Competition winners react to attaining coveted F1 engineering roles

  • 23-Jul-2014 02:09 EDT
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Jason Zide, a USC mechanical engineering student, drives a simulator as part of the three-day Infiniti Performance Engineering Academy.

Making the leap from Formula SAE to Formula One is beyond any engineering student’s wildest dreams, but that will be reality for a pair of students from the University of Maryland and the University of Southern California (USC). Eric LaRoche, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland from Hamilton Square, NJ; and Jason Zide, a senior at USC from Laguna Beach, CA, along with William Priest from Chesham, Buckinghamshire, U.K., were selected as winners of the Infiniti Performance Engineering Academy, earning a year work placement with four-time Formula One World Champions Infiniti Red Bull Racing.

Emerging from an initial field of 1500 applicants who were asked to answer the question: “What future technology should Formula One be incorporating to keep road-relevant?,” LaRoche, Zide, and Priest were selected for the next round of Skype interviews before being named to the group of 12 finalists invited to attend a three-day shootout event at Infiniti's European Technical Center at Cranfield, England, and at Infiniti Red Bull Racing's factory in Milton Keynes, England.

“From there, they were very vague on what to expect,” Zide said in an interview with Automotive Engineering following the shootout. “They said there would be technical challenges, and as part of the application process we had to write an essay and present to a panel about that technology.”

Despite being the one facet of the competition that the finalists could prepare for in advance, Zide deemed the presentation to be the most challenging aspect of the competition.

“The presentation I started working on a couple of weeks before I got there and spent hours upon hours coming to it and rehearsing it, making it as good as I could so it seemed well-rehearsed and refined by the time I was able to actually present it to the engineers there,” Zide said. “That was certainly a challenge, making sure you had a good understanding of the technical side of the concept and being able to communicate that idea in a short period of time.”

The issue of ensuring motorsports remains road relevant struck a chord with LaRoche.

“I got into motorsport because I’ve loved cars for a long time, but I never grew up as a motorsports fan. I grew up without mechanics around me, without any kind of racing knowledge or history. I just grew up wanting to be an engineer and liking cars,” LaRoche said. “I got into motorsports through Formula SAE and Baja SAE and found that I really like idea of pushing production car technology through motorsport, not so much just for the sport that it can be but for the technology that it brings to road cars. That for me is a main motivation, and that’s why I decided to apply, not just because it’s the exciting environment of F1 but because of how it aligns with what I want to do.”

LaRoche, who studied mechanical and aerospace engineering, had five seasons of Formula SAE and Baja SAE experience prior to the academy and is a passionate advocate for the skill and knowledge gained through SAE’s Collegiate Design Series.

“The experience there in general just develops so much more than what you get in the classroom. I had a great theoretical background from the classroom, but applying it over five seasons of vehicles is something that goes way above and beyond whatever you learn in the classroom and applies it at a level that’s beyond an undergraduate learning for any school,” LaRoche said. “You have to communicate; you have to do things quickly; you have a budget; you have different people with different experience and different cultural backgrounds. Managing that, especially when you become a leader, is a life-long learning experience. All the things that you’d list in a good, quality engineer is something that Formula SAE and Baja SAE both really develop and build.”

Zide, who went to his first race with his Dad at 3 months old and began kart racing at age 8, decided to study mechanical engineering at USC and “went straight to Formula SAE.” After initially becoming involved with the powertrain first as a team contributor and then as powertrain lead, he became a project manager during his junior year, taking on responsibility for the operation of the whole team, overseeing design, scheduling, manufacturing, and testing.

“Formula SAE is one of the most beneficial things that an engineering student can do,” Zide said. “The understanding of the engineering that you get from Formula SAE is great. You understand concept design, manufacturing, testing, and competing all in a single year. I think Formula SAE largely contributed to the fact that I was one of the competitors and one of the winners as well.”

Zide and LaRoche also rounded out their educational backgrounds with significant internship experiences prior to the Infiniti Performance Engineering Academy. Zide spent the past two summers as an intern with Nissan/Infiniti, at the design studio in La Jolla, CA, and at the technical center in Farmington Hills, MI, and is currently an doing an internship with Tesla Motors working on chassis systems. LaRoche was a motorsports engineering intern with Chrysler SRT, a mechanical and structural engineering intern with Boeing, and a mechanical engineering intern with BAE Systems.

As for expectations for the work placement with Infiniti Red Bull Racing, much like the experience of going into the three-day shootout event, there is a lot of uncertainty, but Zide and LaRoche are accepting and embracing the challenge.

“[Chief Technical Officer] Adrian Newey himself said we’re going to throw you in the deep end and we expect you to swim,” Zide said. “It’s certainly going to be a challenge and a learning experience because whatever we’re going to be doing we won’t be extremely familiar with, so there’s going to be a lot to learn and pick up on. As it is Formula One, I think the expectations are very high, so it’s going to be a great opportunity to jump in with both feet and start swimming.”

“There are huge expectations for us,” LaRoche said. “It is not some fluff job at all; we will be pushed and challenged more than I anticipate that any of us have ever been in our lives. That’s exciting and that’s something that I embrace. I love a good challenge; I love learning something new. If I fail; I’ll learn best through failure. And when I succeed, even though what I did right made me succeed I can learn from that, too.”

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