Jess Harris: “Many people tried to discourage me but I knew what I wanted to study, I knew the job I wanted to do”

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport have dominated Formula One over the last four years or so, but none of this would’ve been possible without the army of staff based at their Brackley factory who work night and day to give their team an edge over their rivals. Jess Harris is a Structural System Engineer at the team and has worked her way up from a graduate position to the role she does now. I spoke to her about her career and being a woman in engineering.

Growing up near Shelsley Walsh, one of the world’s oldest motorsport venues, Jess always had an interest in the sport. She spent her childhood visiting events and races, and when she was old enough, began marshalling. “I really enjoyed marshalling and I would encourage anyone wanting to pursue a career in motorsport to do it, or scrutineering. It’s very rewarding and you get really close to the cars,” she said. But it wasn’t only motorsport that she had a passion for, having loved and been intrigued by engineering from a young age. Her father owned an engineering firm and so she would spend her weekends and school holidays surrounded by parts and machines. “I always liked taking things apart and trying to figure out how they work and go back together. When I was old enough I would go in and draw little projects up in CAD (Computer-aided Design) and then make them. I found maths and science to be my calling at school and just pursued what I enjoyed,” Harris explained.

2018 Barcelona Pre-season Test 1, Day 2 - Wolfgang Wilhelm
Jess at Barcelona Pre-season testing, working on the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas.

After discovering a love of marshalling, Jess went on to support the British Touring Car Championship at Silverstone, and whilst there began to think about how motorsport could present her with a career path. “I knew I wanted to study engineering but I wasn’t sure which field to go into. I saw many cars racing around a track as fast as they could, all hoping to achieve one thing, to win that race by any means (rules permitting) possible. I also saw a very exciting engineering opportunity, with a very fast paced working environment where you have to push every limit you can from an engineering perspective to try and beat your opposition. You have regular feedback from the car/driver/result on what you are working on,” Harris told me. Jess applied for an Automotive Engineering with Motorsport degree, and despite being encouraged to reconsider, decided she didn’t want to ‘play safe’. “Many people tried to discourage me from narrowing down my options too early on but I knew what I wanted to study, I knew the job I wanted to do, so thought why waste any opportunity. I completed a BEng and then transferred to Cranfield University to complete my Masters,” she said.

Despite this possibly limiting the job roles she could go into, Harris managed to secure a graduate position straight from University. “I was actually very lucky,” she told me, “my first job was as a Graduate Test and Development Engineer at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport. Previous to this I started gaining work experience when I was at school during A-levels and GSCEs in any engineering environment I could. This really helped confirm that motorsport was where I wanted to be.” However, this wasn’t her first engineering role having taken part in a ‘Year in Industry’ during her studies. “I did a placement at AP Racing in the Race Clutch Department. The year was invaluable, it helped put all the theory I had learnt in my first two years at university into practice. I really enjoyed myself as I learnt so much and gained a lot of experience which you can’t always get from a university course,” Jess explained.

2018 Barcelona Pre-season Test 1, Day 2 - Wolfgang Wilhelm

Working in Research and Development can be extremely rewarding, with employees constantly trying to improve the team’s car. “You’re always working on something new. You see new technologies, new designs and new processes every day. You can get involved in early stages of design and suggest improvements. It’s also an opportunity to introduce new ways of testing technology. It gave me practical experience which I feel is vital for anyone going into design or simulation-based roles,” Harris said. Since her graduate role, Jess has worked her way up to her current position as a Structural System Engineer. Speaking of her job, she said: “Part of my role is load definition for the car each year. This involves looking through car data finding the operational envelopes of each part and predicting how they will operate in the following year ready for the Stress Engineers. The other side of my role is dynamics based looking into vibration profiles.”

Although it is well-known that engineering is a hugely male-dominated industry, Jess was surprised by the number of women she has worked with during her time at Mercedes, saying: “I was a little nervous when starting university being one of the only girls on my course, however I think women in engineering is starting to pick up which is really encouraging. During my role in R&D I was one of three women and now I am one of five.” As Harris said, every year more and more women and girls take up Engineering and STEM subjects, and Jess had some advice for those wanting to work in industry. “If you want to do it, go out there and grab every opportunity and go and achieve. I was initially discouraged from pursuing engineering, especially motorsport, but luckily I had very supportive parents who kept me encouraged. I fully recommend a ‘Year in Industry’, and it doesn’t have to be F1, every opportunity you can to immerse yourself in real engineering is valuable,” she told me.

Jess Harris is among a growing number of women choosing to work in the engineering side of motorsport. Having always had a passion for both, combining the two has allowed Jess to work in her dream role. Her first job in motorsport was working as a graduate for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, and she has continued working for them ever since, determined to work her way up, and continue to improve with the help of a world-class team.

(All photo credits: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team)