Theo Spencer is an aspiring Motorsport Engineer who has recently completed his Masters degree. Theo played a significant role within the highly successful Formula Student team at the University of Hertfordshire, helping to develop their first electric car in ten years. In this interview, Theo shares his fascinating journey whilst providing key advice to those following the same path.
My name is Theo, I’m currently based in London having just achieved my Masters in Engineering. I’m from the UK but grew up in Switzerland.
Catching the Motorsport Bug
I was drawn to motorsport by rallying as it looked so dramatic, but it was Formula One that really gave me the bug! – my first memories are of Hamilton and Button’s championships in 2008 and 2009. These days, my favourite series is Formula E. I have a huge amount of admiration for the engineering behind it: I love seeing new technology pushed to and beyond its limits, and the racing is great to boot!
Having more or less settled on engineering as a career path during my A-levels, I was watching a Formula One race on the TV and heard the commentator reference the engineers in the pits. At that point, it dawned on me that I could take engineering into a competitive environment. I’m quite a competitive person and am interested in lots of sports (even if I’m not particularly good at any of them!), so it seemed like a natural choice. I initially had very little knowledge of the industry, but I’ve made a concerted effort to learn more about it over the past five years and I’m now ready to take on whatever challenge I’m presented with!
My main motorsport experience has been through Formula Student. The University of Hertfordshire’s FS team is one of the oldest in the UK and has a few notable firsts – including the first electric car to complete an event in the UK in 2008. Since then the technology has moved on a lot, and having worked on the last combustion car to come out of the workshop, I also worked on the team’s first electric car in ten years.
There was of course a big learning curve here; I went from modifying an existing loom on a combustion car to designing an entirely new low-voltage system that would not only do a good job on this car but could be upgraded in future years. We didn’t get to build it before I graduated, but I’ve now moved to an advisory role and will be helping the team where I can as they build and develop the car over the next year, which I’m looking forward to.
The Importance of Education
As a graduate, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve found education vital! It isn’t just my degree that’s been important though – I’ve made a point of learning outside of my existing skill set and comfort zone.
I undertook a placement year as part of my degree, and while on that placement I taught myself to use Microsoft Visual Basic. This came in handy not only when implementing tools for our Formula Student team, but also provided a useful reference point for the control system design as it improved my understanding of things like logic and coding. I’ve since built on that further by learning more about data analysis, which goes to show that learning one thing for a certain context can make it easier to learn another thing in a different context. It’s quite easy to build up skills this way.
Like many, Covid-19 has thrown a real spanner in the works as far as my journey towards a career in motorsport is concerned. Having spent the best part of five years working hard towards my degree, for the last three months I had to adapt to new ways of working as lockdown and distance learning became the norm.
Our Formula Student plans were also derailed: having designed the team’s first electric car in ten years, as well as all the accompanying infrastructure, we were unable to build it and compete in the dynamic events. Nevertheless, adapt I did, and ended up with a first-class honours degree, as well as a second-place finish in the virtual Formula Student event that replaced the usual competition.
The best advice I’ve been given (albeit indirectly!) is to stay hungry. I’m a firm believer that no matter how good any given thing may be – and it may be really good! – it can always be improved upon, and that includes personal skillsets. This attitude of continuous improvement without getting complacent is so important in the big sporting dynasties, as it allows teams like Mercedes to dominate while still striving for more.
With technology advancing as fast as it does, being able to adapt to new environments and ways of working is so important these days, and that hunger to improve yourself can help in that regard. And on a slightly more basic level: if you want to get to the highest level, then if you keep making yourself better, you’re bound to get there eventually!
Be inquisitive and ask questions! Technology moves so fast these days it can be difficult to keep up, so talking to experts in the field is the perfect way to learn. It’s also a great way of getting yourself out there to build up your network, and could be the gateway to a career in the motorsport industry!
We wish you the very best for your future Motorsport journey Theo!
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