Trackside in Macau - the female advantage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 4:35pm

During last weekend's the Macau GT Cup, race engineer Bernadette 'Bernie' Collins was down in the pit lane on Sunday morning, wearing a big pair of headphones and speaking very clearly into a mouthpiece, eyes glued on the computer and TV screens in front of her. Wearing the blue United Autosports  team uniform she looked just like the other mechanics and engineers, but she was almost the only girl in this most bloke-ish of sports.

During the race, 27-year-old  Bernie’s concentration never wavered as she kept British driver Danny Watts updated as he hurtled round the city’s legendary, tortuous track in a McLaren MP4-12C at speeds of up to 230 km per hour. What she does varies from driver to driver. “Danny wanted information from the pit board, for me to tell him what lap he’s on, what position he’s in and where it’s important, the gap to the car behind. Obviously he knows the distance to the car in front,” she explains.

Eyes and ears

He can somehow hear her on his helmet intercom over the din of the screaming engine just behind his head.  “So I tell him about the safety car, any accidents, debris on the track, how long it will be to clear it, and tell him when the safety car is coming in because that means they will start to race straight away again.” Her goal is to give him as much information as possible. If she sees a car coming in with punctures, it means there’s debris on the track, so she relays this and any other information she picks up that might be useful to him during the race. Danny stormed from eighth on the grid to finish a superb second.  Communicating with the driver during the race is just a small part of the job. After every practice and qualifying session, Bernie would be seen huddled with the driver and mechanics pouring over computer data and seeing where fractions of a second could be made up, whether different gear ratios were needed or whether any of the thousands of parts that go into making a racing car fast need to be tweaked in the quest for the ultimate lap.   

Mechanical engineering is not every girl’s first choice but Bernie, from Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, really enjoys it. Being a girl is no disadvantage, she says, since it’s not an issue of strength.

Her day job is as a gear box designer for F1 racing car manufacturer McLaren, where she works in the design office.  

Bernie studied mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Belfast,  because she liked maths and physics at school. Having helped her father with farmyard machinery as a kid - I was a bit of a “tom-boy”, she says,  – “taking things apart and building things, so looking back it probably wasn’t that surprising that I finished up doing engineering.” Her Mum and Dad don’t mind, she adds, though she admits her mother probably doesn’t understand much about what she does.  She and her father, who works in a garage but is not a mechanic, do now watch Formula One.

She spent the five years studying trying to figure out just what type of engineering to do. “Mechanical engineering sets you up for everything from gear box design to aerospace and hip replacements. It’s a good choice if you’re unsure what you want to do, because it gives you lots of options,” she adds. Of the 30 students on her course, only three were girls. “It’s a minority but every year it gets better and there’s more publicity and focus on it now, in order to encourage girls to do it.”

Being a girl in engineering is no problem: she says the guys are all really good about it. “I’ve never had any problems.”

She thinks the image of engineering is improving.

While building a single seater race car at university she realized she wanted to do automotive or motorsport engineering and applied to McLaren, got the job and now designs gearboxes for the F1 cars.

But getting trackside experience is hard because in F1 the number of personnel each team is permitted at a race is limited. So events like Macau are useful to get young engineers like Bernie trackside and working with drivers and setting up cars for racing.  “Especially as the 12C uses all the same software as we use inF1,” she says.  Being a bumpy street track, Macau threw up different challenges compared with the usual smooth circuits.

“Girls are often put off because engineering is seen as a dirty trade, but  that’s not what we do, and in some ways girls are better at the multi-tasking side of it.” She would recommend it to anyone, not specifically girls. She reckons she’s better at some things than the guys, like establishing rapport with the drivers quickly.

So what’s her ambition? I might have guessed. “To go trackside with the F1 team - that’s why I’m here in Macau,  doing this, to get enough experience.”