Written by Gary Rosewell
“Failure is not an option” – one of my all-time favourite quotes, from former NASA Flight Director and Aerospace Engineer, Gene Kranz. Overseeing the Gemini and Apollo programs, including the first landing on the moon, he managed the team that literally wrote the book for the processes, procedures and contingencies that would enable ever-greater reliability in space. In his own words: commitment, teamwork, discipline, morale, risk and sacrifice – are the human factors that enabled the team to yield the ‘right stuff’ and win the ultimate race.
Understandable then that Mercedes F1 would take enormous inspiration from a trip to NASA in 2020. In a sport that is so technically complex, aggressively innovative, time, budget and information-sensitive, Formula One really is a modern-day space race. Occurring every other weekend however, teams are under incredible pressure to ensure their cars don’t breakdown. Cue Emma Hunter, Reliability Engineer at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team.
The dominance of Mercedes in the hybrid era is staggering, but by no means taken for granted. We caught up with Emma on her reliability roots and what makes the Brackley-based World Champions so special.
Hello Emma! Please introduce yourself, where you are from and your role with the team. What are some of the tasks that you typically manage on a day-to-day basis?
My name is Emma Hunter, I’m originally from Devon but I now live in Oxfordshire with my dog, Indiana, and my horse, Duckling. I have worked as a Reliability Engineer for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team since December 2014. In short, I work closely with the mechanics and race engineers, to ensure that reliability will not be a talking point of the weekend.
My work varies from day to day. At the factory I work within a team of four to minimise any potential risks which could lead to the car stopping on track. Although we are embedded with Design, we work in partnership with Build and Test & Development, and can be working across three different specifications of car at once. I support the definition, development, and implementation of processes which directly support reliability, manage a company-wide communication tool, and run root cause analysis sessions on some of our ‘headline’ faults.
At the track I am solely focused on the cars we are running that weekend, although there are always learning opportunities for the next iterations of design. My key responsibilities are to document and communicate any issues over the weekend to the factory, whilst also ensuring that released fixes have been applied and are functioning as expected.
“We also used to go and watch ‘Banger Racing’, which on reflection is an extremely good test of the core reliability of a car!”
What first inspired you to get involved with motorsport? What stokes your passion for motorsport engineering now?
From an early age, I can remember my mum watching Formula One whilst she did the ironing on a Sunday afternoon. We also used to go and watch ‘Banger Racing’, which on reflection is an extremely good test of the core reliability of a car! As I grew older, I became more interested in reading the newspaper articles and magazines which accompanied each race weekend and became totally hooked on the sport.
Despite my love of F1, the career I was aiming for at the time was in Veterinary Medicine. Early into my A-Levels however, I realised that my grades were not going to be good enough. I was reading a copy of F1 Racing at the time, which contained an interview with Mario Theissen covering how he had got started with his career in motorsport. This inspired me to do some research into engineering degrees and started me on a different path.
I have a lot of passion for my job and the incredible things that Mercedes have achieved and are continuing to achieve – it really is fantastic to be a part of! There is a strong drive to keep the team where we currently are and you need to be passionate to maintain the high standards that we hold ourselves to. I also took a lot of inspiration from a trip to NASA Mission Control in Houston last year and continue to be inspired and supported by the friends I have made in forums when I was at school.
You joined Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team in 2014, a pivotal year for the Silver Arrows in F1. What sets this team apart from the rest of the field to consistently achieve World Championship winning performance?
I joined in December 2014 making a direct switch from the back of the grid (with Caterham) to the World Champions; my first day was not long after the Christmas Party and it was like entering a whole new world.
I believe that a large part of our success is that we are not afraid of learning from any and every situation, whether it is good or bad. Very strong foundations were created for how the team would work, before I started, and they are strong enough that they are still supporting the ethos of the team today, even as it continues to evolve.
“I have learned that continuing to succeed if F1 [requires] the ability to form strong, empathetic relationships with your colleagues”.
What lessons have you taken away personally from your time with the team? What advice would you give to young engineers with motorsport aspirations?
I have learnt that being the best doesn’t give you an easy ride into the next season. If anything, it means you have to work even harder and be even more conscientious than the previous year. I have learned that continuing to succeed in F1, and to keep enjoying it, means not just having the engineering degree and the passion for F1, but also the ability to form strong, empathetic relationships with your colleagues. Having a strong support network of friends outside of the sport has also been hugely important.
My advice for young engineers is to not worry about following what they may see as the conventional route into F1 or even engineering. I wasn’t fortunate enough to do an industrial placement and initially went straight into retail. I achieved low A-Level grades in Physics/Chemistry/Biology (so no Maths / further Maths). I didn’t attend a university known for being a direct feed into F1 and had to study a year-long Foundation of Engineering Degree to get me up to the right level to do the main BEng Course! So, anything’s possible.
“You may not immediately be able to step into your dream role fresh out of university, so continue to develop yourself…”
You also need to become unafraid of marketing yourself; don’t give up but instead use any rejections as inspiration to take a different path which will lead in the same direction. You may not immediately be able to step into your dream role fresh out of university, so continue to develop yourself, look at any roles where you can use the experience you do have (even if it’s outside of motorsport), and demonstrate a willingness to learn which you can back up with examples.
What impact has your education had on your professional career? Did Formula Student help you to put theory into practice before joining the world of work?
My education gave me the opportunity to complete the degrees which people will automatically look for when you apply for a job in engineering. As I’ve previously mentioned, I first took a Foundation of Engineering Degree, which was an intensive one-year course to really ensure that the participants were ready and able to take on a full engineering degree, before completing a BEng in Automotive and Motorsport Engineering and before completing an MSc in the same subject. My first role in F1 (as a Bill of Materials Coordinator) was not a straight engineering role, but the fact I had an engineering degree made me eligible enough to apply for it.
I did two years of Formula Student, one as a BEng Team Member and the other as a Team Leader. It was a fantastic opportunity to get hands-on experience; as my previous career aspirations had been animal focused, I didn’t have any practical engineering experience at all. Although you spend time at school/university working to deadlines, it’s much more tangible when missing the deadline for something can have a huge negative effect on the progression of a whole team of people. Learning how to exist on very low levels of sleep whilst maintaining a high-quality level of work output was certainly something I took from my time in Formula Student as well!
Being process driven and analytical seems critical to your role. How did you keep yourself busy during the national lockdown earlier this year?
I wish I could say that I renovated my house or created some incredible app but I seized the opportunity to be able to ride my horse in a consistent and unhurried way! Much like engineering, the best results with horses can be achieved through consistency. There were lots of online Dressage competitions over the lockdown, so I created a schedule of filming dates and deadlines, then I’d train for each one. It worked; our percentages went from 65% to 78% with the occasional 80%+ ones sneaking in as well.
“I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to play a proactive role in encouraging more people to explore the careers which engineering can lead to, even outside of F1!”
What performance gains does a diverse, international workforce have for your department in particular?
Reliability is a four-person department, comprised of two European nationalities, so it would be better for me to talk about the team as a whole. Mercedes F1 recently launched our Accelerate 25 program, the formalisation of our vision to become a more diverse and inclusive team; this is because we recognize the value of having team members from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. If everyone comes from the same background, the same universities, and the same patterns of behaviour, then we are missing opportunities to put performance on the car as we don’t have access to people whose experiences allow them to see different opportunities and solutions beyond the ones we’ve all been guided into seeing.
I am a member of our internal Diversity & Inclusion Forum, and I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to play a proactive role in encouraging more people to explore the careers which engineering can lead to, even outside of F1!