Reliability can often be one of the big talking points in motorsport, with it even being a deciding factor in race wins and ultimately championship wins. Over recent years, F1 has seen a vast improvement in the reliability of its cars, with the top teams having any engineering failure greatly scrutinised. Emma Hunter is part of Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport’s reliability team, working both trackside and at the factory to identify any potential problems before they happen, and then working on how to reduce the risk of it happening again after a failure. I spoke to her about her interest in sport, working at Caterham, joining F1’s reigning champions and the joys and struggles of reliability.
Emma’s interest in sport began as a child with her having a passion for racing from an early age. However, it wasn’t 4-wheeled racing that caught her attention, with her childhood dream to be involved in horse riding. “My earliest memory of sport is desperately wanting to be a jockey, however my Mum explained to me that I was destined to become too tall to be one,” she said. Hunter was aware of motorsport though, having both watched various forms of the sport on TV as well as experiencing it live. “I can remember watching F1 on a Sunday as Mum did the ironing, but I think the real connection to motorsport came from watching local ‘Banger’ races in Devon. Away from F1, my practical participation in sport comes from competing in amateur eventing, and other riding club competitions, on my horse Duckling,” Emma described.
With a love of animals, Hunter set her sights on becoming a vet, however during her A-Levels it became clear to her that it wasn’t meant to be. “I was sat on the school bus, fresh from realising that A-Level Chemistry and I were not getting on well enough for me to make it into Vet School when an interview with Mario Theissen caught my eye,” she told me. The article documented how the former BMW Motorsport Director and Team Principal of the BMW Sauber F1 team started his career in the sport. With Emma not having considered motorsport as a possibility before, she began looking into her options. “It led me to do some research into what university routes would be the most favourable to take. I studied a Foundation of Engineering Degree, Automotive and Motorsport Engineering BEng and Automotive and Motorsport Engineering MSc,” Hunter explained.
Following her studies, Emma had been working in retail until she decided to start looking for jobs that may not have been exactly what she was wanted so that she could combine the skills she had learnt both from studying and from her retail experience. “Since graduating from University, I had been working in an administrative sales role in a shop that sold chess sets; I started thinking laterally and applied for some of the roles that weren’t 100% engineering based, using examples from my retail background and demonstrating how I would apply them to engineering scenarios,” she said. Hunter’s first role in motorsport came in F1 with her jumping at the chance after seeing the advert, with her saying: “my first role was as a Bill of Materials Coordinator at Caterham F1, and I applied for the role straight from the ad on Autosport.”
Her role with Caterham involved her working across many of the areas that cover the engineering and design behind the car and soon evolved to use the communications skills she had learnt whilst working in retail. “The initial role was controlling the release of designed components, and their drawings, into a Bill of Materials structure, this included checking/correcting drawings and checking target dates etc. This evolved into maintaining the communication links with the main technical partners of the team, establishing a standard for transferring technical information, maintaining/developing the product lifecycle management software used by the team, and running the digital mock-up of the car,” Emma explained. This progression in her job gave her the chance to use her engineering degrees that she had worked so hard for, with her being able to put the theory into practice. “Within the role I was lucky to work across all areas of the car, and with multiple departments. I got a chance to use my engineering background in a more hands-on way when I had the opportunity to run the car as a Systems Engineer for a couple of races in the final season for the team,” Hunter described.
As many will know, in 2014 Caterham F1’s financial struggles meant they missed the USA and Brazil Grands Prix. The team began crowdfunding to raise enough money to finish the season and make it to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. During this time, Emma saw an advertisement for another role in Formula One. “Whilst being part of the crowdfunding effort to get Caterham to the last race of 2014, I saw the job advert for a Design Reliability Coordinator at Mercedes (AMG Petronas Motorsport); although I had no direct experience of working with reliability, I had carried out many of the fundamental requirements of the role as part of my job at Caterham,” she explained. As a Reliability Engineer, Hunter is part of a small team who work across all areas involving the chassis in order to minimise the risk of the car breaking down on track. “I support the definition, development, and implementation of reliability processes, manage the companywide feedback system, and use root cause analysis to ensure the resolution of any headline faults. I travel to some races and tests as a trackside reliability engineer to report on all positive/negative reliability concerns relating to the event,” Emma told me.
Reliability can be a deciding factor in races and this makes Hunter’s role even more crucial. For this reason, there must be a member of her team at the factory at all times in case any issues are identified. “During car build we can work some interesting split shifts to ensure there is always a reliability presence in the factory, and people are usually not too pleased to see you walking towards their desk. The best days for reliability are when no one is talking about it, that usually means things are going well!” she explained. It is clear that Emma’s team have been doing well over the past few years with Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport having won the previous 5 F1 Constructors and Drivers World Championships. Some of the best moments of her motorsport career have included this success, with Hunter saying: “for the past two years I have been at the track when we have sealed the World Constructors Championships (USA 2017, Brazil 2018); the feeling of euphoria is impossible to describe. That split moment is simultaneously the culmination of all the work poured into the current car, and the moment when you acknowledge that you’re already replicating and improving that work for the following year.”
When it comes to her role specifically, working in reliability offers Emma many prospects and chances to experience all the motorsport world has to offer. “I love the opportunities that comes with working in reliability, from travelling to races to having an overview of the whole car. You must acknowledge that the work will never be 100% complete, that the job list keeps on growing, but that every set back, minor or major, is an opportunity to ensure the issue only ever happens once,” she explained. Working in the high-pressure environment of F1 means any failures in reliability are highly scrutinised, however this gives Hunter and her colleagues the chance to ensure it doesn’t happen again and to improve their car even more.
Emma Hunter has always had an interest in motorsport, but it wasn’t until her late teens when she began thinking about the opportunities that working in the sport could provide her. After studying and achieving degrees in Automotive and Motorsport Engineering, she went on to work at Caterham F1, before making the step up to World Champions Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport. Although she didn’t have any direct experience in reliability, her previous role of a Bills of Materials Co-ordinator had allowed her to cover many departments and amassed knowledge of many of them. It was after reading an interview with Mario Theissen that she was inspired to work in the industry, and so her advice for others would be: “never give up, and be unafraid when it comes to marketing yourself. You may not be able to step immediately into your dream role, so look at any roles where you can take the experience you do have (regardless of if it is outside of motorsport, or even engineering) and show a willingness to learn.”
Photo credits: Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport