Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 31, 2017

Infiniti’s Renault Formula 1 Internship for Engineering Students is Tough to Top

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A Chinese schoolgirl designed a prototype of this wing for Nico Hulkenberg’s F1 Renault. (Courtesy of Renault Sport F1)

The Renault Sport Formula 1 team raced at the recent British and Hungarian grands prix with a derivative of a new rear wing developed by a Chinese schoolgirl. Okay, that’s pretty weird, huh? But wait, there’s more…

The student who developed it, Sally Li, is an intern this year in Infiniti’s Engineering Academy near the Silverstone track in England. The academy is, among things, an innovative recruitment tool for both the F1 team and Infiniti, its technical partner. I mean, how do you entice top talent to come work for an F1 outfit – much less a Japanese luxury car brand in Europe – at an out-of-the-way factory of a twice-failed team?

“Sally’s Wing,” as it’s called, has been used in testing, with noteworthy results, said Tommaso Volpe, Infiniti’s global motorsports manager. “A derivative of it,” he pointed out, was used only because the actual “Sally’s Wing” awaits final approval for use in races, from the sport’s sanctioning body.

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Sally’s drawing of her wing (this appeared in Autosport)

 

“I am working in the aero department,” Miss Li said of her internship. “My mission is to add aerodynamic performance to the racecar using development tools such as computational fluid dynamics and the wind tunnel.

“In particular, I have been working on developing the range of rear wings, in an attempt to extract more performance from them. We try to look at old problems with new eyes.”

Miss Li, then 21, was selected in January from among 12,000 applicants last year for the unique program, which provides opportunities for up-and-coming engineering students to go straight from undergraduate work to racing’s front lines, with a Formula 1 team.

“Who gets to do that, at my age, and from my background?” added Miss Li. “This is an opportunity like no other.”

The international academy, in operation for four years now, annually offers internships for seven aspiring automotive engineering students in an Infiniti program that shares them with Renault Sport. It also helps Renault Sport, which is headquartered in a rather unappealing gravel pit in Oxfordshire, recruit against F1’s more elite teams for engineering talent.

“It’s only open to students,” Volpe said. “We want to create opportunities for them, that they almost certainly would not have, if they were competing against professionals for openings.”

Interest in the program has grown exponentially – from about 1,200 that first year, to an estimated 20,000 applicants for the Class of 2018, he said.

Word is getting around among engineering schools, Volpe noted, “that this can be a ticket straight to the top.” Would you agree to work in a gravel pit? Yes, yes, I believe I would. (Now where is my F1 hard card, thank you.)

A 2014 participant in the program, William Priest, earned a fulltime engineering job at Infiniti, upon his completion of the program. Daniel Sanham, a 2015 graduate, now has a fulltime contract with the F1 team.

Last year, Caitlin Bunt, of Rockport, Ill., became the program’s first female to win a placement.

One applicant is selected from each of seven geographical regions: Asia/Oceania, Canada, Mexico, China, the Middle East, Europe/Russia and the United States.

Miss Bunt said she now works with the chassis team at Infiniti, and has been pleasantly surprised at how much input she’s been able to have in her projects.

“We’ve been able to try a lot of things that maybe they haven’t tried before, or haven’t had personnel to work on before,” she said. “I love it.” Some of the projects she has been working on are likely to end up on production models.

Miss Bunt said she is undecided what her next move might be, after completing her studies, but she said, “There is no shortage of choices for me, going forward.” (She wishes she knew someone in IndyCar. Hint, hint.)

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Here’sssss Sally!

Likewise, Miss Li has not formalized what’s next on her career ladder, but Infiniti and Renault have each expressed interested in keeping her on, she said. So it is safe to say, on the market for F1 engineering talent, her stock is headed up.

“I have always been passionate about race cars and always curious to learn how everything is made and how it works,” said Miss Li, who was attending school in Beijing when she was selected. “During my time at university I found that engineering is not only about what we learned from a book, but also about the experience. The more experience I gain here, the more determined I am to become a racing engineer and to realize my dream.”

Using “Sally’s Wing,” which the team says really does make a significant aerodynamic difference, was an admittedly unorthodox move by Renault Sport. But they’ve been working especially hard the past two seasons to breathe new life into the remains of the defunct Lotus team.

Team principals believe these sorts of daring, out-of-the-box ideas are helping Renault Sport make the leap from the ranks of also-rans in Formula 1 this season, to the elite level of championship contenders like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

(Editor’s Note: A different version of this feature appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, July 30, 2017)

Jerry Garrett

July 31, 2017

 

 

 

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