The role of an F1 race engineer is a varied one, covering everything from helping with set-up, communicating with different parts of a team, and of course speaking to the driver.
To find out more about what a race engineer does and what it takes to become one, we spoke to Julien Simon-Chautemps – a former race engineer who worked with Kimi Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado and more in his 14 years in F1. He now runs JSC7 Engineering LTD.
What was your role?
My role as Race Engineer in F1 was very wide-ranging and varied. Mainly my job consisted of using all the information provided by all the specialised engineers (Performance, Aero, Tyre, System, Power Unit, Gearbox and Electronic), analysing them and then ultimately filtering them to make the car quicker. This obviously also included communicating the necessary information to the driver and also ensuring I took his feedback on board.
What were your main responsibilities and jobs?
Obviously, my main responsibilities were being the link between the driver and the team, communicating clearly and effectively information between the engineers and driver to get the most out of the car. I have over 21 years’ experience in race team operations, operating procedures, vehicle science and performance, lap time simulation, data analysis, high level reporting, knowledge of F1 Sporting & Technical regulations.
How did you become a race engineer?
I graduated from the IPSA as an Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineer in 2002 and then started my journey to reach Formula 1. I worked in various categories from Rally, Formula Renault, F3, GP2 before finally arriving in F1 in 2007 when I joined Toyota F1 team as Performance Engineer for Jarno Trulli. I genuinely gained so much experience and knowledge through working in all these categories and especially working for Prema Racing gave me a solid foundation.
I continued working as Performance Engineer for Trulli in Lotus Racing, before moving to the Lotus F1 Team where I worked with Vitaly Petrov and Raikkonen in the same role.
In 2015, I became Race Engineer for Grosjean, followed by Jolyon Palmer and finally I joined Alfa Romeo/Sauber as Senior Race Engineer for Marcus Ericsson and Raikkonen again.
Whilst all this experience undoubtedly helped me to become the best Race Engineer I could be, I believe it was so important for me to be constantly watching and listening to everyone else around me. It is amazing how much you can learn from all members of the team and how much they can improve your knowledge, communication and abilities.
Another area I am looking to build upon with my new business JSC7 Engineering is to help new, young engineers and mechanics make their first steps into motorsport.
What qualifications do you need?
You need a degree in mechanical or aeronautical engineering.
What other skills are useful?
Communication, patience, perseverance. The ability to work in a fast paced, highly stressful environment without much sleep is definitely a must. Added to this, you need to be able to make split second decisions, which can have big repercussions and then be strong enough to share the glory when things go well but take responsibility when they don’t. A bad decision is better than no decision!
How do you get work experience?
Some people are lucky to have contacts within the industry, unfortunately that was not the case for me so I had to rely on perseverance and maybe a little bit of being a pain in the neck until I was finally given a yes. I had to deal with a lot of setbacks and rejections but I always knew what I wanted and refused to ever give up. Just refuse to take no as an answer, someone will eventually cave in and give you a shot and when they do, you have to take it and show them what you are made of.
What do/did enjoy most about your role?
Being a part of F1 and motorsport in general was always a dream and I can honestly look back at my career so far, the highs and the lows and say I loved it. I have met some brilliant people, worked with some great drivers and have had some fantastic moments. I loved the challenge of the job, finding solutions to problems, the fast pace, the adrenaline rush.
Now, I am looking forward to using all of this knowledge and experience to bring what I know to a greater audience, to a wider range of formulas, to use my engineering experience in other areas of motorsport and industry. I am hoping that with my new business JSC7 Engineering I can do just that.
What was it like being Kimi Raikkonen's race engineer?
Kimi was always a driver that I admired and respected and obviously he is supremely talented. His knowledge and feeling of the car is something many drivers don’t have and that is extremely beneficial to the team he is driving for. I worked with Kimi both as Performance Engineer at Lotus and Race Engineer at Alfa Romeo/Sauber and that experience will always be a highlight.
His race awareness was something I never came across before, he was brilliant in race situation. His understanding of race strategy and what was happening around him during the race, what he had to do to perform better was simply phenomenal.
It is true that there have been some amusing moments, where I may have been on the receiving end of some frustrated remarks, but I never took them personally. Kimi is a professional, a legend and someone I thoroughly enjoyed working with.
What have you learned from working with Formula 1 drivers?
Formula 1 drivers are a different type of person. To get to the top has normally meant sacrifice, single bloody mindedness, hard work, long hours. Most start very young go karting and if they want to make it this means weekends away, a lot of travel so when their friends are out playing football and video games they are on the road or in a go-kart. To get to F1 they have one goal and that is to win and keep winning and in order to do that not only do they need to be the best but so does everyone else around them. This brings enormous pressure to those working with them and this is where you will either crumble or thrive. Some can be laid back but many will constantly be pushing.
I have learnt to not take things personally and to demand the high standards of myself and those around me. I have also learnt that the best drivers also know when to push but also when to say thank you and show some humility and that I believe is vital. To get the best out of people you need to encourage them to be the best they can be but to also reward that effort.
Communication with different personalities is something you need to get a firm grasp on and quickly.
How does the job change between drivers?
Most drivers have a very clear mindset and that is on winning, if they don’t perform their dream can be over very quickly. However, each driver is an individual and must be treated as such. Some drivers want all the information possible, made available to them at all times. Whereas others want to be left to race and only be fed information that is vital to the performance of the car.
Older, more experienced drivers know what they are doing and know what to expect and so your interactions with them are normally more structured. However, a young driver in his debut season may need more reassurance, if a race has gone badly and they are losing confidence, they may need a softer approach.
One of the main strengths of a good Race Engineer is to be able to recognise the type of personality you are dealing with, their needs and what makes them tick. Once you have this figured out you can tailor your approach to make sure that your job is not only making the car the fastest it can be but also the driver.
I believe this is the same across all sports, across all industries for that matter and in my opinion all situations.
The desire to be the best, encouragement of others, appreciation, knowledge of what makes an individual perform and teamwork, these things together always bring the results that you can achieve within your limits.