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How to become an F1 test driver

Racing drivers have the best jobs in the world. With glamorous locations, adoring fans and champagne virtually on tap, it makes your 9 to 5 look a bit, well, rubbish.

Dream jobs are so called because for many that’s as far as it goes, especially if you are too old or lack the skill and experience necessary to be considered for race driving. But not all hope is lost if you want to get paid to drive some of the world’s fastest machines as there’s always the option of becoming a test driver.

We went for a cruise with Le Mans winner, Scuderia Ferrari test driver and ex-F1 racer Marc Gene, who shared some of his racing and test driving wisdom while we hooned a Ferrari FF along the German autobahns.

Is there an age requirement?

Most drivers agree there is no exact age requirement set in stone – in fact the average retirement age for an F1 driver is around 34 and test drivers can keep driving even longer – but being under 30 will prove advantageous. 

Ultimately what matters most is your driving ability and mechanical knowledge so worry more about your experience than age, unless you’re at a stage in your life when you’ve been given a free bus pass.

How can I get into the business?

You should be scouring the jobs pages of car manufacturers and looking to get a foot in the doorway. Some car manufacturers, like BMW will even post test driver job adverts, so that’s a good place to start.

Track down job sites for as many manufacturers as make friends with people who are in those industries on social networks such as Twitter. Spark up a conversation, express an interest and that might lead to useful tipoffs about new jobs. You should also be looking on AutomotiveTestDrivers.com.

Who should I target?

You’ll have to work your way up from road cars to sports cars and then supercars before you can take a 200mph F1 car to its limits, but you can maximise your chances of driving high-end cars if you cosy up to a car manufacturer that has motorsport links.

Don’t turn your nose up at less glamorous companies though. Driving for Dacia may sound dull but you’ll learn an awful lot from any manufacturer. Besides, many ‘lesser’ brands have glamorous parent companies. Dacia is owned by Renault, for example, which supplies engines to F1 teams, not least Red Bull. With talent and no small degree of luck, you could progress up the ranks.

Some companies offer work experience or graduate schemes, both of which offer a chance to see how the industry works and, crucially, whether the job is right for you. You may have to make the odd cup of tea and the amount of driving you do may be virtually nil to begin with, but any role in motorsport or car manufacturing will prove beneficial, if only for getting your name out there and improving your CV.

What do I do once I get a job?

Do everything you can to ensure your work is top-notch so that your employees will be keen to progress you. Start badgering the HR department for yet more work and responsibilities and try to excel. With so many people gunning for your dream job, it’s paramount you stand head and shoulders above the rest.

How can I improve my driving?

Most race and test drivers like Gene cut their teeth with go-karting from a young age (Gene was racing karts at 13), and all wannabe test drivers are advised to do the same, regardless of age. “There’s no rule that says you need to learn karting but 99.9 per cent do,” Gene told us. “It’s a great learning platform.”

Go-karting will teach you the basics of driving quickly and safely. It’s also good fun and cheaper than other forms of motorsport and there are no special licence requirements.

You should also consider 1 to 1 driver coaching, available from tracks such as Silverstone. This sort of training starts at roughly £200 for an hour of tuition if you bring your own car up to £1,500 for a full day and a car on loan.

Bear in mind that certain car classes will require an expensive race licence to be eligible, too.

For more information on the motorsport scene, you could do worse than check out these resources rounded up by Motorsports Ads.

As a general rule of thumb, any chance you get to drive with someone more experienced than yourself is time well spent if you can afford igt. It may help you secure a valuable connection, build your confidence or just help you shave off a second or two off your best lap time, making you stand out more when the time comes to sell yourself.

Do I need superhuman skill?

Lightning fast reactions, the strength of a bear and the pint-sized figure of a jockey would obviously prove beneficial to anyone who drives for a living, but there are more realistic traits that can prove as important.

A high level of fitness is essential. If you plan on throwing an F1 car into corners to see how fast they can go, you need the neck muscles of a boxer to cope with the g-forces (why do you think F1 drivers all have huge necks, regardless of the rest of their build?). Good eyesight is also preferable as is mechanical empathy.

Being healthy has the added benefit of making you more alert and able to react in a split-second with the right decision. Let’s face it, turning up at a race when tired will not bode well in a car that hits 100mph by the time you finish yawning.

Height can work against you. Taller ladies and gents may find getting into an single-seater cars a bit of a struggle, particularly if you plan on staying in the thing for 50-odd laps of testing. Some driving courses will only accept people below a certain height ─ somewhere around 6ft4.

While you can’t change your height, getting rid of any excess pounds will definitely help, especially as your competition may weigh less than you, giving them a competitive edge.

Can you learn the necessary mechanical empathy?

Go-karting is one of the best ways to learn these traits, but you should also consider getting book smart. A degree in mechanical or motorsport engineering, or any training as a car mechanic will come in immensely handy.

You should be learning to take your kart apart and fix any issues with your eyes closed, or at least with little or no help from anyone else. Understanding the difference between a cam shaft and camber should be a priority because to specifically explain why a car is underperforming, you need to understand the car itself down to the last nut and bolt.

Is there a preferred driving style?

You’ll need to be able to adapt your driving style on demand. You may one day find yourself in a situation where you’re asked to mimic a particular driving style, corner while braking, deliberately induce over or understeer and otherwise put yourself out of your comfort zone.

If you can’t perform in the way that’s expected, your engineers and technicians will not be able to find out what needs to be improved when your car is at its limit.

“A race driver also needs to know when to be aggressive and when not to be,” Gene told us, explaining that a hot-head is more likely to crash all the time, which benefits no one.

Consistency is also key. As Gene explained, while F1 race drivers focus mainly on flat-out performance over the course of a race, test drivers need to be consistent, “so the data is useful”. It’s no use going like a bat out of hell one day and slow the next because the data you are providing verbally and via telemetry will vary too much to be of use.

You need to be a good communicator, then?

Gene is a man who can speak six languages. “You must be good at communicating with the engineers,” he told us. “You must be good at feeling things, communicating what you feel.”

Test drivers need to chat with their engineers and technicians to improve the car, whether that’s adjusting the gear ratio to maximise corner exit speed, making the brakes more progressive so they don’t lock up or relaying what’s going on with the suspension during particular speeds and cornering angles.

You could be the fastest driver the world has known, but if you can’t communicate with your team about what the car’s up to then you may as well not be there. Your employee wants the car to be at its peak and you are key to that.

Good verbal and written abilities are therefore essential so learning to speak and write to a high standard in one or two languages is probably a good benchmark to aim for. Obviously the more languages you can speak, the more opportunities will be available to you and the more employable you become.

How much of the job relies on talent?

“Drivers always need a mix of pure talent and natural ability but will still need to work on it to make it big,” Gene explained. So if you plan on building up to being as fast as the F1 guys, you will need to practice all day, every day where possible. “Test drivers need speed,” he added.

Do I need deep pockets?

Motorsport is inherently expensive so unless your dad is replacing Steve Ballmer or the head of Ferrari, you’d better get saving or marry a rich oligarch.

Racing licences, cars, safety equipment, travel money, driver coaching ─ it’s all going to take its toll so you may have to consider the route of sponsorship to help build up your driver profile and experience.

Getting sponsorship will be a tough, particularly in a difficult financial climate, but there’s no harm in ringing around a few local businesses or popping in for a chat. You may get a lot of rejection but you might just get the break you need.

If wealth is a non-issue, Ferrari runs a program that lets you drive its best supercars and F1 machines with driver tuition from none other than Gene himself, plus you get all the mechanical support. No better way to learn than in the car you dream of driving, huh?

Any other advice?

Stay positive and hone your talent. As the saying goes, even the longest journey starts with a single step. While you may have a few more years under your belt than you would like, there’s nothing stopping you from adjusting your life goals and going for it.

Admittedly Gene began his driving career from a young age, but even he had to go back to being an accountant at one point in his career.

“Persevere,” he told us as we pulled over to end the interview. Like everything in life, you really have to want it before you actually get it. Now where did we put our go-karting gloves?

 

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