Suniya Sadullah Khan became the first Formula 1 engineer from Pakistan in 2012 and to date remains the only one.
As a design and race operations support engineer for the Williams Formula 1 Team, she was responsible for ensuring race mechanics achieved a 3.0s average pit-stop time and provided support to engineers at the race track.
Dawn caught up with her to talk about her experiences as an F1 engineer.
How did you get into engineering?
I was 12 when I watched my first ever Formula 1 race and fell in love. For me, it wasn’t just the thrill of watching cars race each other at 250 km/h, I was fascinated by the constant technical and engineering skill involved in designing these race cars. It was then that I decided I wanted to work not just in motorsport, but for a specific team called Williams which competed in Formula 1.
As there was no specific path for a girl from Pakistan to follow to work in Formula 1, I realised I had to forge my own path. This included studying science subjects at O and A Levels to getting scholarships from universities abroad and more importantly convincing my parents to let me be the first girl in my family to study abroad for my bachelors. I got a part scholarship at university but my financial circumstances were such that I worked part time for three out of the four years I studied in England, as a cleaner and a waitress.
During my masters, I studied and worked as a waitress during the week and worked for free as a mechanic on weekends to gain motorsport experience. Needless to say, my mother was horrified that her daughter was choosing to work as a mistri but, she still respected my decision.
Having studied the right subjects, was Formula 1 engineering an easy industry to break into?
I started with a bachelors in Aerospace Engineering and then went to Cranfield University in the UK for my masters in Motorsport Engineering and Management. For the group project we successfully designed, built, tested and marketed a new front crash structure for a Formula Ford chassis
I finally managed to get an interview at Williams F1. A week after the interview, I was rejected as I didn’t have enough experience for that position. However, the interviewer was impressed by my enthusiasm and thought I should apply for another role they had available.
The only problem, it was in admin whereas I had dreamt of becoming a race engineer. I took the job and decided to prove I could do more. Within six months, I was doing extra work with the race team. A year later, I was formally part of their race operations team as an engineer. I finally got there.
What was your role with the engineering team?
My work involved a lot of collaboration between different departments, creative problem solving and working to extremely tight deadlines. It also involved analysing data at the smallest detail — looking for even 0.1s improvement.
Looking back, it wasn’t just the technical skills that I developed in my time there but also the way to solve problems and work to tight deadlines under immense pressure.
My stand out memory was being tasked with reducing race pit-stop times (the time taken to change all four tyres on a car during a race).This involved working with the mechanics, the design engineers, the aerodynamicists and the drivers and their race engineers — analysing hours of footage just to shave off 1 second per pit-stop. While I was there, we reduced the time from 3.5 seconds to 2.1 and after I left they reduced it even further to 1.8s — that means 20 people managed to change the tires on a car in under 2 seconds — perfect synchronisation.
Originally published in Dawn, December 20th, 2018