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?
F1 Structural Engineer, Alfa Romeo Racing
What is your job title, and can you summarise your responsibilities?
I’m a structural calculation engineer. As a part of the structural calculation group I am responsible for the integrity and structural performance of the car. We also make sure that the cars meet the necessary crash and stiffness requirements set by the FIA. My responsibilities focus on the bodywork and some suspension elements.
What does a working week look like for you?
The working week of course depends on which part of the season we are talking about. We have phases of intense development; we have phases of concept work; but usually since we are always looking for extra bits of performance everywhere, we try to release as many updates as possible, and typically during the season every week I’m working on a new bodywork element that is going to end up on the car at the next race. I’m working constantly with the aerodynamicist and with the design engineers to optimise the weight, the shape and the structural performance of those elements. And when the cars come back from a race weekend, the week starts by putting on some gloves and inspecting the parts that raced on the weekend. Did they get any damage? Do they behave exactly as you predicted? This helps us to improve the design for the next race.
What’s the best thing about your job?
It is the fact that whatever you work on within several days is visible on the TV racing at a different racetrack. I think this is very particular about this job (not only my job but all the jobs in Formula 1) that you have a direct impact. You can really see if you did a good or a bad job, if you could bring an extra tenth to the lap time or you couldn’t. It’s a big responsibility but also a very great joy.
What did you study at school/college/university?
I come from Russia and I went to a public school, which is specialised on languages, so I was learning English and German. After school I moved to Switzerland to do my bachelor and master’s in mechanical engineering at ETH Zürich. During my studies I specialised on mechanics; classical, non-linear, and as well on biomechanics of cells and human tissues because I just found this topic fascinating.
What work experience or extra-curriculars did you do whilst you were studying?
During university I was working as a teaching assistant for lectures in mechanics and engineering design doing seminars with the students that were a couple of years younger than me. I did my Bachelor manufacturing internship in a research institute EMPA. During my Master I had an internship in a software company KISSsoft that is developing solutions for gear calculations. At the end of my masters I did a graduate programme at Scuderia Ferrari, a Formula 1 engineering academy.
How did you get the Ferrari internship?
No magic involved; I just sent an email to the HR department once I saw on LinkedIn the open position. I wrote to them that I was interested, attaching my CV and a motivation letter. They called me back, there were several interviews, a technical exam and assessment centre. So, we had four or five levels of filtering that you had to go through. Everything worked out well and I ended up working in Maranello. It was a really great experience.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I think when I was already quite young at the age of ten, I wanted to be in Formula 1. Initially I think, as many of the guys and girls that end up in Formula 1, I wanted to be a driver. But then, obviously, some other things must line up for you to be a professional driver in motorsport, so I went for the engineering path. I think since quite early, since I was 14 or 15, I knew that the engineering career in motorsport was what I was looking for.
Where does your love for motorsport come from?
I liked to watch Formula 1 races when I was little. I think maybe it’s a bit untypical, but I was the only motorsport fan in my family, my parents didn’t really share my passion. But I remember that as a little kid I was completely hypnotised and fascinated by the sound of the F1 cars during the race weekend. I think this V12 sound was what captured my attention as a kid; with time it developed into something bigger. I started to be interested in the technical and racing aspect. I was a big fan of Michael Schumacher and I was following his career very closely. Quite early it was clear to me that this passion can become not only a hobby but also my profession, so I went for it.
How did you get your current role?
There is also no special trick here. The Alfa Romeo Racing had an open position, so I had an interview and got the job. I think it helps if you have some previous experiences and connections – for me it was the Ferrari F1 Engineering Academy. For sure what can help is if you have already accumulated some experience within motorsport and you can bring some references that can confirm that you can do a good job and be trusted. I think for getting into Formula 1 the beginning is very important; to get the first internship, to get the first summer programme, to put your foot into the door; later this makes everything a bit easier.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome that challenge?
I think now looking back the biggest challenge, throughout life, is always the fear you have inside you. When you have a dream that seems huge to you and impossible to most of the people that you share this dream with, it seems unreachable. It’s important to always keep your fear under control and not let it guide you away from the path that you have chosen. It’s important that you remember always what your goal is and not get discouraged by little difficulties; for example, by temporary lack of opportunities, or if your first interview doesn’t go well. You just need to keep going. Be aware of your fears, it’s normal – nobody is completely fearless, but you need to manage your fears and turn them to your advantage, into motivation.
What has been your proudest moment?
I think every little successful step towards getting closer to Formula 1 is a reason to be proud, but I prefer to enjoy pride for not longer than a couple of minutes because to me it’s not a helpful feeling to move forward. Whatever is achieved is achieved and there is always a next goal that needs to be taken care of. It’s like on a Sunday if you score points, you celebrate for a couple of hours but then on Monday you are already thinking about the next race, and that’s the same kind of speed for everything else, just celebrate the moment of success, then move on and work on the next one.
What had been the best thing that you did to get where you are today?
So, for me there was not one single thing, it connects a little bit with the previous answer. There is always a little gap, a little opportunity that is somewhere in the right direction of where you want to go, and you need to make sure that you always go for that gap. Probably in most situations that have occurred until now, I made sure to make use of those opportunities. I think in my case the best decision was to move to Europe for studying. I think my path to Formula 1 would have been a bit more difficult if I didn’t do ETH Zürich. It helps to be in a university that qualifies high in international rankings of higher education and research.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to work in F1 or in motorsport?
Motorsport is a very competitive and quite a small industry that is very hard to get into, so everything that you can do to get connected helps. So, for example, choosing a good university and the right Master programme is going to help. It is important to acquire a broad education and to have good fundamentals in mathematics, in aerodynamics, in thermodynamics, in electronics, in controls mechanics, and in management. It’s important to work on your soft skills and to establish a conversation with motorsport companies during career events. If you have a Formula Student team in your university, I would advise to join it.
What would you say to students worried about opportunities disappearing during the Covid-19 pandemic?
I think motorsport is a very fast paced industry, and even if there is a temporary lack of jobs, that’s not a reason to be extra worried. Any crisis generates opportunities soon after the peak of the crisis. I think my advice would be to keep looking and not to give up because it can happen in any industry and motorsport is not the only one suffering from the COVID-19 effect. It might not be the perfect internship that you were looking for, but I think taking any opportunity of the first job experience in motorsport is important and it’s better to do that rather than being in idle for a year waiting for the perfect position to come into your hands. Keep looking and accumulate experience in which ever shape it’s available to you. It can be some volunteer work or something in a different racing category.
What has your experience been as a woman in motorsport?
My experience has been quite positive. I think once you show what you can do, it does not matter if you are a man or a woman. In general, I think in life you always meet different people, it is not only specific to motorsport, someone might make your life easier, someone more difficult. I didn’t have any problems in my couple years of experience in motorsport. You just need to fight your doubts and focus on your strengths, then I don’t see why a career for a woman in motorsport should be any more difficult than for a man.
Thank you Vita for sharing your journey and advice!