From Cranfield University to the FIA European Formula 3

Ash Willoughby, Data and Performance Engineer for Van Amersfoort Racing

With an involvement in motorsports extending for more than a decade, I am a determined and motivated individual with future aspirations to become technical leader of a motorsport team.

Having started my career in manufacturing, I have developed hands-on skills and an appreciation for industrial processes. Having been involved in wide range of industries, I am continuously searching for new challenges to undertake, which will further refine my core skills and broaden my engineering experience. I am thirsty for knowledge and strive to always ‘raise the bar’. I consider myself to be an innovative individual who strives to think ‘outside the square’ when approaching engineering problems

I believe teamwork is critical to achieve project goals and meet deadlines. An enthusiastic attitude towards all aspects of work (no matter the task) will help improve performance and ultimately achieve the end goal. I believe in promoting good team morale as it will improve efficiency and promote comradery. I am excited about the challenges that lie before me and intend to make the most of every opportunity. 

Mike: So Ash, how did you start out on your motorsports journey? Even from early on as a kid, how did you start on this?

Ash: Okay. Well, my father was an avid motorsport enthusiast so naturally, just through my general involvement with just him watching motorsport on TV as a toddler eventually evolved into my brother and I wanting to sort of get involved in motorsport.  We used to read the motorsport magazines and through that we started developing this sort of family passion toward motorsport.

And I think I was about age 9 or so, we moved to a small farm and there my dad bought what was a written off Toyota Corolla. The three of us together worked on rebuilding this car into what we call in Australia, a “paddock-basher” – it’s basically just a modified rally car. We rebuilt it including stripping the internals, modifying the front suspension, adding roll hoops, simplifying the electronics and removing weight where possible.  We made it our own backyard built rally car.  We used to race around our farm and that’s how I subsequently learned to drive. As we got faster and faster and we said, “Ok, let’s actually do some low stage sort of rallying.”

We entered some local gymkhana events and through that we wanted to do the next step – circuit racing. So together my brother and I bought a go-kart and started racing. Shortly after starting my brother left home to start university but as I was still in high school, I continued on. I raced for about a decade in karts and I was pursuing a driving career but unfortunately, money and talent ran out; I prefer to keep it in that order. At the time I had to make a decision whether to pursue motorsport as a driver or choose something else like working in the motorsport industry as an engineer or mechanic.

The answer eventually became obvious where I then decided to go to university where there thankfully exists Formula Student or Formula SAE, depending where in the world you are. I got heavily in this project and in no time at all I had realized that this is what I want to do. Through the project I discovered the Cranfield Motorsport Msc. (to which I applied for). Sure enough, six months after graduating my bachelors, I was starting there.

Through Cranfield I did a few things including volunteering as a scrutineer and then later some part time work as a data engineer. Shortly after finishing Cranfield I landed the job I am working now, which is a performance engineer in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship with a Dutch team called Van Amersfoort Racing.

Mike:  That’s fantastic.  That’s a great story.  You were able to stick in motorsport too; a lot of people just give it up totally, but you were able to.

Ash:  Yeah.  It is definitely something you do because you have a passion about it, that’s for sure.  I found that out while doing Formula Student/Formula SAE. I saw a number of people throughout the project go, “Oh, this is really cool, I’d like to do this.” They get involved in the project and just through the experience and the project itself, they realize how demanding it is, the time constraints and how you have to sacrifice a lot socially and personally to achieve the goals you want.  It really is for people who really are passionate about it.

Mike:  So that plays into one of our next questions here.  What are you currently doing now as far as work?

Ash:  Well, I’m working in Formula 3 as a data and performance engineer.  So trackside, I do basic data analysis and then also, performance on the car.  So looking at the differences between cars and doing more work on top of what the race engineers do; pretty much what the race engineers don’t have time to do because they’re dealing with the job of taking driver feedback.  The Formula 3 championship is very quick, in terms of the race schedule.  We have about two to three hours in-between sessions on a Friday, for example. We have an 1 hour-and-a-half of practice, maybe a three-hour break to prep the cars, and in that time we’ve also got to debrief the drivers analyse data, make predictions and make decisions.  They (the drivers) need to first sit down, catch some air before they can talk which adds another constraint. So there’s a small window to actually do anything sort of valuable. On a Friday there is a practice, a qualifying one and a qualifying two – it’s all very close. To be able to do critical data analysis requires a bit more effort so that’s where myself and 1 other people help there.  That’s what we do trackside and we achieve this in a myriad of ways, mainly through conventional data analysis and video analysis. Since the championship introduced mandatory onboard cameras it has made a big difference.

Mike:  Formula 3.  Okay.  Yeah, I thought I heard that right. 

Ash:  Yeah, European Formula 3.  So that’s trackside. O the workshop side of things, I sort of extend upon what I do trackside by doing more in-depth critical analysis. So post-processing data that’s identifies the performance of the vehicles themselves (separate from the driver) and highlights where there are discrepancies or differences between each car.  I’ve also been doing some development engineering, so some product development. This includes some component design and some simulation work as well.  Anything that we can do to enable us to get ahead going into a race meeting as well as making the cars go faster is what I’m currently doing.

Mike:  Cool.

Ash:  How did that come about?  Through Cranfield, I guess.  Cranfield also for me was ultimately, a foot in the door.  I used the connection through a guest lecturer, to start get involved in some volunteer scrutineering for the British Formula 4 Championship last year.  Through that, I got in contact with a British racing team who was actually competing in the series.  Told them my story, what I’m here to do and how I’m using this opportunity to network and find people who need some staff just to get some work experience. Fortunately, I was able to find someone.  So I ended up going from that role to just a basic data engineer role for a British-based European Formula 3 team and I finished up the season.  I did the second half of the F3 season with them. I heard about a new position being made available with Van Amersfoort Racing and I took up on that opportunity.

Mike:  Right.

Ash:  So a chain of events that landed me where I am now.

Mike:  That’s good.  I heard networking in there and you certainly reached out and said yes to opportunity, of course, you looked for opportunities and put yourself out there; that’s a familiar strategy.

Ash:  Yes.

Mike:  So backpedaling just a little bit, what are you processing if you’re allowed to say?  What kind of parameters and things?

Ash:  Okay.  Well, for the Formula 3 Championship on an official race weekend or an official test, we have specified data channels that we can only sample data from.  So there’s your basic health channels for the engine and then there’s the basic car behavior.  So we’ve got your wheel movement sensors or your potentiometers.  You have only front wheel speeds, not rear wheel speeds.  You’ve got engine speed, you’ve got accelerometers, oil and fuel pressure, along with a few temperature sensors here and there. Nothing too in-depth.  It’s all very basic so there is quite a lot of assumptions that need to be made.

Mike:  Gotcha.

Ash:  You’re limited in what you can do, in terms of those aspects so when we do have a private test, you really have to be ready and utilize it to extract extra data.  In terms of aerodynamics, we can’t really record anything so all we get is a basic reading on our air speed through the wheel speed.  We have our engine rebuilders trackside at every official race, so they pretty much take care of everything there, but we do monitor the health of the engine as well. In terms of engine performance, there is an optimum operating temperature – so we closely monitor that.

Beyond that, yeah, it’s still quite basic. Compared to Formula 1, it is very basic because we are still a development series.  Our drivers in Formula 3 have just come out of Formula 4 – where there’s even less (data acquisition). It is really championship based on developing a driver and teaching him how to do drive a high downforce car and how to drive a Formula style vehicle.  So it is really a stepping stone. Actually, to avoid bombarding the driver with copious amounts of information; the data access is restricted for that reason.

Mike:  Okay.  That’s good.  And your background; is it an engineering degree or what do you have?

Ash:  My undergraduate degree I did in Australia, where I’m from, and that was in mechanical engineering.  I did some work experience sort of as a laborer.  I was working in manufacturing a plant building concrete and steel-based products, so had quite a wide diversity of work. Consequently, I’ve always had sort of a hands-on background and that’s sort of why I like motorsports because you get to experience both sort of with theory and the hands-on work, at least at the level I am now, there is still very much hands-on work, even for the engineers.  So that was the first degree and then obviously, there’s the Cranfield Master’s Degree in Motorsports that I did.

But no, other than that no other sort of formal training other than the work experience.

Mike:  Oh no, I think that’s plenty.  That’s a lot.  So how did Cranfield help you school-wise and then maybe making connections as it relates to the job?

Ash: The Cranfield MSc is divided up into three main modules where I believe each has their own set of goals to help develop your skills.  So there’s the basic taught course, I think that it is, if I can recall correctly, 16 weeks of course work with 8 modules within that. Covering most aspects of motorsports. This includes powertrain, composites, aerodynamics, CFD, vehicle dynamics, structures, electronics, data acquisition and the business of motorsport.  This gives you an all-around understanding of everything motorsport related. I believe it helped refine, at least for me, my skills and knowledge of motorsports engineering, in terms of the theory behind a lot of it.  With motorsports being the context of it all, it really gives you a clear understanding of what you’re working with.  So that was the first part of the whole degree.

The second part is the group design project, where the course committee determines a topic for us all to complete. They tend to target emerging technology, so you all get assigned a group where your target is to develop or produce a concept design that typically has been a concept design or an is emerging technology.  This year it was a land speed record motorcycle; my year it was an electric Formula 4; and the year before it was a hydrogen powered Radical.  The purpose of that is to sort of touch on something that could be applied to motorsport; it’s almost like the “Garage 56” concept that competes in Le Mans. It is all a perfect opportunity to showcase to industry what opportunities exist in the future and it is presented in a well thought out and professional fashion.

So within the project we actually go through several design reviews with the course academics and then at the end of it all, we submit a huge report and then then present a summary of this report to industry representatives. The presentation is treated like a business pitch where we stand in front of a hall of industry representatives, present our design concepts and go, “This is our key points, these our design strengths, this is why you should choose our design”. We don’t disregard other teams because we actually don’t get any exposure to other teams, so it’s treated almost like a motorsport competition. Everything is kept close to each person’s chest and you don’t know what other teams are doing, you’ve just go to make sure what you’re doing is the best, the most well thought through and equally justified, as well.  So through that, it gives you an opportunity to work on your presentation skills and everything associated with developing a motorsports concept or something new and through that, it shows to industry how clever you can ultimately be.

Mike:  Yeah.

Ash:  So again, that was a perfect opportunity to network. My team actually ended up being awarded the best team award, presentation-wise, as our concept was the most well received.  The audience voted for the on the best presentation.

In terms of the report and the nuts and bolts behind it, I think we’re still yet to receive the results of that, so we do find that out next week though at our graduation.

Mike:  Oh, okay.

Ash:  So that will be interesting to see how that goes. The last part is the individual thesis project.  I believe that it was a good chance to focus on the topic of your strength and if you were lucky enough, you could actually work on the topic with a company relevant in your area of expertise.  Through that, that can give you the perfect opportunity to get a foot in the door because more often than not, if you do some work for a company or a racing team, chances are they are going to probably want to keep you on afterwards because you have added value to their company for essentially nothing.  If they would choose to proceed with this research, chances are they’ll keep you on and they’ll offer you a paying job, so for that reason I think that’s a perfect aspect to the course.

I chose a topic with the purpose of refining and honing my own skills so I chose something vehicle dynamics-based. At the time I felt that was where I was lacking and it later proved to be very valuable and wise decision. I did my research on vehicle dynamics simulation and although it wasn’t linked with a motorsports team, per se, I did work closely together with the owner and developer of the software who was funnily enough, an Australian by the name of Danny Nowlan. So yeah, it really helped and through him, of course, I’ve made several contracts just through his own clients.  It’s amazing how small this world is, but like you said early in the interview and like I said and I will continue to say, this is very much an industry on not just what you know, but who you know.

Mike:  Yeah.

Ash:  To clarify, you do need to know something, but knowing somebody certainly helps.

Mike:  It is, but I think that you guys obviously work very hard.  I have an engineering degree too, but not in mechanical, but you work very hard to get the degrees.  You’re at the right place like Cranfield and their system is set up so that you get the technical knowledge and you’re able to eventually create and present a business plan, which is real life.  I mean, develop something and then presenting it, you’re essentially selling it.  You’re trying to convince the audience that this is great because maybe it is great, but you have to relay that message.  And you’re able to do a thesis too and then you refine you’re an expertise and then it really prepares you and it makes you hugely valuable when it’s time to get in the industry.  I can’t imagine why you and any graduate there would not be highly sought after because you’re on the frontier of technology and you’re pitching essentially a new business or whatever your project was, so you have that experience too; that’s real life.  I mean, that’s what you’re going to be doing and there are many people out there in the industry for many years who have never done that before.

Ash:  Exactly.  You’re exactly right.  Yes, I’ve got to hand it to motorsports or the Cranfield committee for actually being able to generate such good topics like this.  I mean, at the time I was doing my group design project, Formula E was really starting to take off and there was a huge demand for employees.  I know several guys in my cohort who are working or have worked there. A lot of people, including myself, were applying to Formula E jobs and this no doubt reflected very well because it is such a new technology and not many people are familiar with it.

Mike:  Yeah.

Ash:  There is the sector of automated electric cars, but not in a motorsports context.  It is still very new and there’s still a lot of the unknown and it’s going to be, in my point of view, one of the core focuses in the near future, at least in motorsports.

Mike:  I think so.  I can’t see why not.  I posted on LinkedIn before as a joke, but seriously too, I can’t wait until the Formula E cars have 1000 horsepower or something, or maybe they are close to that, I don’t even know.  The torque is tremendous on them, I know that.

Ash:  Yeah.  Yeah.  Actually, what you say there is completely attainable.  A one thousand horsepower electric power is probably not too far away.

Mike:  Right.

Ash:  But the problem is actually being able to store that much energy.

Mike:  The battery life, yeah, you’re right.

Ash:  Yeah, so that is the problem at the moment–

Mike:  That’s right.

Ash:  Once we find a more energy dense storage solution, that is safe, there will be nothing stopping it.

Mike:  So from what you’ve seen and experienced, what suggestions would you offer newer motorsports professionals or those in school who are preparing for the industry?

Ash:  Okay.  The best thing you can do is pure exposure.  There’s no replacement for experience and the experience I refer to is not with regards to the engineering aspect, like having experience in setting up a car or anything like that.

Mike:  Right.

Ash:  It’s more with the operation of motorsports and understanding the time commitment and the quick turnaround time, that is still something I feel a lot of people are told about, but are really unaware of just how demanding it actually can be.  So if you are at university, I think Formula Student is one of the best projects around.  There’s also the solar car competition that also exists and I think there’s even an autonomous drone competition – I’m not too sure on the details of it. From a university perspective, these extracurricular activities are absolutely essential, in my opinion.  It gives you self-motivation to do these things.  You put yourself in a situation, but you rely on yourself and your self-learning to organize yourself, in terms of your time schedule and your other studies to learn something new and to refine your skills.

From the motorsport context, experience in either the Formula SAE or Formula Student projects is good. But if you’re not in university, working or going to your local motorsports or go-kart event and just helping out some of the guys there is also good. Getting experience with the layout of a race weekend all helps. So that, I guess we’ll call that as point one.

Two, it is hard work. I won’t sugarcoat it, it is hard work and it’s something that you really need to be committed to, but with hard work and perseverance comes great reward and fulfillment and for me, that’s the reason why I do it.  To be able to quite simply just kill yourself to get the cars ready, to do everything you can to make the cars go faster and have it all fall into place at a race, where you come out with a victory, is one of the most satisfying things ever.  To be able to say, “Right here, right now, we are the best.  We won this through the efforts of us, and the efforts of us alone. We won fair and square” and that’s the most satisfying feeling.

Thirdly, I guess my suggestions are yeah, just networking.

Mike:  Great.

Ash:  Those are the two big ones, definitely, your experience, networking and your commitment to it all and setting yourself goals through stepping stones.  You will get there in the end, but you’ve got to prove to everyone around you that you’re good enough, willing, motivated and dedicated enough to do it, so that is the hardest part.  Remember that you are one person in hundreds-of-thousands of people working in motorsports and that is the unfortunate side of it. However, if you work hard and you show commitment, dedication and good work ethic, it won’t take you long at all before you do stand out and people start taking notice.  I used to think that motorsport was starting to become a saturated industry, however it is still very much an industry where it’s lacking really good staff.

Mike:  Right.

Ash:  It’s hard because the good people are paid lots of money to work for really good teams, so it is challenging.  It is challenging.  I know my team, at the moment, we expanded recently and we found it really challenging to find more staff and more really good staff because simply, good unemployed staff don’t stay unemployed for long.

Mike:  Okay

Ash:  So, like I said, if you prove to people and show that you are good at what you do and can handle all the rest, you will find it very easily to find a job in this industry.

Mike:  Yeah.

Ash:  Of course, getting a foot in the door is still the hard part, so the experience and networking helps there.

Mike:  Yeah, persistence and determination.  These are all familiar topics that I hear and I ask that question to everybody and I get some more answers on purpose because there’s only so many basic principles that work and these ones are the one that work.  Prepare yourself and put the pedal down and be persistent and passionate and make it happen.

I think I’m out of time, and this has been great. Thanks for the interview Ash!

Ash:  Thanks Mike!