A racing car engineer is tasked with the responsibilities of getting a car or team of cars race-prepared for a competitive event, and contributing to a process of continual improvement to better the car’s performance on the race track.
A racing car engineer is a member of the crew who is necessary to campaign a racing car successfully. A season will typically run for between five and ten races, and, depending on the size of the team and the level of competition, the engineer could be a member of the pit crew and/or a member of the technical team. The pit crew are responsible for making ad hoc changes to the car during the race, whereas the technical team are normally tasked with completing maintenance and set-up between competitive events. In small teams, the engineers may perform both tasks.
In large teams with significant budgets, the aerodynamics of the racing car are normally entrusted to a specific aerodynamicist, but in a smaller team, this task also falls to the engineers. As well as this, they must also make adjustments to the engine and chassis, complete maintenance work and prepare the car for it to be as competitive as possible on the circuit. By using racing driver feedback, the engineers will try and understand suggestions and alter the car so that it suits track conditions and the driver’s individual driving style and preference.
The salaries depend largely on the level of competition. For example, in Sunday club events where budgets are limited and seasons are short, the engineer may be paid on a per day rate, or may agree a fee for the season if there are more than a few individual races. The day rate at grass-roots motorsport level can range from £100 per day up to around £500 per day, depending on the class of race and duration of event. Some engineers even choose to become involved for free, because they enjoy participating in the race weekend, and may find that it leads on to greater things.
For a well-known series such as the FIA British GT Championship, engineer fees normally range from £15,000 up to £45,000 for one season. Some engineers are able to progress up to the very top tiers of the sport, specifically Formula One, where the rate of pay per season can range from £45,000 to £350,000.
- Maintain and repair the racing car or cars.
- Work with the driver to deliver constant improvements to the car.
- Suggest avenues of further development to facilitate future improvement of the car.
- Complete in-race repairs and pit-stops (if working in a smaller team).
Due to the technical nature of the job, academic qualifications backed by on-the-job training or an apprenticeship are essential. Many people who choose to become mechanics will go to a college of further education after GCSEs to study for a BTEC in automotive engineering. Others opt for A Levels and then choose the university route. This normally cuts out the two year apprenticeship on low salary that has become the norm with the BTEC option, but obviously demands more in terms of time and money invested by the candidate.
- Ability to work in time-sensitive environment and under pressure.
- Able to interpret ambiguous comments from the driver on the car’s performance and translate them into engineered solutions.
- Strong mechanical understanding.
- Ability to work both on own initiative and as part of a team.
Working in any garage environment is deemed to be a “high risk” job. This is because the working technician is surrounded by moving lifts, pressure tools and hazardous chemicals. However, working in the pit lane of a racing circuit is altogether more worrying, due to cars constantly entering and leaving the pit lane. The race team principal usually has overall responsibility for the safety of the people within that team, but a great deal of responsibility in terms of common sense and vision is placed upon individual crew members.
Having completed a formal academic qualification, slotting into the right team or division of motorsport can be an affair of fate, and on occasion, luck plays a great part also. Often, race techs will begin with a small local team, just so they can have the experience of “working a season”. They will almost always subsidise this with a paid mechanic job at a garage or dealership. Once on the racing scene, connections are quickly made, and after two or three years, many technicians have found a placement with a competitive team which offers a reasonable rate of remuneration in return for their skills.
A majority of racing car technicians who are attached to teams are working for less well known private outfits, as it is quite a challenge to become involved with a “works” team such as Ford, Subaru, Mclaren or Mercedes Benz. Places are very limited at these more prestigious teams, and competition is fierce.
Also known as…
- Racing car mechanic
- Racing car technician
- Team mechanic
- Team engineer
- Team technician
What’s it really like?
Andrew Cushman is a racing car technician of many years experience, and works for various independent teams all over the UK.
What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
For me it was a combination of things that got me into this. Firstly, I just had to know how everything worked, to the point where I would take apart things in perfect working order just to see what was going on. Secondly, my high school auto shop teacher was a real stickler for procedure, work ethic and cleanliness so I saw it as being like a doctor, just without all the blood! School was really easy for me, and he knew how to motivate me with a different approach, along with it being a fun subject. I was sold.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise’?
I definitely have a “routine”. However, most of the time, it’s not what you would call standard. This career isn’t your normal 9-5 job. Everything is usually by the seat of your pants. That’s probably why I love it so much because it keeps me on my toes, and there’s never a dull moment. The overall scheme of race prep and car maintenance does have a standard, and it is very high. Everything associated has to be checked, adjusted, cleaned, and documented. There is no room for any error. Basically, the car becomes a weapon, and because of that, people can get hurt. So, as long as that stays in your head, usually you make the right decisions.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry you must attend to?
Well, I was taught to prepare each car as if it’s going to run a 24 hour race. So, when I get to the track, I know the car is tip-top. But, most issues are driver-related, whether its tyre wear, brakes, or their creature comforts. This is not a shot at my driver buddies!
What do you like most about the job?
It’s definitely the excitement along with the camaraderie you develop with all the people associated with racing. It’s a very close-knit family. Plus, you get to see how you operate under pressure. It’s a thrill!
What do you like least about the job?
Probably the hours and being away from the family and friends, along with the physical toll it takes on you.
What are the key responsibilities?
First of all, it is safety. It’s definitely a game of checks and balances. There are so many responsibilities, it’s really just knowing how to prioritise. I’d say just check and re-check everything you do, and you’ll be all right!
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg- A Levels?
I went to technical school for automotive, diesel, heating/ventilation and air conditioning just to get the most education possible, along with further dealer training. This career is all about learning. If I were to stop learning, (which would be impossible) then I would need to do something else. I am also a firm believer that every tech should be exposed to dealership operation. It instils different work habits that help in everything else.
What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?
This all depends on experience, knowledge, work ethic, and attitude. It’s tough to put a number on that. I was lucky never to have to do an apprenticeship. So, I’m not sure what a starting salary would be. A technician’s salary will go up with more education, certifications, and experience.
If you left this position, what else would you consider/prefer doing?
I’m not sure. It would definitely be involving cars. I can safely say that. Maybe I would go back and do some engineering.
How far is it possible to progress within the organisation?
You can only go as far as you’re willing to take yourself.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Do it full-bore if you’re going to do it. No half-measures!
What are the most important qualities an applicant must should possess?
Work ethic, ability to work with others, cleanliness, good preparation and the ability to think ahead are probably the most important.
Any closing comments/thoughts?
Racing, and car maintenance for that matter, aren’t for everyone. Make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you’re in it to make money, you should probably do something else. This is a lifestyle along with a career. It’s almost as though I get paid good money to have a hobby. How many people can say that?