Tom’s degree was in Materials Science at Oxford University and he decided he wanted to do the coolest job possible with an engineering degree. Without any relevant work experience in the industry, Tom succeeded in going straight from university to being a Formula One design engineer with Williams F1.
Today you will find Tom working on the family farm for a better work/life balance and enjoying a more outdoor life.
What was your first job after leaving university?
I started out as a design engineer at Williams working on the car’s fuel system. A typical week would begin with watching the race on Sunday. If the car stopped on the track, you would hope it wasn’t your bit that caused the problem! If it was, Monday was spent designing a solution, Tuesday the new part was made, Wednesday tested, Thursday flown out to the next race, and Friday fitted to the car for practice. It’s an incredibly fast turnaround.
F1 design and engineering aims to achieve aerospace standards and regulations in the quality of its products as you have to achieve maximum reliability – the car has got to get round the track, and finish!
What did you love the most about the job?
F1 is the peak of automotive engineering and I thought being right there at the coalface was pretty cool. The industry’s got excellent public exposure as well, as lots of people follow F1 quite closely. I enjoyed contributing to something relevant and interesting to a lot of people outside the industry. Perhaps the best part though was being in a team that was all pulling in the same direction, a group of dedicated high achievers – putting in an extra hour, or ten, was all part of the job. I also enjoyed the seasonal nature of the sport.
Are you an F1 fan, is that why chose the industry?
I’ve always had an interest in F1 and I watched the Grands Prix at school, but I wouldn’t classify myself as a big fan of the sport itself. I’ve always tried to do what I enjoy, which is how I chose my subjects for A-Level, and subsequently my university course in Materials Science. At the end of uni I had an engineering degree and wanted to use it – the coolest thing to do was either motorsport or rocket science, and I chose motorsport.
Did you join a graduate programme at Williams?
Technically although I was a graduate when I started, I actually joined Williams on their undergrad program. The team has some strong links with several good engineering universities such as Bath or Loughborough and they help students to take a year out of their studies (normally after their 3rd year, I think) to do a placement within the industry. As my course at Oxford didn’t do the year in industry, I had to apply the old-fashioned way and write a letter. In fact, I bombarded the industry with several letters per team to make sure that at least one got through! I was fortunate enough that one landed on the desk of the Chief Designer at Williams who then called me for an interview.
I would imagine jobs for an F1 engineer are highly competitive, what gave you the edge?
I think studying DT at school gave me an excellent advantage in that I had a good grasp of the design and manufacturing processes I was going to use in F1. I cannot speak highly enough of everyone in the Radley DT department – their knowledge and passion for the subject certainly inspired me and gave me the best foundation possible. I even took my A-Level design portfolio to show in my interview at Williams!
My application was a letter with a CV, which then led to a couple of interviews. Having some good qualifications behind me definitely helped but proving you’re capable of being someone they can work with goes a long way. I think the whole UCAS/Oxbridge application process was a good experience. Having the ability to talk freely and confidently in an interview is a useful life skill.
Did you have relevant work experience that may have helped?
No, not really. I worked for a family friend on Ford Model Ts, which mainly involved removing lots of rust, but I don’t think that counts. Not very Formula 1!
What advice would you give to current pupils looking to work for Formula One teams?
F1 teams have many different roles from engineering all the way through to marketing and finance, and as with anything, getting a relevant degree from a good university will demonstrate that you are a good candidate. There are specific degrees in automotive and motorsport engineering out there, however aerospace and even computer science are all extremely important aspects of car development, so you don’t have to be mechanically minded to work in F1. Find what you enjoy and look for a role doing that, rather than targeting a specific job first.
I think a degree with an industrial placement is definitely worthwhile. Some of the universities run Formula Student projects they work on which gives great experience. I am still envious of the guys who took part in that – it looked great fun! A common factor with many of the graduates at Williams was their involvement in karting or other types of motorsports in their free time, so being involved with that may help. On the other hand, I didn’t do any of it and was still offered a job.
How long did you work at Williams?
I was at Williams for four years, after which I moved to Mercedes. A friend who already worked there contacted me and said there was a position going and I might like to join them. The money Mercedes has to spend on F1 is phenomenal compared to Williams – they have a huge budget and are constantly testing new designs. I became a Brake Dyno Test Engineer, running tests and analysing data to work out where improvements can be made in the braking system. I was also involved with the engine dyno team, and regularly got to see the full car systems on test which was amazing.
Which did you prefer, Williams or Mercedes?
Definitely Williams. They are a much friendlier company with a more ‘we’re in it together’ attitude. It felt like being part of a family team (which it was!) compared to a large corporate entity. Williams had to be more economical with their funds and spend more wisely. I felt more comfortable with that.
Did you ever work track side?
Not often, but I did go to Monaco for Williams. I was asked if I was free that weekend and if I had a passport. I was given a suitcase of last-minute aero components to take, and off I went. Mercedes also gave you the opportunity of going to Silverstone to see your work in action. Both were exciting; I would have liked to have done it more often.
Has the industry changed since you started?
The biggest technological change is that V8 engines were in use when I started, now they have hybrid V6s. There have been many significant aerodynamic changes to the regulations as well, but I think the way the car is designed and the team operates as a whole, remains the same.
There was a large shift when Bernie Ecclestone left in 2017 as F1 needed to inject new life into the viewing aspect. The financial distribution of TV money was unfair on teams: some teams would get more for showing up than those who actually won the race. I hope the industry continues to evolve and stay relevant.
Do you think AI will have an impact on this industry?
I’m not aware of any team using artificial intelligence just yet – although if they were, I’m sure it would be kept secret! Mercedes is unbelievably advanced when it comes to their simulation of the cars’ behaviour. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were able to start using it. But I guess while there is the human element of a driver, AI can’t fully predict what will happen. As yet nothing truly replaces testing on the racetrack.
You’ve now left the motorsport industry and working on the family farm, what prompted the change?
At heart, I’ve always been an outdoors person and after spending the last couple of years in a windowless office, I needed a change. Working 12 hours a day is fine for some, but not for me. I’m not someone who just follows the money I need to enjoy what I am doing. My work/life balance is great and I’m very happy doing what I do. My plan for the future is to continue running the farm.
Finally, what was your favourite club/hobby to do at Radley?
I enjoyed many aspects of Radley, but beagling was probably right up there. There is something special about going out with a pack of hounds in the countryside, and it’s a privilege to have been able to follow the pack at school.