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An engineer's life: Tom Stallard, McLaren

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While job titles in F1 appear consistent, roles vary from team to team. In the fourth installment of An engineer's life, McLaren Race Engineer and former Olympic rower Tom Stallard talks to Kate Walker about his life as an F1 engineer and the ins and outs of the role.

I did engineering at Cambridge. Before I went to Cambridge, I wanted to do motorsports, and then when I got to Cambridge, I got really obsessed with rowing, and then I got into engineering so I could keep rowing. I did a reasonable amount of work, but I basically put rowing first, and so all the engineering I did fitted around rowing -- the modules I chose were based on things that interested me, rather than a specific desire to go for one thing. Because what I wanted to do was be a rower.

It was only when I went to Athens [for the 2004 Olympic Games], and we did really badly, that I was like, "right, if I'm gonna carry on to Beijing in 2008, which is what I want to do, I need to play for what happens after Beijing". And then I came back to the fact that before I went to uni, I wanted to do this. I went back and did a motorsport engineering course at Brunel, an MSc. By changing sport, it felt like I was doing well in something else, rather than doing less rowing than I used to do.

I stopped rowing as I turned 30 and started doing this. Being 30 is not that old for a rower, but 35 is getting on a bit, and then 40's quite old. I could see the end of the tunnel and it's like, "well what are you gonna do?". It is quite hard to go from being one of the best in the world at something to start at the bottom in something else, whatever you choose to do.

I'm a race engineer, and as a race engineer, I don't have to be the cleverest guy on the team. We have seriously clever guys, who are into stimulations and this sort of thing. I don't have to be able to do their jobs, but I have to be able to understand their jobs, so that I can understand the output of what they're doing. Then I need to be able to explain it to Jenson, and convert it into a setup, or a run plan, or a strategy. You have to be good at explaining stuff, and good at understanding the fundamentals of what people who are cleverer than you are doing, especially in their own specific area.

I said I'm not really expert in anything, but to be honest, what race engineers are expert at is interpreting the balance of the car and interpreting where the drivers are losing performance. It's assigning a magnitude, to say, "right, he's losing some time here, and some time here, but the big problem is the understeering, or the big problem is the oversteering, and that's what we need to fix". I started off saying we're not experts, but actually that's not really fair. There is a thing that race engineers do, and performance engineers do, that the race engineering team do that other people in the company can't really do.

I can't remember how many engineers we have -- 180 engineers or something like that. You can't listen to all of them. So inherently, there's some summaries, and within race engineering, there's two data engineers, two race engineers, a chief race engineer, and then head of race operations. Between the six people, we'll cover different aspects to some extent. I, for example, do less of the engine than the performance engineers do, just because you don't want to throw too many people at something, and we cover different areas.

Between all the races Jenson will come and visit the factory for a day, and during that time we'll do some simulator work, we'll have some meetings and briefings, where we debrief the last race more thoroughly. We have a debrief at the track after the race, then we go away, we analyse the data, and try and understand each comment. Normally, we pull up as many questions as we get asked, so you then work through your findings with them: "Right, this is what we know, this kind of makes sense because of this. This one, I still don't get it, I can see this happening in the data, but do you think this bit here is related?". We have those conversations with him, and try and piece together what's going on.

On Sunday night he'll get out the car and he kind of plugs in his USB stick if you like and just data downloads. We write pretty much as fast as we can to keep up, making notes of everything he's saying. There's not really time to have that conversation, we're flying on somewhere else. The car comes back, and we need to go and see if the car okay or if there are bits damaged - there's a lot going on. It is kind of day-to-day, the analysis behind it at the time. Either you've seen something in the session, in which case you'll discuss it, or you'll sort of shelve it and say, "right, I'll look at that on Monday'. And then it comes back to the simulator on, say, Thursday, and we've hopefully distilled most of what we've said into hypotheses, and into our understanding.

We can then go through it with him, and work through the debrief, and say, "this is what we're seeing happening, this bit we still don't understand, but we're trying to work on this". Hopefully, by the time we get to the next race, most of it is "this is what we think is happening", rather than, "this is what we still don't understand".

To keep McLaren improving I do two things. Obviously, there's the conduit aspect, so one thing is explaining to Jenson what we as a company have learned since the last race. The next thing is explaining what he's learned about the car, to get back to number one in the company. They're not up to their elbows in what's going on on the track, because they're too busy working in the lab, or whatever, to try and develop the next thing. So they need someone to come back to them, and they don't understand the finer details of driving the car, or what Jenson's feeling, or what's really limiting him, because that's what they struggle to understand. They need somebody to come back to them.