I’d done quite a lot of gear box analysis because we shared our materials department with the guys down at Mercedes in Brackley. So it all fit the bill and I thought I’ve got nothing to lose by applying, it was an opportunity to be the lead in a team which I was unlikely to be where I was. In the end I thought well the worst they’ll say is no and then it all kind of moved from there. It was a big move at the time because we had to move house, but it was 100% the best thing I ever did for me.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to work in F1 or motorsport?
Use all of the resources that are out there, keep in touch with things. Keep abreast of the industry. Try if you can to see what work experience and practical stuff that you can do, but I wouldn’t necessarily say directly linked experience is a necessity. It depends on what area of the industry you’re looking to go into and a lot of work place skills are transferable, and that’s a lot of what you have to learn when you start a job. Just keep knowing your stuff and don’t be scared to work your way up, there’s lots of lower series of motorsports that you can try and get involved in. You might have to volunteer your time for free, but a lot of the smaller teams would be more than grateful to take in extra people and then you can just keep working up. Don’t expect to necessarily get into a Formula 1 team straight way. Once you’re in it it’s not a 9 to 5 job, they’ll be expecting you to use your passion for it to dedicate some extra time to getting the job done, so if you’re not willing to do that then it’s probably not a career for you.
I guess as you’re in more of a management role now you are involved in hiring people, so is there anything that you look for when you’re hiring people?
I think for me I would say I would take the right attitude over huge amounts of experience. I think experience is good and having the technical skills for a role is needed, depending on what the role is (there’s more technical requirements in some than others), but I would be more inclined to take someone with the right attitude who’s willing to just get on with stuff, to step up, take an instruction and go with it or someone who is coming to you with lots of ideas, someone that wants to come and be part of the team. Not someone who wants to try and prove how amazing they are but by doing that they are walking over other people, because that’s never actually going to get you very far and you work with a huge array of different skill sets and people with different experiences. We have a number of people at work who have worked there for 20+ years, my respect for them is huge and it should be because they know way more than I ever will about their specialty area. You need to come in and be able to talk to all of those different people, work with them, respect them and get the best out of them. That’s really important to making sure that we keep the culture that we want and then also that we’re going to get the best out of the team as a whole. I would definitely be looking for those kinds of things, so people that want to come in to develop themselves but also want to work for the team rather than working for themselves.
What advice would you give to students who are feeling worried about opportunities during Covid-19?
If you’ve lost a placement then keep pushing and keep in touch with people. So maybe make sure you keep writing to them or asking them questions so that they know that you’re still there and interested, then hopefully they might be able to re-offer it to you as and when. It is hard, depending on what your job is, I know we’ve had to let a few placements and things down. I’m not having to do it but I can imagine that having to train someone remotely is hard, people are going to have to do it because new people need to come into roles, but trying to train someone especially someone like a placement student or a graduate who’s got no experience would be especially difficult as it’s not like you’re transferring as an experienced member of staff. But I think just keep up with your industry, do whatever you can to keep in touch with those people and just see if maybe they can do a shorter placement or something in the future.
Our industry hasn’t necessarily been affected in terms of job numbers so the jobs will still be there it’s just the hard bit at the moment is that we can’t necessarily have people in the offices to then give them the training that they need to be able to do their role. I think just stick with it and especially if things like placements are being cancelled and you’re just going straight back into your next year at university that actually there’s going to be quite a lot of people that haven’t done a placement this year, so you’re not going to be the only one that’s then trying to apply for a job at the end without a placement year.
What has been your experience as a woman in motorsport?
I’ve been really lucky actually; I don’t feel like I’ve ever been discriminated against or had it particularly hard, but then it might be that I’ve just been oblivious to it. There’s definitely situations where I’ll sit in rooms or meetings and be the only female with twenty men at times. At times I don’t notice it and then I’ll step back and be like oh actually yeah, I am the only female in the room. I think because the way I’ve approached jobs is to just learn and develop and be involved as much as I can, I’ve garnered the respect of people quite easily so I’ve not had that feeling that there’s a fight, but I know it can be more difficult. I’ve heard stories from other people that have found it harder and I do count myself lucky that I’ve never had to go through those kinds of feelings.
I maybe felt it with the odd external person, like I’ve been working with suppliers at times where I was potentially trying to tell them what to do and they weren’t really appreciating being told what to do by a female in their 20s. That was hard, and I had to get my boss involved at that point, but I do count myself lucky that I’ve always had great managers who’ve really supported me and just treated me as any other member of staff. But yes, I feel like I’m lucky because I know there are other people who haven’t felt like that.
How was it seeing the Williams family, and Claire Williams, stepping away from the team?
It’s definitely been a tough weekend [the weekend in Monza]. I moved to Williams because the job was there, but there was always the added bonus of knowing that there was a female at the top and that is part of what’s allowed our team to ensure we do have a really supportive and inclusive network of women in the business. I was offered my new role when I was 12 weeks pregnant, so when I accepted it I had to tell my boss I was going to be able to do the job for 6 months and then I was going to be off, he just said ‘that’s absolutely fine’. Not everyone would be able to have a boss that would do that, or would be offered a new job knowing that you weren’t going to be there for an extended period of time in it. I think some of the reason was knowing that Claire was there at the top and knowing that she’s done it, she’d had a baby.
She’s definitely been a role model and someone to aspire to be like and an inspiration, when I wasn’t working for her and when I was working for her. It is sad to see her go and to know that now there isn’t a female at the top of an F1 team or when the next one will be, but it’s nice to know that someone has done it and can do it and that hopefully it won’t be long before another. It is definitely sad, and it was emotional at the weekend as well because I’ve been very lucky to get to work on some projects with her internally, and she’d been doing a huge amount to push and to fix things. It’s always difficult listening to people outside the business criticise her and knowing that potentially some of that criticism is coming more because she is a woman, and that if it was a man at the top, they probably wouldn’t be getting as much criticism. Although internally we know how much she is doing and that that’s just a load of rubbish, but there’s nothing you can do to try and defend it. For now I know that we will continue what she started and hopefully be able to show them that we can get the team back to where we want to be and that she will still have been a key part of that because we just want to continue the work that she’s already started.
Have you got anything else you would like to say?
I love the opportunity to get to do things like this as it’s definitely about making people feeling like they’ve got the confidence to do it. The more women in particular we get into motorsport the more that others will think that they can do it. Certainly from an engineering perspective there’s a huge issue showing really young kids they can do it and actually that’s where some of the issue lies. It’s harder with motorsport because the more visual side of it is the people at the track, but it’s difficult to show the public how many people there are back at the factory, so it is great to have those females on the pit wall; I think that there’s a couple of female mechanics now too. I think we had four graduates start last September and three of them were women in our mechanical engineering team, so the numbers are growing and like you say particularly at Williams the numbers we have in our middle to senior management team are really good as well. That’s what we need to see more of, and it would be nice to see a female technical director, I’m sure there will be one, one day. It just takes time to get them through to that level.
Thank you Clare for sharing your journey and advice!