An engineer's life: Paddy Lowe, Mercedes

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These days, Paddy Lowe is the executive director (technical) of the championship-winning Mercedes F1 team. Back when Lowe was a school leaver planning his future, Formula One wasn't seen as much of a career option. How times have changed...

"At the time, for a graduate of Cambridge or any top university to go into Formula One was relatively unusual," Lowe recalls. "It certainly wouldn't have been on the career list of any careers office within school or university. Formula One wasn't on the radar, they would have just looked at me blankly. In fact, the only reason I wrote to a team was because a friend of mine said, 'why don't you go and work for a Formula One team?' And it never occurred to me, even though I had some interest in motorsport.

"It wasn't seen as a career, and that's now completely transformed. We have F1 in Schools so it's put on the kids' agenda even while they're at school. We've got Formula Student which is an international operation and they're doing some great work."

F1 has now become a desirable enough career that internships and graduate recruitment programmes are hotly contested. "The programmes are all a lot easier when you go into university and you don't have to start with 'what's Formula One?' and 'is Formula One a valid career?'," Lowe says. "That's already been done for you by [F1iS and Formula Student], so it's now an aspirational career for leading engineers. Not all of them obviously, but many of the top engineers on the top courses will see Formula One as the greatest thing that it is possible for them to get into, which is fantastic for us.

"It never occurred to me that people worked in the industry on engineering. And it was small - I was about the 100th employee within that time and Williams was one of the leading teams. You can imagine, within 100 you've got all the range of staff you need to run a team from engineering to all the logistics, travel, finance, everything. So there weren't so many engineers - probably somewhere between 10 and 20 engineers altogether."

Lowe's own career trajectory - from Williams to Mercedes, via two decades with McLaren - shows that F1 is both a viable and stimulating prospect for engineers. As the sport has expanded globally, so too have the teams expanded.

While less slick than the F1 we have today, the environment allowed for greater creativity, Lowe says. "Formula One had an image of a back-of-the-shed operation, and not incorrectly. Although there were some great engineers in the sport even then, we were [behind] in terms of what the rules allowed us to do relative to what technology was available in other far more mature and sophisticated and better funded industries, such as aerospace or automotive.

"We were right behind the curve and that created that very interesting period that came around then where we invented all sorts of technologies that we could put on the car, whether it's active suspension and traction control, power steering, power differentials, there were lots of things that were not covered in the rule book. Actually, once you got going with the capability and the resources, what we were able to put on the car without constraint... That came to a bit of a climax in 1993 when there was a move to get cars back to 'normal'."

That normality has changed the landscape, but the engineering challenge remains, Lowe says.

"We [now] have around 400 engineers. The range of disciplines that we cover is much, much wider with much more specialism. Instead of one guy trying to cover badly lots of different specialised areas, now we'll have an engineer who specialises in structural analysis, for instance. We really are now at the leading edge of application of the best technology and the rules are now the limit rather than it being the other way round. It means when we do see an opportunity in the rules, we're actually on to it very, very fast and the delivery is relatively simple compared to the difficulty of seeing the opportunity."