Let me introduce you to Dr Nicholas Brown, one of the Composite Design Engineers at McLaren Racing and former EngD at the University of Surrey. It was a real pleasure having a conversation with him at the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) in Woking, UK. We covered different topics about what is like to work at the top level of automotive engineering, including some tips for getting where he is now! Enjoy it!
First of all, I’d like to say how grateful I am to have you here, since I know you are extremely busy at the moment. Thank you for your time and your kindness. And now, let’s get started. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
So I did my masters first in engineering at Loughborough University; that was Aeronautical Engineering. I spent five years up there and did a placement year as well. So my placement year was with an aerospace electronic sort of warfare defense company, but I was doing more of the support work reliability team and things like that, writing general reports… Didn’t really do anything fancy, so I came out of there not wanting to do that and not really wanting to go on a graduate scheme. Then I had a year just between jobs and then the EngD came up, so I chose to do the EngD that as you know is a great opportunity. And then towards the end of it I was looking for more job roles and one came up at McLaren Racing as a Design Engineer, which implied using my composites knowledge for a more applied role. There are research aspects as well, but it’s mainly applying my knowledge. That was about a year and a half ago and now I’m still here! It’s quite fun! It’s good to apply all the things you know. As I said we do research up there but it is completely different to the research I did as an EngD.
It’s more focus on the solution rather than on the reason why something is happening, isn’t it?
Exactly, we need to find the answer in a couple of days. Sometimes we don’t even know the explanation for the solution, we just know it works, so okay, let’s use that now and then figure out later in case we find the same problem again. And usually we don’t have time to test every iteration of different things like you do on a doctorate where you lock all your variables down and change one at a time. We don’t have time, we just have to change almost everything and if it works, we don’t really know exactly which variable made it work.
This is quite a common question, but I know public wants to know what is like to work for a prestigious team such as McLaren. How is a day in your life?
It can vary quite a lot. It can go from the slow days, where we’ve got deadlines for the week, to other days where you’ve got five or six people calling you at the same time or emailing you saying “what’s this?”, “Why are we doing this?”, “This has gone wrong, how do we fix it?” and yeah, you feel like your head is about to explode. So yes, it varies but most of the time it’s quite hard pressure, but that’s what we enjoy. And you’re working with people who have similar working habits so if there is a question or there is something you need to know the answer to, we walk over and speak to them or call them to their desk, so things are solved right then, rather than in a meeting next week or the week after.
It’s the same in Automotive really, where you just go and ask directly to the people who are involved in whatever you are doing. Please, go on.
So yeah, day to day is quite active, because deadlines can change and suddenly all the stress comes back and it’s not what you thought so you have to change everything straight away. But that’s the idea of the short timelines: everyone is doing everything at once.
Is it true that in F1 you need to be available 24-7? I have heard stories of employees having to cancel holidays after receiving a phone call at 4am…
Could be. As your responsibilities grow, I think you would be. I’ve heard the same stories, but I’ve not worked for any other team and what I like about McLaren is that they are quite realistic in terms of you’re people and you have a life. I’ve never been called at 4 in the morning… Not yet at least! We are expected to hit deadlines, so if something needs to make the track and something needs to be designed by the end of the day, then you need to get it done by the end of the day. So some people would stay quite late and sometimes you can’t help it because it’s not through fault of your own, but the design has changed, there is more performance to be gained. So you have to sit there and stick to the same deadline, but you have to redo all the work you’ve just done. So yeah, I don’t think it’s as bad as some people say it is, but the idea is that you want to help and you want to get the car to the track. I’ll come in weekends and things like that just to help and check that things are going okay.
I’ve heard that you have been involved in the design of the front wing of the MCL-32. Can you tell us, more or less, in which parts you have worked on so far?
I started off with some very small diffuser parts at the back of the car and then gradually, as I gained more responsibility, I moved to more components. So at the moment I’ve done some of the parts of the front wing, and for the rear wing I’ve done the end plates and the flap as well. And then we need to do upgrades of different components. So yeah, it’s fun. I get to see various projects: the front wing ones are really complex and the laminate structure that we are putting in them to make them deform in the right way is a quite complicated problem. And then there are other parts of the car that represent serious challenges too. Then you want to get them right as quick as possible, so quite a lot of work is going into that.
I need to ask this question because a lot of people think that being a Formula 1 engineer involves travelling with the team every two weeks: have you ever been to a GP?
No, I wish I did. We get free tickets to Silverstone, but we don’t get any other races. I’m going to testing in Hungary, which is cool and I have been to Silverstone for test day but I haven’t been to a Grand Prix at all yet ever in my life. I wanted to go to Silverstone last year but I had something on, then I wanted to go this year and I have something on again so… maybe next year!
And what about the “Mission Control” room? Have you ever been in there?
Yeah! So we had this thing when I first started, they asked people to volunteer to help with the strategy stuff, so you get to come in for all the sessions (practice, qualifying and the race). You get to sit in Machine Control, where a lot of competitor analysis is done. But yeah, you’re generally helping with the guys spotting things, looking for things that other teams might be doing and so on, which is interesting.
Which type of software do you usually use? I guess you are doing CAD modelling, but do you do any type of analysis using CFD or FEA?
I am a CAD modeller, so I just use CATIA and then, obviously, there is the associated stuff and that’s why we work with the Stress and Aero Engineers. We are all almost working at the same time, so we have to very quickly speak with each other. We are all involved in the loop and it usually takes four or five iterations in a day, changing the design, receiving feedback from the Stress Engineers and so on.
Last September, during the McLaren Learning Day, I had the opportunity to meet Steve Foster (Principal Engineer of Composite Design and Technology). He actually helped me with a question about the behaviour of composite structures under very specific loading conditions. He was extremely kind and he offered to provide more support if needed! It’s great to find these kind of people in a company, don’t you think?
Oh yes! Steve looks after crash stuff and he knows a lot, he’s a very acknowledgeable man. There are a lot of people like him in our company: if you just go and ask them, they are more than happy to help; they’ll stop what they’re doing and they’ll come over to help you because, you know, we are all trying to get to the same place.
So… let me ask you a mandatory question: how was your interview? Can you tell us anything at all? Any advice?
It was tough. I cannot say too much because I would give away the whole interview process. I revised all the MBTI stuff, aptitude tests and things like that but they didn’t do anything like that. I was about two hours here with a panel of three people. So my boss, another composites guy and Steve Foster. They asked me all sort of technical questions, things about my background and then I met some of the other higher-up people to discuss stuff with them. It’s almost overwhelming because you turn up here and you stop at the gate where they give you a map so you can find your way… And then you face the white corridor and there is no one there to guide you! Then you keep walking to find that the column at the end of the corridor is actually a lift that takes you to the Boulevard, where you are surrounded by all those cars and you think “Oh my God! I need to concentrate for the interview… but there is this dream world of cars…”. It was quite nerve-racking, but it seemed to go well.
This reminds me of something. Before starting my EngD, I applied for a position at Red Bull Racing and I received quite a funny automatic answer. The e-mail said something like this: “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, due to the great number of applications, we are not able to reply to every candidate in case they are rejected. Please bear in mind that positions for non-experience people are reserved for relatives of current employees”. At least they were honest… So that takes me to my next question: based on your experience, is it true that the best way to get into F1 without having any connections is to have a doctorate in a relevant topic for the teams? It definitely helps you to become a world expert and as a matter of fact I’ve seen some teams announcing vacancies for doctors.
Yeah, I think you are right. The doctorate definitely gave me a ticket to get here because of the knowledge I had on composites. They want someone who can start and get on straight away, that’s ideal for them.
That’s why there are movements of engineers between teams…
Exactly, because they know they can do the job already. I did not have any connections at all, so I just managed to work my way in. But I think the doctorate helped because you become an expert. Another thing is to try to train as much as you can or get as much interest as you can in things that will help you with the job. Other important things when you go to industry are your leadership and management skills, not just your technical expertise but if you would fit in with the team and work well. Especially in Racing that’s what they want, someone who they know is going to come in and fit in with everyone else, because you don’t have time to waste and you always need to be communicating.
At McLaren Technology Group, they encourage employees to get involved in STEM activities. For those who don’t know what it is, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Basically, when you join the organization you become an ambassador and the “only” thing you need to do is promote science for young people. Would you recommend people to join these kind of activities? For example, imagine an undergrad who is an STEM ambassador, I reckon that having those activities in his CV would look really good for future applications, don’t you think?
Definitely. I’ve always done it since I started university. I wanted to do it because when I grew up in the school I hardly knew what engineers did and I didn’t know about half of the jobs out there that I know now. So I wanted to go back and say, look there are all these different jobs you can do. I’ve enrolled as a STEM Ambassador here. I haven’t done anything since I started here, but I’d like to go back to schools. Thing is that you can do anything to make it fun! Not trick them but convince them that engineering is something rewarding. Just showing kids that they can be interested in that stuff. And then when you grow up, the reward as an engineer is making something and seeing it built. That’s what I like to do and that’s why I love being and engineer. Being an engineer here is amazing because we can design something and then a week later it’s racing on the car. It’s similar to you in automotive: the timescale is longer but then you’ll see your designs everywhere on the road and people will wonder how you made them, and you know how they were made.
Unfortunately, that was my last question, since the Free Practice 1 of the Spanish Grand Prix is about to start. Thank you so much for your time and consideration. I wish you the best for all your projects and I look forward to seeing what you’re up to in the near future!
That was all from the McLaren Technology Centre. I really hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I did preparing it! Hopefully, I’ll be able to do new interviews quite soon, so keep an eye on the blog!