For many, Formula 1 is the ultimate pipe dream when starting a Mechanical Engineering degree. Formula Student is seen as a stepping stone from academic studies to a career in motorsport. Ciaran Branney is a perfect example of how Formula Student can lead to a successful career in motorsport valley.
Not only has Ciaran Branney worked for two of motorsport’s giants, Mercedes and McLaren, but also formed part of the engineering team that helped Lewis Hamilton and McLaren win their 2008 Formula 1 World Championship.
Brought up in Castlewellan, Co. Down, Branney received his motorsport interest from his Father who was an avid rally fan and amateur driver in the 1970s. Like many, he recognised Formula Student as a natural progression to gain more experience of engineering in a motorsport environment. A Masters degree followed by a post doctorate gave Branney seven years at QUB, of which he spent five involved in the Formula Student team (2002-2007).
Branney’s work at QFR included the original implementation of launch control, engine mapping, changing the throttle from butterfly to barrel and in his PhD years, doing CFD studies on the intake system as well as looking at how the team was managed and structured. During an Erasmus period Branney was the team leader at Chalmers University in Sweden.
These Formula Student roles through university clearly helped Branney when it came to stepping into the world of Formula 1.
“Formula Student was a great project in terms of seeing something through from generating the concept to being an end-user,” said Branney.
“It gave great insight into how projects should, and shouldn’t, be run, how teams should be organised, and how resource should be allocated.
“These were all skills that were useful in my career after graduation.
“Knowing when to get deep into technical detail, and when to take a step back and have a wider view were things I started to learn during Formula Student, and those skills have been essential to success in the world of Formula 1 and high performance automotive.”
As anyone who has been involved in Formula Student will bear witness to, it isn’t all plain sailing. The fancy final-year project title can hide the true realities of the time-consuming work that goes on in the workshop and on the test tracks. It can be stressful and labourious at times but it’s the perfect preparation for challenging times that can be endured in any high-intensity motorsport environment.
“I remember a lot of very late nights in the workshop getting the Formula Student car built, it was exhausting, but the team really pulled together and it was great to be involved with such a motivated group of people,” explained Branney.
“That kind of experience definitely helped when I went testing in F1.
“Testing itself was always fun. I remember the pride we all felt when the car did its first flying laps.
“It’s great to be involved in such a big project and finally see the results take shape.
“I do remember crashing the car at one test, I think I did the fastest crash we’d ever had in a Formula Student car.
“It was a damp, greasy track and I was on slicks… it was fun sliding the car around but I guess excitement got the better of me. There was a slight bump as the tarmac changed going from the chicane onto the main straight. I hit the bump and spun into the wall on the main straight.
“I was convinced I’d broken the car in two, but I’d only cracked the nosecone and took off a few sensors from the rear subframe.”
Branney joined Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines after leaving QUB with the role of Test Engineer in 2007, closely followed by Test Team Engine Engineer for McLaren in ’08. With that year came Branney’s proudest moment as an engineer, winning the F1 World Championship with McLaren and Lewis Hamilton. He still holds fond memories of that period working with McLaren.
“It felt like you were part of a really well-oiled machine and if there were problems within the team they were resolved in really good ways,” said Branney.
“People were coming up with really good performance ideas, they were coming through the systems and being deployed well at the track.
“McLaren’s approach back then was to have tests carried out before being put onto the car so that it didn’t really have to be tested at the track.
“The 2008 experience was still nerve-wrecking as it went down to the wire but in terms of the working environment it felt like the whole McLaren-Mercedes team was working well. It felt good to be a part of that.
“The British GP that year was the first F1 race I had been to and it was also the first time one of my maps was put onto the car so that was cool.
“I wouldn’t say Lewis winning that race was due to my maps but I’m sure they helped!”
In 2011 Branney swapped Mercedes and F1 for McLaren Automotive where he still works, currently as Powertrain CAE manager.
“At McLaren, it’s all about trying to take the best racing approach and the best OEM approach and blending them together to make world class sports cars that no-one else can come near,” said Branney.
“The launch of the McLaren P1 was a really special time for the business.
“The vehicle was incredible and we showed everyone that it was possible to use hybrid in a really new way, to add engagement and performance as well as efficiency.
“It was an amazing project to be involved with, and unlike F1 – I actually got to drive it!”
Thankfully Branney kept the P1 away from any Kirkistown pit-walls! Not many people can say they have driven a McLaren around the Top Gear test track though. The Castlewellan native is a great example of what can be achieved from an early start in motorsport through Formula Student. The McLaren engineer left this advice to students currently involved in Formula Student.
“Developing excellent technical skills is obviously a must. But communication skills are an often overlooked aspect of engineering,” said Branney.
“I often tell my team that if you can’t communicate the results of your simulation, there is no point in doing it.
“Trying to understand and communicate the actionable conclusion of a piece of work is vital, rather than just doing something for the sake of doing something.
“Learning how to be an empathic engineer has really helped me to work across teams and cross-functionally.
“Understanding where other people are coming from and what their objectives are helps every situation.
“Understanding the requirements of the question being asked and how this impacts on the tools and resource used to deliver it.
“There is a temptation to do a really detailed job just because you can, and because the tools are available – but understanding whether it’s necessary, and if not – what alternative methods can be used, is a really valuable skill.
“I also can’t recommend enough trying to soak up as much information as possible outside of your studies. You can read a lot about how different people and organisations solve problems, manage people and structure teams.
“The engineering world is changing really rapidly at the minute, and we can learn a lot from how other industries are coping with and taking advantage of these changes.
“My last piece of advice is to try to learn to focus on process & systems.
“I believe that almost every issue is a systemic problem, and has a systemic solution.
“The culture of how you tackle problems is a vital ingredient in success, and looking at things systemically pays dividends in the long run.”
Written by Adam Hall
Many Thanks to Ciaran Branney for sharing his experiences and advice with QFR
Photos from C. Branney and Formula 1