In December 2013, I interviewed former McLaren engineer (now Williams), Dave Robson for the Stockton Sixth Form College newspaper – College Times.
We were really pleased to see you back in college this year and to learn more about what you do. For those who missed it, can you tell us about what your role involves?
As a Race Engineer my job at each race is to use my engineering knowledge and judgement to turn the effort and commitment of everyone involved in designing and manufacturing the car into as many Championship points as possible. During the race weekend I do this by using Jenson’s input to tune the car to make it as fast as possible for both Qualifying and the Race. Then, with help from the Strategists, I form and execute the best possible race strategy. If we all do our jobs a little bit better than our opposite numbers at all of the other teams then we win!
What’s it like being part of the McLaren team?
It’s a real privilege to be part of McLaren. Not only do I get to work with some of the best and most highly motivated people in Formula 1, but I also get to be a small part of the fascinating and rich history which makes McLaren what it is today. This year we celebrated our 50th anniversary and so there has been a lot of opportunity to relive some of the history and chat to some people who worked here for many of those 50 years, some of whom knew Bruce McLaren himself.
What’s it like working with Jenson?
Working with Jenson is easy as he is very easy-going, very intelligent and crucially, very clear over what he needs from the car. His ability to read a race and to know exactly who he is actually racing at any given time (actually quite complicated given the nature of pit-stops) is incredible, and we can talk quite freely over the radio to keep each other informed of how we each think the race is unfolding. Out of the car then he is an excellent leader, very professional but at the same time a lot of fun so that everyone who works with him naturally forms a tight and motivated team.
Those who follow F1 will know about the big changes for the 2014 season, can you tell us more about them?
The changes for 2014 are perhaps the biggest rule changes that F1 has ever seen. Most obviously we move from a normally aspirated V8 engine to a turbo-charged V6. In addition the energy recovery system (“ERS”) gets significantly more advanced and each car has a fixed amount of fuel with which to complete the race. In addition there are changes to the aerodynamic regulations which will mean the cars look and perform a little differently to 2013. There are also some ‘hidden’ changes to further improve the safety of the cars and whilst these changes may not be obvious to the TV audience, they are important and require significant engineering input to the design.
What advice would you give college students trying to break into engineering or a career in F1?
Work hard and make sure you understand the raw science – the maths and the physics – behind the engineering. At the same time, any practical experience you can get will not only help you to understand the science but also give you a much richer CV and make you a more rounded individual. In seeking that experience it’s important to remember that engineering is pretty much the same no matter what industry you work in so whilst there may not be any F1 teams based on Teesside, there are a lot of high quality engineering firms that use exactly the same engineering principles as us to design, manufacture and test their products. I gained a lot of useful experience working at what was then British Steel in Middlesbrough and it undoubtedly helped me get into my chosen university, but also get the job at McLaren.
What would you say is your greatest ever race as an engineer?
Probably my most exciting race was Canada 2011 when Jenson came from last place to finally win, overtaking Sebastian Vettel on the last lap. However, from an engineering point of view, my favourite and best race was Japan in 2011 where we dominated almost every session over the weekend. The car worked brilliantly and Jenson was on superb form and although we missed pole position by 0.009s, we regrouped on Sunday morning and won the race by 1.2s. The reaction of the Japanese fans was fantastic and the whole weekend could barely have gone any better.
What is the weirdest thing to happen to you on a F1 weekend?
During Qualifying in Canada a few years ago, when I was the Assistant Race Engineer, I had some guy standing just behind me and getting in my way a bit. At one point I turned round and gave him a bit of a stare and didn’t think much more about it. Once qualifying was over, I relaxed, turned round again and realised that the guy who had been standing over me was Michael Douglas!
If given the opportunity, would you switch roles with Jenson for a race weekend?
I think that would be a very bad idea! I’ve had the opportunity to drive the McLaren simulator and I can assure you that those cars are incredibly difficult to drive. I don’t think that I would be able to drive it out of the garage without stalling or crashing into the pit wall! I think on the whole I’d rather stick to the engineering and leave the driving to JB. That said, I’d happily go race against him in a kart – I’d get beaten easily but it would be great fun.
If you had to sum F1 up into 3 words, what would they be?
Intense. Stressful. Exciting.
What did you enjoy most about the studying at college, and do you have a message for students at they celebrate Stockton Sixth Form’s 40th anniversary?
I enjoyed the whole atmosphere of the college, that feeling of it being a clear break from ‘school’ and being that little bit less formal than secondary school. The teaching we had was excellent but also the extra-curricular activities that were organised were very good, meaning that I got the chance to experience a lot of practical engineering, both in college, at local industries and at Durham University.
It was strange coming back to college this year – the first time I’d seen the place since July 1995. It was great to see the new facilities and to get the feeling that the atmosphere and quality of staff and students is as high, or higher, than it was 20 years ago when I first arrived. I hope you all enjoy the 40th anniversary celebrations and make the most of the new – and old – facilities and opportunities that the college offers. Best of luck for the future. Work hard and enjoy it!