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?
Suspension Design Engineer, Alpine F1 Team
What is your job title, and can you summarise your responsibilities?
Within Alpine F1 Team, I am a suspension design engineer. That involves everything from internal suspension, to sticks and drums. That again is divided into front and rear suspension. Most visible part of the suspension are called sticks and are the different arms that connect the wheels with the rest of the car. The drums are what the wheel slides over. It looks like a cake tin, however I assure you it is a lot more complicated on the inside than it looks from the outside. The internal suspension allows to steer the front wheels but covers other aspects from our suspension as well. In my team, we are also responsible for the design of pit equipment that is related to our components. You can think of wheel guns that are used during a pitstop, for example.
I currently work on some of the front suspension sticks for our 2021 car. During the season we are working on in-season performance updates, R&D tests, scheming concepts for the following season, and improving reliability of components that have been flagged trackside. Sometimes that requires a complete redesign, other times it is just as simple as adding a 3D printed support.
What does a working week look like for you?
To explain it in a simple way, it is our Aerodynamics department that designs the car. Although, they just design an outside shell. It then is my responsibility to create real components from that shell. What I need to do exactly depends on what tasks and deadlines my job list is filled with. We have a large planning department that is responsible for dividing the workload over the various departments, and they create my job list in a very detailed way. Normally, you will work on an assembly from A to Z, meaning going through the different design phases, and are responsible for that specific assembly as well. That means that you are often working on the same components for a few days in a row, but something urgent can show up in your plan as well and you just need to crack on with that. Therefore, I can say that my days always vary from each other.
At this time of the year, I am fully focused on the detailed design of my components. In other words, I ensure I translate my conceptual designs into real components, get them simulated, manufactured and tested. I arguably spend around 90% of my time in design related work, which only is possible because of the good work our planning department is carrying out. Design related work for me does not only consist of creating 3D geometries. It also involves a lot of thinking, brainstorming and discussions with colleagues. Thinking about manufacturing, selecting the right material and processes, as well as checking the environment my “to-be-designed” component is living in. I am questioning myself how my components or assemblies are interacting with their surrounded assemblies and ensure there are no clashes possible.
I sometimes volunteer to work during the races. I then listen to two other drivers and report to my strategy team what has been said between these drivers and their engineers. They take this information into account when deciding their strategy for pitstops for example. Our strategy team mainly makes decisions based on our own simulation models, data, weather, and not unimportantly what our own drivers think. The information from other drivers is secondary input, not primary decision-making information.
What is the best thing about your job?
Aside of the fact that I absolutely love racing, the main reason for me to work in Formula 1 is the rapid design cycles we go through, in combination with the state-of-the-art technology that we use. If we can find performance in an update, we will push hard to get it to the track as quick as possible. It varies from component to component on how long it takes, but it can be that you design something on Monday, and that it will be on the car on Friday, regardless of where in the world we are racing. That is pretty impressive and is difficult to find in any other industry. It does go hand in hand with the mentality we have within our team. Everyone who I am working with has that professional athlete mindset; I want to win! Another reason to love my job.
I also absolutely love the fact that I need to work in close collaboration with other colleagues from various departments to solve the challenges we face. For me it is important to talk with the various departments involved in creating a new solution. It could be for example talking with our highly skilled fabricators about the concept I have in mind, just to ensure that they can manufacture it. Or if I change a certain part, that they will be able to manufacture it in a quicker manner. I like to think out of the box for finding both short-term, and long-term solutions for issues we see trackside. I often try to implement solutions into my designs that I have seen in other industries. We also have a department called car build. They are responsible for preassembling the whole car, as well as the fitment of updates during the year. Most of the guys working there have been working trackside for quite a few years and have so much hands-on experience. It is a great opportunity for me asking them more about the operating side of our components and assemblies, as in the end I am just sitting in an office behind a desk and carry out my work in an idealised 3D environment.
Another example of work I really enjoy is to do iteration loops on certain parts in close collaboration with our stress department. Evaluating the results together and come up with suggestions that could improve the design makes me enjoy my work and cope with the high workload we have.
What did you study at school/college/university?
In the Netherlands it works a little different with school and college I believe. For me university is where you start to pursue your bachelors and school and college, I would call one thing; high school. So, at high school I did the most technical profile possible as I knew I wanted to become an F1 engineer. After I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Applied Sciences in Delft, Holland where I studied Aeronautical Engineering. For my masters, I went to Luleå University of Technology in Swedish Lapland to do a masters in Composite Materials. After that I started as an industrial PhD-student at Scania in Sweden, but I unfortunately never finished it.
What work experience or extra-curriculars did you do whilst you were studying?
Quite a few and it makes it hard to find where to start. Let’s start with what I did during my bachelors. During the second term of my first year I joined our Shell Eco Marathon team, Team Apollo. We designed a small three-wheeled “vehicle” purely to achieve a high fuel economy. It had the shape of a large teardrop and the driver needed to lay flat in it. The competition is won by the team that achieved the highest fuel economy, after driving 10 laps on an enclosed track with a minimum average speed of 25 km/h. We did not have a Formula Student team at my university, so I needed to do something else because I really wanted to get the hands-on experience. I did mainly technical and management roles, so I was team manager, but I also carried out some design work and manufacturing. That was my first two and a half years at university.
The year after, I decided I needed to push myself a step further and I went to one of the TU Delft’s famous dream teams. In one year, we designed and built our own race motorbike. We were operating it as well by having our rider competing in the European Supermono Championship. This motorbike was a bit more serious than the Apollo and was capable of top speeds over 250 km/h. Now that is racing! I was the technical manager, and structural engineer. Again, combining technical and management roles. I was responsible for the structural analysis of our carbon frame. Normally it would have been a tubular steel chassis with a bolted composite sub-frame, but we integrated both into one component. Aside of the structural analyses, I was responsible for the production manufacturing as well. However, that is where it went wrong. I was clearly not experienced enough to lead the manufacturing of such a complicated part, even after consulting various experts. I simply could not guarantee the safety of our rider, and needed to make the most difficult decision of that year; stopping the manufacturing and going back to the drawing board. The decision was supported by external composites experts, so it was the only right decision.
During my bachelors I did one more extra-curricular activity. It started off as an ordinary university project. With a team of seven students, we started a technical and business feasibility study for the Royal Netherlands Air Force focusing on designing a modular Remotely Piloted Aircraft System platform in the Netherlands. After our final presentation at the Royal Netherlands Air Force headquarters, we got in touch with leading aerospace companies within the Netherlands and have pitched our concept. There was an intent from us to create a start-up, but not all of us were able to fully commit to that, including myself, so we did not continue with that project. Although it did end up on a high for us, as we were nominated for the Dutch Aerospace Prizes of 2016.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
First, I wanted to be an astronaut, I was really passionate about space and it was super interesting to me. This is when I was four, five, six years old. I think from eight-years-old onwards, I wanted to be an F1 driver. By the time I turned 12, I realised that I would never make it, because I still did not have my own go-kart, so I decided to be an F1 engineer. So not that many different jobs really. Though, I have also seriously considered a career as a fighter pilot within the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
Where does your love for motorsport come from?
It must come from my Dad. When I was 3 years old, I can remember sitting on the couch with my Dad watching Formula 1, and I have continued ever since. My Dad always loved to watch Formula 1, MotoGP or any other motorsport series. Which also means that for me it is not only about Formula 1. I really enjoy watching other motorsport series like MotoGP, Superbikes, Formula 2/3/4, Formula E, ELMS, WEC, WRC, etc. Why I love racing is because of all the action and thrilling overtakes, which I also get from watching other extreme sports. Though I do want to make clear that I am not watching races to see crashes. Every time I see a crash happening, it turns my stomach!
How did you get your current job?
We need to go back to 2017 to answer that question. It was the year I applied for the Infiniti Engineering Academy. This is an academy that offers you the opportunity to have an internship of half a year at Alpine F1 and half a year at the Infiniti Technical Centre here in the UK. There are seven different regions and I applied for the European region. Although being one of the ten finalists, I did not end up winning the final. However, the luck was still on my side. During my time at university I have focused everything as much as possible on composites. Since the judge from Renault was a senior composite design engineer, he told me ‘I am sorry you did not win but I want you in my team!’
Long story short, I stayed in contact with him and two years after the Infiniti Engineering Academy final I received an email with the question if I wanted to talk about a job opportunity here at Alpine (Renault at the time). Talking? I was more like ‘Where can I sign, please?’
If I had not been in the Infiniti Engineering Academy finals it would have been different for me for sure! I have applied at every other Formula 1 team as well but have not had an interview with any of them. This means that even though I did many extra-curricular activities to try and stand out of the crowd, I apparently still did not have the right profile. So, a lot comes down to luck as well. Fortunately, I am not a fan of one specific team, I am just a fan of the sport. I just wanted to work in Formula 1 and that is what happened eventually.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome that challenge?
My biggest challenge engineering wise was during my year in the motorbike team. When I found out that I could not guarantee the safety of my rider, I was absolutely devastated. I immediately knew that we needed to stop the project, go back to the drawing board and carry out even more consults to ensure we would make a bomb-proof manufacturing plan. At the same time, I was under a lot of pressure from my fellow team members, because we were two weeks behind schedule, and it would be very tight to make it to the last two races of that season with the new frame. This moment inevitably led to a lot of friction within the team and did not lead to the desired outcome. But did I learn from it? Absolutely, and I am thankful for having experienced such a demanding situation as it showed me my own weaknesses which I needed to improve undoubtedly.
Another challenge on a more personal note I believe is very important to talk about as well. When I was studying for my masters in Sweden, I was living in Lapland. That region is not particularly known for its sunny winters and I experienced the hard way how that can influence your mental health. I didn’t have the best time there and is the main reason why I moved to Southern Germany for the second year of my masters. I received permission to carry out my internship and thesis at one company instead of spending another half a year in dark up North. To date, I am still very thankful for the people in charge at LTU who allowed me to leave.
What has been your proudest moment, and what has been the best thing that you did to get where you are today?
I think there are three maybe, and they all follow each other. My proudest moment would be the nomination for the Dutch Aerospace Prize. To do a very similar type of project and team role that I did within the motorbike team, but achieving the complete opposite result showed me that I did learn from my mistakes, improved my weaknesses, and could lead a team. It made me feel very proud and was a great piece of teamwork performance. The Infiniti Engineering Academy final definitely was another moment that stands out for me, but more on an individual level. Finally, signing my first contract in Formula 1 was for sure my proudest moment, as that is all I ever wanted since I was twelve years old. I strongly believe that I would not have accomplished that if it was not for the experiences I encountered during my bachelors.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to work in F1, or motorsport in general?
Are you really prepared to sacrifice your personal life for work? We work very long days and I believe you can only sustain that for a limited amount of time if you are not passionate about the work you are doing. I have mainly been living abroad from 2016 onwards and I absolutely miss my friends and family from back home. Is it worth it? Yes, absolutely! I know that they will always support me. In fact, without their support I would not have made it. With that I mean that it is very convenient to live in an area you are familiar with, where you have your friends nearby. It is unfortunately not for many of us that they live close enough to a Formula 1 team to continue their private lives. Are you still interested in joining a Formula 1 team? Good, because I have some other tips for you.
I personally find having hands-on experience maybe even more important than having obtained your academic degree with honours. Obtaining a relevant degree is one thing but having the experience of how to manufacture components and how to work with tools really can bring your design to the next level. We have no time for mistakes, it must be right the first time directly. I have the feeling that it often is underestimated of how much value it is to have that hands-on experience. With that experience, a good designer will distinguish himself from others. Finding a side job as a mechanic at your local dealer for instance would be worth the oil and grease under your nails on the long term.
My next tip is an absolute no brainer. Join a student project at your university or found one. It does not matter what vehicle you will be designing. What is important is that you experience what challenges you encounter when going through the different stages defined in the V-diagram of launching a product, for example.
What advice would you give to students worried about opportunities disappearing during the pandemic?
That is a delicate question as when opportunities disappear, the more people will apply for the same position. This inevitably will make it a harder competition. The advice I would like to share with you is to be confident about yourself, know what you can do, but also know your weaknesses. It is equally important knowing what you are not good enough at yet and be honest about that in your cover letters. I personally really appreciate people being open to me and saying like ‘Hey I just designed this, but I am not sure, would you like to have a look at it?’. As I do, asking my colleagues to have a look at my work. Please do not feel anxious about that! You are not dumb; you are not yet as experienced as others are. I try to make use of the experience that is available around me.
What has been your experience as a woman in motorsport?
Great. I do not feel there is any difference between the guys in my team and I, we are all equal, we are all engineers. A degree or job does not get defined by gender. I have never had any bad experiences at any of the companies I did internships at or worked at.
However, I do find that there is not enough diversity within the team, which I would like to see being changed. The ratio of man versus women is not anywhere close to 50/50. My experience is that man and women approach work differently, and therefore can complement each other’s work. This does not mean that women should be hired because they are women. Everyone should be hired because of their specific skillset that will complement and strengthen the team.
Have you got any other advice?
Yes. Please do not worry if you cannot secure a position within Formula 1 immediately after graduating. There are many people that join Formula 1 teams after having worked in another industry. You will always bring some new information to the team. I worked at the R&D centre of Scania before I joined Renault F1. That is a very different industry, but I still use certain things on a daily base which I learned at Scania.
Thank you Lisa for sharing your journey and advice!