How’s it flowin’? Working In Experimental and CFD Aerodynamics .

Thank you for bearing with us while we have been off celebrating Christmas, bringing in the New Year and researching for this blog post. As many of you have seen we have also started working with two new clients that both on the forefront of CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) and Aerodynamic research; TotalSim and Wirth Research. With these two new clients it was only natural for us to write a piece on the subject.

For the purpose of this article, we will look primarily at the structure and functions of Experimental Aerodynamics and CFD Aerodynamics in a Formula One Team. For the purpose of this article we will refer to the former as ‘Aerodynamics’ and the latter ‘CFD’. Of course teams are going to differ, but the analysis below will give you a general overview that applies to all teams with some variations. Specialty companies such as TotalSim and Wirth Research will also use different terminology and we will take a quick gander at that towards the end. The general common goal of both the Aerodynamics and CFD functions is to improve airflow around the car and to reduce drag. Once you’ve read to the end of this article (if I haven’t put you to sleep already) you will realise that there is a natural rivalry between those that work with Aerodynamics and those that work with CFD. The reason for this is primarily because Aerodynamicists rely on testing data that is generated by running, in most teams, a 60% model of the car in a wind tunnel, while CFD will use models built in a software environment and run simulations on High Performance Computers (HPC). For those of you who are avid F1 fans and follow such experts as Craig Scarborough on the technical side of the sport know about the restrictions discussed in wind tunnel vs. teraflop (a measure of computing speed equal to one trillion floating-point operations per second) usage. This where the ‘animosity’ between the functions is going to increase quite a bit; teams will have to sacrifice wind tunnel time for running CFD simulations and vice versa depending on where a Team think they can get the best data from. The initiated people that we have spoken with say that there will be a greater emphasis on CFD and that Aerodynamicists will have to spend more time doing CFD analysis as opposed to wind tunnel analysis. Hence, a recommendation for someone looking at a career in Aerodynamics is to pay very close attention in their CFD modules at University!

One aspect that never ceases to amaze is the vast number of titles/functions within these departments. Tell me if you can distinguish between this sampling of titles: CFD Engineer, Aerodynamics Engineer, CFD Aerodynamicist and Aerodynamics Designer. Tricky isn’t it? I think as a rule of thumb is probably that someone working in CFD has an emphasis on computer programming as well as building models for testing in CFD software, while an Aerodynamicist is focused on designing for fast prototyping (think 3D printing) using CAD software as well as building and using software for analysis of how the model car behaves in the wind tunnel. CFD Engineers have a bias towards computer programming, scripting in the CAD software that is used to run the tests and collect the data (Catia v5 and Unigraphics NX 7.5/8.5 are most prevalent in most teams). Aerodynamics Engineers, as it has been explained to us, is a cross over function that does both Aerodynamics and CFD testing. The gist is that in either case a model has to be designed and built, a programme told how (environmental factors) to test the model and data has to be collected and analysed. Every step in process has its specialists that perform the functions. Of course, we shan’t forget the Aerodynamicists that work on the ‘full-sized’ car, either in the factory or track side (or both). These functions collect and analyse data from tests and the races from the actual car.

I think it is fair to say that Experimental Aerodynamicists and CFD Aerodynamicists in Formula One are ‘brought up’ working on individual pieces of the car (e.g. left side of the front wing) graduating to sections of the car and then on to overseeing the whole car. The bigger the Team the more specialised the function is, smaller teams will give more opportunities to work on several areas of the car. If you are looking to work on a broader range of projects and follow the project from start to finish, you are probably more likely to want to seek a career with companies such as TotalSim or Wirth Research.

In Formula One you would enter your career as as a ‘graduate’. This is a ‘test’ position where you are first given a 3 month contract, then if you successfully pass that you are given a 6 month contract. If you are on top after 9 months you will be given the opportunity for a 12 month contract in a ‘graduate position. You are expected to within 21 – 24 months be ready to move in to a ‘junior’ position, where you would probably spend another 2 years before being a fully fledged Experimental or CFD Aerodynamicist! Depending on the team the hierarchy below the deputy heads of department is no less confusing. Below is a run down of the leadership positions in order of seniority:
Principal – is in charge of the development of the whole car or in some teams half the car.
Project – is similar to a group/team leader, but could work on, e.g, developing future cars.
Group/Team Leader – runs a team that develops a section of the car.
Senior – a senior member of  a group or a team.

Above these positions you will have deputy heads and heads of departments, typically the person at the top is the Head of Aerodynamics to whom other heads will report, e.g. Head of CFD, Head of Aerodynamics Operation, etc. This is a bit of a sweeping statement as teams are not all set up the same way, so if it works differently in your team and I put you lower on the totem pole than you actually are, please don’t take offense as none is intended.

Ok, so what does an employer expect of someone working in Experimental and CFD Aerodynamics? Apart from the typical buzz words, like ‘organised’, ‘good team player’, ‘excellent communicator’, etc, you have to be very good with computers, and that is putting it mildly. As a base you have to have excellent skills in CAD software and knowledge in theoretical Aerodynamics. For some positions you need to have strong programming skills (C++, C#, scripting in CAD software, etc.). You also have to have strong analytical skills to understand the data that comes out of the testing and how to apply changes to improve the model. As these qualities aren’t enough you should have top grades with a degree from a top University (think Russell 25). Pay close attention to your math and physics modules (and show them in your CV) because they matter greatly. If you want to work in motorsport you should involve yourself in every opportunity you have to gain practical experiences in motorsport. Formula Student programmes are excellent forums for this. Anyone considering a career will also have to be prepared to put in the hours, there are high expectations to dedicate yourself to the success of the team. Other businesses also expect you to apply yourself, but are slightly more similar to ‘normal’ companies, but don’t expect ‘9 – 5’.

So if you made it this far without falling asleep, you’ve done well and are obviously a big fan of Experimental and CFD Aerodynamics. I hope we’ve opened the door slightly for you to give a glimpse in to the inner workings of Formula One. Keep an eye out for our next installment.

I leave you with a pretty cool video clip where Martin Brundle explains the Aerodynamics of a F1 car: