It’s not only the cars that travel fast in Formula One. Almost every other week, teams pack their bags, wave goodbye and head off to race again. After my first Formula One Grand Prix in Valencia, I wanted to know more about these unusual journeys, both on and off the track.
Let’s get started!
-You work as a Race Engineer for Lotus Racing – what does that involve?
As Race Engineer, I am responsible for one of the two cars of the team.
At the track, I coordinate the “car crew”, a group of four engineers, each one a specialist in one area (vehicle, engine, control systems and electronics), about ten mechanics and, obviously, the driver.
The objective is to try to extract the maximum performance from the car we’ve been given, optimising the many parameters that can be adjusted in a Formula One car (not least the driver’s brain). I am also responsible for communicating with the driver while he’s driving. My decisions are based on the feedback from the driver and the engineers, simulation results, data analysis and experience.
-How did you get into this line of work?
In 1998 I sent out a CV to a company making dishwashers, but I misspelled the address.
Ok, ok… I’ve always been passionate about race cars. I had been working in an IT company for one year when a friend told me that a Formula 3 team was looking for a Data Analysis Engineer. He asked me if I was interested, but at that point he was talking to himself, for I was already typing my application. I spent 3 years in that team and in the last year we won the F. Renault championship with Ryan Briscoe, a young Toyota driver. Toyota were just starting their F1 campaign, so I applied there and in April 2002 I started working there.
When Toyota closed their F1 project at the end of last year, I joined Lotus Racing. Funnily enough, Jarno, who I had worked with for the past five years, did the same.
-Would you recommend it to someone starting out now?
If I wouldn’t I should change jobs.
-Any tips for beginners?
Study a lot, don’t give up, forget about sleeping.
-What is the best part of your job?
Many things, really. The adrenaline of qualifying, the joy of a good result, being part of a top notch group of engineers and technicians…
–Which part is the most stressful: before, during or after the race?
From my point of view qualifying is the most stressful part. Everything must be perfect, because there’s no second chance and very often you need to synchronise what happens right down to the second. I must say that a race in variable weather conditions is quite stressful too.
-Where have you travelled to?
Many places: all over Europe, Melbourne, Shanghai, Bahrain, Montreal, KL, Singapore, Suzuka… and then there are strange and exotic places like Silverstone.
-Which place surprised you the most?
More than a single place, what surprises me are the differences between one and another. It still amazes me to see such different cultures and how people prioritise things in a completely different way. Shanghai, Monaco, Suzuka, Bahrain, Sao Paulo and Melbourne are only examples of places that could very well belong to different solar systems.
It’s fascinating how in a hyper-connected society, people still manage to be so different and I hope that it remains like that to a certain extent.
-What are the downsides of travelling with work?
I think the most important downside is that you struggle to give continuity to all other aspects of your life (family, friends, hobbies…). You can’t commit to anything else outside your job. I think I’m lucky because my family and friends understand this situation well. On my side, I try to put in the extra effort to spend as long as I can with them, even if it means fighting jet-lag and having dinner while your body clock screams that it’s 3 in the morning.
You get a fantastic excuse to avoid people you don’t like ;)
Jokes apart, I love travelling and although I travel to more than twenty different destinations worldwide for work every year, I still like to take a trip when I’m on holiday. When I come home from an event I’m extremely tired and looking forward to some routine, but after a couple of days I already start the countdown to my next departure.
Some consider travelling to be a waste of time, but if you organise yourself, then a long flight can be the perfect chance to do the things you like and never otherwise have time to do. OK, if all you like is painting you might create something very original in certain bumpy flights).
-When you travel with work, do you get the chance to explore the country you’re visiting?
When we travel in Europe it’s very difficult, because we usually arrive on Wednesday evening and leave straight after the race, so we are only left with a couple of dinners out when the workload is not extreme. When we fly to other continents we get there one day earlier and/or leave one day later and this gives us some opportunities for “fast-tourism”.
One thing I hate is to have dinner or drinks in the hotel. It’s a shame to be in places other people pay to go to and not to take advantage of it.
-What is the most dangerous place you’ve ever visited?
If we exclude the places where you risk dying of boredom (there are more than a few), the most dangerous place is Sao Paulo for sure. The shocking contrast between the favelas and the luxury hotels only a few hundred meters away obviously generates strong social tensions, which erupt in widespread criminality. In my previous team, we were victims of attempted robberies twice, while waiting in our vehicles at a red light. Three or four years ago, they even shot at one of our vans while the driver tried to escape. Luckily, nothing serious happened.
-Do you think that travel has changed you?
Yes, I think so. You face many different people and situations. You understand why some things happen and new questions arise. One interesting thing I realised while travelling and working with people of many nationalities over the last eight years is that most of the stereotypes about people from different countries (including the Italians) are actually true!
-Would you do it all again?
When do we start?
-What do you wish I’d asked you?
What do you like besides travelling?
I love music. I’m an eager (and quite intransigent) listener and an amateur singer. I managed to set up a band in my previous team and I’m trying to do the same here at Lotus Racing, so stay tuned!
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com