On track for life in the fast lane

Stephanie Travers standing with F1 driver Lewis Hamilton

Interview: Jo Caird. Photo by Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team.

Formula 1’s Stephanie Travers (MSc Chemical Engineering 2017)

My weekends growing up in Zimbabwe were all about watching Formula One on the TV with my family. My dad had an engineering workshop, as did my grandfather, so I was always surrounded by engineering and it sparked an interest. I knew I wanted to be involved from a very young age – I just didn’t know how.

I moved to the UK aged 10. I went on to work as hard as I could in the STEM subjects and started researching degree subjects that would get me into F1. Chemical engineering stood out to me, especially when I found someone in trackside fluid engineering that had taken that path. They inspired me to just work as hard I could at Imperial, to find my perfect position.

It was an incredible and surreal feeling to be so close to these high-speed machines"

And then it happened. I was selected from more than 7,000 candidates to become a trackside fluid engineer with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team, and it was an incredible and surreal feeling to finally be so close to these high-speed machines. These days I work for Petronas, the title and technical partner to the team, and we provide all the fluids that go into the car. It’s nerve-wracking but I’m still able to focus on the job in hand.

I take fluid samples for analysis in the run-up to each race weekend, using three critical pieces of equipment – a spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a viscometer. All this ensures that we’re compliant with the regulations of the FIA, the governing body for F1, as well as maintaining optimum engine performance and measuring wear on the engine and gearbox. If we have some contamination with our fuel, we can face disqualification for the race weekend. That means finishing the race with no points, and every point is so crucial.

Analysis is done before we even enter the race weekend and then at various stages, taking multiple samples each day. If there is an issue in a practice session, the team may decide that they would like to take an emergency sample. When that happens, I’m summoned on the radio and they get me into the garage as soon as possible. As soon as the car comes in from the track, I have to be as quick as possible to take that sample, seal the car’s oil port back up and head into the lab and analyse it. Every single second, even in a practice session, is so important for the team to set up the car and prepare for qualifying for the race at the end of the week.

It’s all about keeping an inner cool in those high-pressure situations. You have to be so precise. When the pressure’s on I try to keep emotion out of it, but sometimes when there’s no analysis to be done we can relax and just enjoy the race. That’s when the emotions come out, and I’m back to being that young girl caught up in the thrill of it all.

Stephanie Travers is a Trackside Fluid Engineer with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team.