From Cranfield University to the F1 Pit Lane

A Cranfield University Success Story: Gemma Hatton, F1 Trackside Engineer at Pirelli

Bio: Gemma currently serves as a F1 Trackside Engineer at Pirelli. She is also a Technical Writer for Racecar Engineering magazine, for eRacing magazine and serves as a Course Representative for Cranfield University. Prior to graduating from Cranfield with a MSc in Advanced Motorsport Engineering, she gained real-life Motorsports experience as a Data Engineer at Support Our Paras Racing, a Technical Writer for High Power Media / Race Engine Technology, a Data Engineer & Competition Coordinator at Team Bath Racing, a Data Engineer at JRM Group, and a Vehicle Performance Engineer at Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.

Mike: Hello Gemma! Can you explain how you started out on your motorsports journey?

Gemma: Yeah. It was about year nine, I’d say, so probably about 14 or so. I started gaining an interest for cars, and spent time drawing them for my art and design subjects and at the same time was starting to learn about math and physics. And then in college, so ages 16 to 18, I did maths and physics because I knew that for University I wanted to find a subject that combined them both, which is obviously engineering. During college, I was first introduced into motorsport by my younger brother who wouldn’t turn the F1 off on the TV so I watched F1 and I looked into the pitlane and I thought ‘that’s quite interesting; what are all those people doing on the pitwall?’ So I went to study Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath.

None of my family were into motorsport, or had a history with it – it was literally just me and my brother. During the summer before University, through a contact of my Dad I completed some work experience for Racecar Engineering magazine. This introduced me to all the different types of motorsport that are out there, and also gave me the opportunity to understand and write about new motorsport technologies and trends. They kept asking me back summer after summer and so I continued to write for them every month alongside my studies, so I got to do interviews like yourself to people who are in the industry from Managing Directors of electronic companies to motorsport teams and the Head of Audi! You can imagine the fascinating insight this job offered into all areas of the motorsport world.

I then did a placement at Nissan in their European Technical Headquarters on road cars, again exposing myself to another piece of the puzzle. I worked in the Vehicle Performance department, so I got to do aero testing, wind tunnel testing and although it was only for road cars, obviously, it’s still applicable to racing, particularly GT. This is where my real racing experience began; through all my links at Nissan I managed to tag along to work for a Nissan Team called JRM who ran 2 Nissan GTR’s in the Blancpain Endurance Championship.

I helped with Data Analysis and with pit stops in both the Spa 24-hours and 6 Hours of Silverstone in 2012, I think it was. Through Nissan I also got the chance to meet Sebastian Vettel as I was given the task of organizing a huge PR event which was something completely different, but was so successful that I was the first placement student at Nissan to win a Gold Award. After finishing my final year at Bath, I wanted to complete a Msc specifically in Motorsport, as I knew that was what F1 teams look for, and the MSc Motorsport Engineering course at Cranfield University seemed perfect. The only reason I knew about Cranfield was because it was right next to Nissan in the Technology Park and it just happened to be the best course in the U.K. for Motorsport MSc’s!

Throughout Cranfield I continued writing for Racecar Engineering, and again using my links, I worked as a Data Engineer for a British Touring Car Championship team called Support Our Paras Racing (SOPR) which was originally backed by Infiniti so I used to study, do exams, course work and projects and all that sort of stuff whilst working for Racecar and SOPR! But that’s what you have to do to stand out in this industry.

Mike: A lot of this, we would call them “internships” when you’re working and going to college at the same time. So Cranfield was for your Master’s Degree; is that right?

Gemma: Yes. Correct.

Mike: So a lot of this was while you were in, what we would say, undergrad or regular university or college?

Gemma: Yes.

Mike: You did a lot of legwork. You moved around a lot and obviously, you didn’t get these positions for free – you did a lot of networking I imagine, right?

Gemma: Yeah. If you drew a diagram you would see that everything goes back to that first day in the Racecar Engineering office which is a technical motorsport magazine. So you think ‘how on earth can that lead to me working in the F1 pit lane?.’ Especially as being a motorsport journalist you are usually on the outside because of the confidentiality of teams. But because I always tried to do extra and say ‘yes’ to everything that impressed Racecar, which in turn impressed Nissan which was then passed on to the JRM who had links with Infiniti, which is why I ended up in the Infiniti Support Our Paras Team in BTCC and it goes on and on.
Working for Racecar Engineering was the best in terms of accumulating contacts, you get to speak to so many different people in all aspects of motorsports and because of these contacts I did so many other different projects such as linking a company to do testing at Cranfield which helped with my studies, but also meant I could write an article on them. So there was also a lot of matchmaking I did to try and benefit my contacts, but also allowed me to learn even more and maintain good working relationships..

And that’s all it is, really, I mean, if you know a name, or a face and go to tracks or events like the Autosport show in the U.K. you will keep meeting these people and every year you will get to know more and more people who say “Oh, yeah, I think you could help me this and that,” whether it was writing an article or doing some basic engineering for them so I was always busy. I know its so cliché, but motorsport is such a small world, it’s really unbelievable and if you make a good impression with one person, it can lead you to so many good things.

Mike: That’s great. My next question was tell us about your training at Cranfield and how it helped prepare you.

Gemma: Yeah. Sure. The course at Cranfield is split into three chunks. You have one week of lectures, followed by a study week on a wide variety of topics for the first three months and then you have exams. So that’s where you gain your core understanding and most F1 teams are after people with a general mechanical engineering degrees, which is what I did at University of Bath and then a Master’s where you specialize in motorsports or automotive.

So that’s why the courses at Cranfield and there’s one at Oxford Brookes as well, is so good as a Master’s because that’s what the F1 teams want. So those first three months at Cranfield is all about learning all the engineering that you’ve accumulated over your last degree, but making it specific to motorsport which is invaluable. But throughout that, you do lots of group projects using CFD and vehicle dynamic software so you’re learning how to work effectively in a team environment. Also, obviously as you know, there is a lot more simulation and software in motorsport and it is a big part of it, so if you’re trying to get into motorsport it’s that constant balance between gaining knowledge on simulation, as well as surviving the trackside environment. A lot of the other students on my course made many contacts at Cranfield, particularly those from overseas which then led them to work trackside during the latter part of the Master’s.

The second chunk of the Master’s is a group design project where you have three months in your group of six or seven and you work as a team to design and meet the requirements of that topic for that year. For us, it was to design an electric racecar suitable for a feeder series into Formula-E. So it’s a real hardcore engineering challenge using all the skills you’ve learned in the previous section of the course; working as a team, meeting deadlines and then you have to present it to the examiners as well as industry professionals. We had Adrian Reynard and Pat Symonds (Chief Technical Officer of Williams Racing) judging us on our presentation day – highlighting just how integrated the Cranfield course is within the industry.

The final section of the course is the thesis and I’m very lucky because I didn’t have a solid thesis decided until very late, where I then managed to secure a thesis with Lotus F1 on Race Strategy. So I was then based at their factory in the strategy department, sitting in the control room and listening to team radio during the races weekends and it was absolutely fascinating because I got to see for the first time from the inside how an F1 team works. That’s the academic side of the course, but the reason this course is so invaluable is not just the learning, but also how it prepares you for motorsport. It forces you to balance the usual demands of a Master’s degree whilst improving your multitasking and time management skills, because to get anywhere in motorsport you have to do extra and that’s exactly what this course encourages you to do. To be successful, you really have to say yes to as many opportunities as you can, even if it means 4am starts or having to drive miles to get to race tracks – you just have to do it.

Mike: That’s fantastic; very in-depth and very all encompassing. And so now you’re with Pirelli F1; is that correct?

Gemma: Yeah. Yeah.

Mike: So can you tell us about that? What are you doing there?

Gemma: My job is a tire engineer. Each F1 team has one Pirelli tire engineer and you’re essentially the main link between Pirelli and the race team. For me it’s the perfect job because not only are you trackside but it is the perfect balance between analyzing data and completing the technical demands of the job, as well as getting to physically deal and look at the tyres and you get to be in the garage with the team!

It’s quite a challenging job because you have to pull together your discussions with the drivers, the engineers, what you see on the tyres, what you see in the data and on the track to try and generate an overall conclusion in your mind and then feed that back to the team. It also give you great exposure to some of the pitlane’s top engineers as you have regular meetings and discussions with team principals and technical directors, as well as the race engineers. Then you have the Pirelli side, where you discuss the tyres with the other Pirelli engineers and the modeling/compound department. We also supply average pit lane data to all the teams so it’s one of the few ways that teams can gain an understanding of where they are with the tyres compared to the rest of the field.

Mike: Yeah, it’s so sophisticated and complicated. And this all revolves around tires and, of course, that’s an incredibly important parameter in racing and in cars, so that’s obvious. The technology gets really deep. So my next question is, what have been some of your biggest challenges so far?

Gemma: Probably starting at Pirelli, as it is my first full time job in F1. Throughout each of my previous experiences, whether it has been at Racecar or at a race team, on the first day I always thought, “That was really stressful and nerve-racking!” And then every time I attempted a new challenge, it seems to be more and more nerve-wracking but that’s how you improve and evolve to become capable to achieve bigger and better things. For example, I used to find walking into my Engineering lectures with 300 guys very intimidating, and then I walked into the Manor F1 Racing office and realized that my lectures were easy! I still get nervous when talking to the senior engineers and drivers, but if you can teach yourself to have a calm exterior, despite what you are feeling inside then that’s another very useful skill to have in Motorsport! That’s what motorsport is – it puts you in these situations and you either sail or sink! Also, I think being a girl does add to the nerves, as I’m always walking into a room full of 20 men, but this is slowly changing. Even in the short time that I’ve been in motorsport, female engineers are popping up everywhere which is truly great.

Mike: If I could add to that. From listening to what you’re saying, in my opinion, if you weren’t prepared and ready for this and able to do it, you wouldn’t be there in the first place, so obviously, a lot of people have seen things in you and will present you to a F1 team. You have to work hard and be good in order to get to that position and once you’re there, I’m pretty sure you could “rise to the occasion” as you have done and I’m sure will continue to do.
So for folks that are still in school or who are motorsport professionals early on, I think you gave all the advice at the beginning of this interview but can you summarize again what the hints are while you’re in school in order to get a good motorsports position someday?

Gemma: There is so much you can do to be prepared and if I had my time again I would start even earlier. Obviously there are things such as having your CV up to date and in a clear and concise format. Motorsports is all about being concise and having contacts, so having a good LinkedIn profile that demonstrates all your extra achievements outside of the norm. Whenever I’ve spoken to someone, I try and find them on LinkedIn and send them a message and connect, that way you’ve established a connection and when you come across them in the future, it’s much easier to contact them again.

But for me, fundamentally it boils down to enthusiasm and hard work and literally saying “yes” to every opportunity you can. When I made the decision to get into the pitlane, I knew I would have to sacrifice a lot and do extra. I was always told off for doing too much, but every experience develops a different skillset, gives you a different insight into the industry and widens your network. I worked at whatever time and on whatever I needed to try and get it all done. I have cut it close on a number of occasions – still writing articles when I should have been revising for exams, but you learn how to prioritise. I was always enthusiastic and always did my best regardless of the circumstances, and in such a small world, when you’ve impressed someone or done a good job, you will start to gain a reputation for yourself and then you are winning. But yes you really have to dig deep sometimes and sacrifice a lot, but now I’ve made it to F1, for me, all the effort and hard work was worth it, no question.

I don’t want to put people off, but you really do have to love it, no matter what Championship is, you have to look at it on the TV and say “yes I will do anything to get in that pit lane.” This drive and motivation is what pushes you to succeed in such a competitive industry. The pitlane is full of these people, and it’s only if you push a bit harder and do a little bit more that you’ll improve. It’s a very competitive environment, but that’s why it’s so thrilling. So yeah, I’d probably say just hard work and being enthusiastic.

Mike: And going, as we say, the “extra mile” or going above and beyond.

Gemma: Yeah.

Mike: And everybody has a problem at all levels, and they have a problem that needs to be solved.

Gemma: Exactly.

Mike: So if you can be that one person that “solves” their problem, you’re very valuable. Of course, you need the technical expertise. With that said, is there anything else on your mind? You gave us a huge amount of background. Any other thoughts?

Gemma: I did talk a lot.

Mike: Yes and it was very valuable. You’re young, yet, you have a lot of experience for your age. You have huge accomplishments already and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing you on TV in the coming years doing something even bigger. Just keep doing what you’re doing.

Gemma: Yeah. It’s easy when you finally get there, love it and realize that all the hard work was worth it!

Mike: That’s great. Thanks for your time Gemma!