Rob Smedley, From a Go-Kart Mechanic to the Director of Data Systems at Formula 1
Quite famously a former Felipe Massa's race engineer, Rob Smedley is now working on the future of race cars. But how did he get there?
It All Started with the 1988 British Grand Prix
As a young boy, Rob Smedley was more into football than motorsports. In fact, he didn’t understand all the hype about car racing— for him, there was nothing exciting about “cars going round...” At least not until 1988. That year, his dad asked him if he wanted to go to the British Grand Prix, and Rob decided to go, more to keep his father’s company than anything else. Little did he know that that one championship would change his life forever.
In his interview for the Beyond the Grid podcast, he describes two situations from that experience that stood out to him the most. The first one—when he and his dad were on the top of the bank by the Woodcote Corner. He recalls his breath taken away by the noise and the speed of the racing cars coming round the corner. The second—when together with his dad, he made his way into the paddock and a car mechanic showed him around. And this was right then and there, at the age of only 11, that Rob knew that engineering for Formula 1 was his calling. From that moment on, he worked on realizing his new dream.
Gearing a Career Toward Formula One
Almost immediately after the Grand Prix, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. At first, he would go to a local car track and helped out there. Then, starting at about the age of 15, he worked as a go-kart mechanic at the British championships and with a local rally team. He was getting experience throughout his school and university years. In fact, as a university student, he started working for Reynard as a designer. After his graduation from Loughborough University, he was employed by Mike Pilbeam, former Chief Designer at BRM, who taught Rob the basics he still uses in his everyday work.
Working as a Race Engineer at Jordan
Rob Smedley continued his career, at the age of 26, at Jordan. He worked there as a data acquisition engineer and a track engineer for the team. At Jordan, he met and worked closely with racing drivers Micheal Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella, who grew fond of him. In fact, Giancarlo mentioned Rob during his press conference before leaving Jordan. He said, as Rob recalls, “the one person I’ll really miss in this team is a young engineer none of you have heard of, but he's a real star of the future, Rob Smedley.” Fortunately for Rob, Jean Todt, team principal at Ferrari, picked up on this and advised technical director Ross Brawn to get in touch with the race engineer.
Ross then invited Rob Smedley for a dinner and offered him a job at Ferrari. If you think that the race engineer agreed on the spot, you are very mistaken. Even though it was a huge opportunity, Rob wouldn’t agree to take the job for another year. As he puts it, he was more into testing than the glitz and glamour of racing.
Ten Outstanding Years at Ferrari
Rob Smedley started his career at Ferrari in 2004 and, despite his initial reservations, he loved it. Even though Ferrari was very much focused on performance and results, there was a warmth about the place and Italy felt like home to the race engineer. He enjoyed being treated well and fairly at the same time—people at Ferrari were not hesitant about giving feedback, which Rob appreciated. There, he worked again with two amazing drivers he first met back at Jordan—Micheal Schumacher and Felipe Massa. The latter became his close friend. This is why he would allow himself to calm the driver by saying the unforgettable 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix words, “Felipe, baby, stay cool.”
Being Head of Vehicle Performance at Williams
After ten years of working for Ferrari, it was time for Rob Smedley to move on, both for personal and professional reasons. He wanted to face new challenges and a great one seemed to wait for him at Williams, a team that, in Rob’s words, had been “punching below its weight.” Wanting to maximize its potential, he joined the team as the Head of Trackside Operations. It wasn’t without significance that right there he could learn from vastly experiences chief technical officer Pat Symonds.
What Is Rob Smedley Up To Now?
Rob left Williams after five years and in 2019 he started working as the Director of Data Systems for Formula One and, together with his wife, he established his own motorsport consultancy company.
Data analytics is not a new thing in the world of Formula One—Rob Smedley himself got interested in the subjects back in the late 1990s and, since the regulations from 2006 demanded cutting down on the testing time, every team in the 2000s was using virtual testing already. With his great expertise and vast experience, he is now taking a closer look into motorsports' future. He is assisting Formula One in the computational fluid dynamics (CFD) project, using Amazon Web Services (AWS), in hopes to design newer and faster race cars that take advantage of aerodynamics.
Moreover, Rob Smedley is once again into karting. This time, it is more of a mission, really. As he felt that motorsport, even—or maybe especially—at the entry-level, was becoming increasingly financially unfair. As the cost of entering, considering all the equipment needed, can reach thousands of pounds, it became almost impossible for a great number of potential candidates to participate. In hopes of lowering the socio-economic barriers, Rob Smedley turned to electric karts, Electroheads, in which he sees the future of racing.
Data Systems in the Motor Industry Covered at Infoshare 2021
Isn’t Rob Smedley’s story inspiring? And it gets even juicier when it comes to Rob’s current projects! Join us at Infoshare 2021 (AmberExpo, Gdansk, October 14-15), where Rob himself will discuss Data Systems and ML in the motor industry. Register here.
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