While job titles in F1 appear consistent, roles vary from team to team. In the first instalment of a five-part series, Sahara Force India Chief Race Engineer Tom McCullough talks to Kate Walker about his life as an F1 engineer and the ins and outs of the role.
I did an Automotive Engineering degree, and when I was younger I was very keen to work in motorsport on the engineering side. My Dad raced as a hobby, so I was always going to all the British circuits. I ended up applying to Reynard Motorsport, who were doing production race cars, and through them I ended up doing my industrial placement with them in my third year of my degree and then going back onto their graduate training scheme.
I was there for five or six years, until they stopped trading and then I went to Williams. I was there for ten years as a race engineer at the end -- performance engineer to start off with -- and then went to Sauber as a chief race engineer before doing the same role here.
At the track, my main role is to get the most out of everything we have and you can break that down into lots of areas.
I deal very closely with our chief mechanic on the operational side and the build and the reliability side of the car; that takes up a little amount of my time. On the performance side, it's mainly the drivers, the people, the team... You break the car down into the getting the most out of everything: the tyres, the aerodynamics, making sure it's always evolving and developing. [Which means] analysing the data, feeding information back to the factory on correlation and developments and test parts. The aim is to make sure that you're running the best aerodynamic configuration at each track, adjusting to get the most out of the tyres.
That's simplifying everything. Every little area -- like the control systems -- has lots of smaller areas that people have got responsibilities for. We need to make sure we're not just extracting the maximum performance but also being reliable. Once you've done all that and got the maximum performance out of the car, the strategic side comes into it.
The end goal at the end of the year, for us as a midfield team, is to have the most championship points. That's everything that matters for us, so to get both drivers to consistently score as well as they can is what it is all about. So the process at the track is -- it's a bit of a corny term, but -- "global optimisation." Everything we have here, we've got to be good at. If you drop a ball at anything, it will probably cost you points somewhere and at the end of the year, you don't do as well.
Technically, getting the most out of everything operationally is the main role here, but Formula One has grown so much. What used to happen as a racing career is 10-15 years ago is we'd pack our bags, we'd say, "Bye," to the factory, we'd head off for a race weekend, we'd come back and then we'd report back what we're doing. Nowadays -- again, it's this optimisation thing -- you've got people at the factory who are at the end of intercom panels. It's not really cost-effective to ship people around the world, so we've got support at the factory all the way through the race weekend. Not only are they there for reliability, but they're also helping us on performance, analysis, strategy, and all that side of things as well. So [the job is now] sort of coordinating that, making sure that people can see the wood for the trees and all that.
I think that the work/life balance depends whether you're travelling or non-travelling. I live ten minutes away from work, [and when I'm at the factory] I try to leave at 18:50 every evening so that I can have my evening meal with my wife and my two kids -- that's one of my aims. I don't always achieve it, but I largely do. We try to build a culture of getting the job done but not working stupid hours. You can stay until midnight every night and as a younger kid, when I first started off, I was often there until 22:00-23:00, but you've also got to have a work/life balance.
The thing for me as Chief Race Engineer in this team [is that] I assume so many other roles and sit in on lots of meetings that I wouldn't be [involved in] with a much bigger team. So by osmosis, you can learn lots of stuff by being in all those aero meetings, by being in all those design meetings ... In a way, from a personal point of view, it's what makes the job exciting and you learn more as well. That's one of the strategic reasons for doing it!
The most rewarding part of the job is coming away from a race weekend knowing that you got the most out of both cars and the best positions you could achieve and then going back to the factory and being part of the development process of moving the whole thing forward. I think that's what gives you the buzz.
The opposite of that is what don't you enjoy - the hardest bit is when you go to a race weekend and you went the wrong with way with strategy, with set-up, with whatever procedure and then you can't wait until the next race to get it over with. The rewarding side is achieving your maximum, and that is what I enjoy the most: coming out of a qualifier thinking both those cars couldn't have done any better, coming out of the race and thinking, "that's as fast as we could have done."
You very rarely finish a race weekend and think, "I did everything right there, I know everything." You often come away thinking, "okay, we didn't get the most out of that or we need to improve there or how can we do that?" Those questions are what the briefings and the debriefings are all about: communication and trying to move the whole thing forward.