“Stay there and carry on with making it work”
My next assignation was with a man who has just retired from the role of Head of Vehicle Engineering F1 at McLaren after 20 years with the company, Mark Williams. Mark wasn’t a Brookes graduate, but went instead to Imperial College London, before becoming a designer at Lola Race Cars. I first met Mark when I joined Lola F1 back in 1991. I wanted to see what his thoughts were about the university that was clearly becoming one of the main providers of engineering personnel to Formula 1 teams.
I started by asking him how McLaren went about recruiting their technical personnel and where Oxford Brookes fitted in.
He told me that McLaren had traditionally looked to three specific universities, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, London. Mark went on to explain that, in his opinion, the way that the top teams were recruiting was definitely changing. He told me that at one time, when budgets were much easier to put together than they are currently in Formula 1, it was quite common to employ graduates who were incredibly highly skilled in very specific areas of technology. They’d be given an almost unlimited budget, put into a tech lab on their own and asked to create some incredible bit of kit or technology that would make the car handle better, or go faster, using their specific area of knowledge. If it failed, “stay there and carry on with making it work” was the message.
According to Mark, things have changed, with more restricted budgets. What he felt teams are looking for today in their technical personnel is a more “rounded” level of knowledge, so that they have the ability to look at a wider picture. He also added that the ability to communicate with members of the technical and other sectors of the team has become more important.
Chris is the first to admit that at that particular time, he wasn’t aware that you could build a proper career in motorsport engineering.
Mark retired from McLaren at the end of 2015 and now consults within the industry, but in his last eighteen months at the Formula 1 team, he had already become aware of the rapidly growing reputation of Oxford Brookes. So much so that he decided to find out for himself if there was something to it and paid a visit to Wheatley Campus. What he saw really impressed him. He told me that what came across very strongly was the extremely high-level of practical tuition that took place, as well as the endorsement of a motorsport industry team ethos, something he saw as being a vital element.
During the visit, Mark made a point of meeting with several members of the university’s Formula Student team, which had the previous season been the first UK FS team ever to win the coveted Mercedes Petronas Design Award. Mark related how impressed he was with the standard of engineering skill that he saw on the FS car and the attitude of the design team.
Within a few weeks of the visit, back at McLaren, Mark arranged an R&D project in association with the University, involving some of MSc Motorsport Engineering students. It related not to McLaren’s F1 programme, but rather to its commercial sports car division. At the end of 2015 came another breakthrough when the leader of Oxford Brookes successful FS team, George Simmons, was offered a position within McLaren F1.
Although no longer at McLaren, Mark has continued his role as their representative on the panel of the Autosport McLaren Young Driver of the Year programme.
Having now spoken to an Oxford Brookes Alumnus now established in Formula 1, as well as to a senior figure within the sport who was not a Brookes graduate, it was time to meet a current Brookes Under-Graduate, to get their views on this increasingly popular career path.
Chris Shawe became passionate about motorsport in a slightly different way to what could be considered the norm. As a teenager, he was faced with a decision as to which school he should change to. Looking at the options presented by his family, he saw that one school offered students the opportunity to become involved in the GreenPower programme. He liked maths and physics as subjects and so this looked an attractive proposition. Chris is the first to admit that at that particular time, he wasn’t aware that you could build a proper career in motorsport engineering.
Moving forward, it was time for Chris to start considering university options. It was only then that he became fully aware of the fact that some universities provided a route to Formula 1, in theory at least. He started researching the various faculties and like Gavin, many years before, saw the relevance of the Formula Student programme in helping to make that choice. Through his research, he rated Brookes highly in this respect. Then, having visited the motorsport engineering facility at Wheatley Campus, Chris’ mind was made up.
I wanted to know what the reaction of his school was when he told them he was planning a career in motorsport engineering. He explained to me that they weren’t fully aware of the opportunities that existed, but when he submitted his university preference list, instead of listing his 5 options, he just put in three, with Brookes as number 1. He admitted there was some concern at this, but he stood firm. In September 2013, Chris started his degree programme.
After two years, Chris was appointed as the Team Leader for the Formula Student programme at Brookes, having been an active team member up to then. He told me that he saw the programme as being very important. He was aware that being involved in the FS project would look good on his CV when applying for positions in Formula 1. That might have been his initial motivation, but within a few months the passion for winning took over and that became the primary motivation for all of the hard work that was entailed.
I wanted to find out whether Chris had come to a decision as to the specific aspect of Formula 1 technology in which he would specialise. He explained that whilst he knew that he didn’t want to work on the engine side, he was trying to keep an open mind at this stage. He was more interested in the structural and aerodynamic areas but would wait to see what else excited him.
We returned to the topic of Formula Student, with Chris telling me that prior to being appointed Team Leader this year, he’d been managing around 40 students working on chassis design and development within the team. This year as Team Leader, he found that he spent a lot less time on technical issues and far more on management matters, which he found hard, but very worthwhile in terms of his own career development. In particular, managing the expectations of the team members in terms of what the university was able to provide and what the team members wanted. He admitted that it had been a steep learning curve.
Just as Mark Williams had told me that he regrets not having learned communication skills earlier in his Formula 1 career, so Chris was stressing that one of the most important things that his time at Oxford Brookes was teaching him was the importance of interpersonal communication and management.
It was becoming very obvious to me why Grand Prix teams are so keen to take Oxford Brookes Students. It’s not just for their brainpower, but rather for their proven ability to fit straight into the pressure cooker that is all too often the real world of Formula 1. As one team boss said to me, if you ask Brookes graduates to change a wheel-bearing on the van, they don’t turn their nose up and tell you it’s not their job, they just get on and do it. That’s the sort of team ethos we want.