Former Queen’s Formula Racing team leader, Bernadette Collins, has been making strides in the motorsport industry since graduating from Queen’s with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering. After leaving QUB in 2009 the Fermanagh native moved to England to join McLaren Racing’s graduate scheme. This was followed by spells in the design office, focusing on gearbox design, and the race team as a Performance Engineer. In 2015, Bernadette moved to Force India where she is now a Senior Strategy Engineer.
Did you always want to become an engineer when you were younger?
When I was at school I was very unclear about what I wanted to do. I chose mechanical engineering as I enjoyed Mathematics and Physics at school and it gave me a board range of options upon graduating. I had watched motorsport when I was younger but hadn’t imagined working within the industry. It was my time within QFR that opened the possibility of a career within the industry.
What projects were you involved in at QFR?
In my first year within the team I was involved in a brake system research project, which resulted in a revised brake disc design. In my final year I became team leader and was responsible for suspension design. I also drove for one of the acceleration runs mainly because I was light!
My time within QFR was the most useful experience I had gained to secure my position with F1.
How did QFR perform in those years? Do you have any good or bad memories?
Both years the team didn’t do particularly well. I can’t remember the exact results. The first year the brake disc (that I had designed) failed during the brake test and the team never got past scrutineering. I think we performed well in the static events.
During the second year we brought two cars; the previous year’s car was entered as well as the new design. The new car was the first carbon chassis and performed well until the endurance race when an electrical issue meant it would not restart after a spin in the damp conditions.
Memories; Lots of late nights and three meals a day in the Ashby building but it was a huge learning experience and great to do something practical with our knowledge. Finding out on the final day of the event that I had secured a place within McLaren was very special.
Did Formula Student help you prepare for your career?
Formula Student opened my eyes to the careers in motorsport that I hadn’t particularly considered before. It set me up for the hard work and the success and failure that are so often present in my current work.
What has it been like working in Formula 1? Did it match your expectations?
Starting in McLaren very much matched my expectations of a very professional industry with lots of resource and working with experimental techniques and materials to achieve the very best race car without the constraints of a normal commercial environment. Everything happens very fast and you quickly learn if your design idea has been a success or failure.
Do you have any favourite moments from your career so far?
My favourite moments have definitely been the podiums we have achieved over the last few years. My first podium in Russia where we took a big risk and it paid off felt very special as well as the podium in the first Baku race where we fought until the final laps to overtake Ferrari and secure the position. These moments feel like a massive reward for the whole team who work so hard.
What does your current role as Senior Strategy Engineer involve?
Currently I’m responsible for planning and executing the race plan so that we achieve the maximum number of points for the team at each event. During the race this involves reacting to any situations that occur; changes in weather, incidents, safety cars etc. Outside of sessions this involves lots of analysis of tyre performance and pace. During sessions providing information for race engineers and the drivers and calling pit-stops and tyre choices.
Does Force India have any particular company characteristics that you believe help it compete against some of F1’s much bigger teams?
Force India operates very much in the way a Formula Student team does but on a larger scale. There is not enough resource to do everything that is needed so the team is quite lean and efficient at focusing on the areas that will bring the most reward. Everything we do brings performance to the car with a noticeable return.
What is the most important thing you have learned in your career so far?
Always ask questions. From design to strategy it is always worth asking why or what if? “Why is the design like that or why is it that material etc.” In strategy “Why did that team stop or react like that?” It is by far the best way to learn.
Have you any future ambitions that you would like to achieve?
My best result to date has been P3 so to beat that would be nice. I’d also like to return to performance or race engineering even in another formula.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become an engineer in motorsport?
It is worth getting as much relevant experience as possible. Formula Student allowed me to achieve the position with F1. I also worked in my spare time for GT3 while I was working in the design office to get enough experience to make it to the track within F1.
Thanks to Bernadette for taking time to share her thoughts and advice to Queen’s Formula Racing. Also to Force India for making the interview possible.