Sabre Cook - Racing Driver/Mechanical Engineer

Sabre Cook
Sabre Cook
Sabre Cook

Sabre Cook lives and breathes motors. With a family upbringing at Grand Junction Motor Speedway, a karting track in Colorado, later in her youth, Cook raced karts a little later than most. Despite the delayed start, she's managed to compete in Formula racing, with W Series being her most recent competition. She even clinched a podium at the only reverse grid race the series had in 2019.

But, although Sabre Cook is a racer at heart, she's got an engineer's brain to go with it. Alongside her racing, Sabre has pursued an engineering career that already has high-profile employers linked to it. Cook has worked on the design for the Renault F1 car, for example, and continues to grow her engineering credentials while still racing, too. We caught up with the multi-talented American to understand what goes on in the engineering world of motorsport.

Motorsport enthusiasts may know what a motorsport engineer is, but how would you explain it to a layman if somebody asked you on the street?

My degree was in mechanical engineering. So for my work in the motorsports world I've mostly done design and data. I haven't worked as a race engineer, so many different roles that an engineer can have in motorsports! I guess it's a very broad question - it depends on, I guess, which role do you want me to specifically speak to?

Well, what does the day-to-day job of a mechanical engineer look like?

Mechanical engineering in regards to motorsports – in my specific experience – I have been involved with mostly design, as well as testing. At Infiniti and Nissan, I was a vehicle test engineer. So testing the fleet vehicles, basically. Testing them against different conditions that they would be exposed to over their life cycles, and then minimizing things like noise, road noise, stuff like that for those types of situations.

When I worked for Renault F1, I did suspension composite design, and then I also did some work for Formula Mazda because they have a new car that's being released this year. So I did final design and integration for that. It's just basically designing mechanical components that fit into the car model that they had started, and that integrated best with their systems and met all of their design criteria.

So are you getting a project manager coming to you saying, "These are the requirements we need you and your team to make components that will perform at their best"? Perhaps perform quietest with road noise, perform cheapest, etc.

In some ways, yes. It depends on what the situation is. So, obviously, with Renault, it's more focused on performance. But then, if you look at when you're working for Infiniti with the fleet cars, then you're looking more at how can it be done well, but also be cost-effective for the amount of vehicles they produce.

Then when you look at Formula Mazda's car, it's supposed to be performance, but also it's a combination of performance and costs because they want it to be an affordable car for people to get at an entry-level, but also be a race car.

So let's stay with the Formula Mazda stuff then. So you're tasked with creating components for it. Are we going into stuff like CAD (Computer-Aided Design), or are you more involved in the production side of things?

No, mostly my work is in CAD. CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application) and SolidWorks is mostly what I've used designing components and evaluating them in those softwares, and the FEA (Fine Element Analysis) in there.

So, despite the motorsport element with that, it's still a desk job, so to speak?

It can be, depending on what the size of the team is. Sometimes, with Formula Mazda, it's much smaller so I was able to go in and out of the shop. Once parts arrived, I could actually help with assembling them onto the car. We have a mock-up that I would go out and use. So it was more hands-on, and it just depends because it varies so much, depending on who you're working for what the situation is.

You've got your career in racing. You mentioned three different engineering sides of things. So how did the parallel work with the engineering come about?

I just loved school from a very young age and really loved Math, especially science. I took a Mechanical Engineering class in high school and really enjoyed it. It was very hands-on, so I really liked that part as well. I decided to go to a school that happened to be in Colorado; it's the number one public engineering school in the States, and I was just lucky that it happened to be in-state.

So it was a perfect place for me to go, in Golden, Colorado. Yeah, I loved it there; [I] had amazing professors, had a great time. It's a smaller school, so it was just a great environment for me. That's how I developed into an engineer.

So what was your next step? Did you leave university with your mechanical engineering degree, and send your resume out?

For me, currently, I'm more focused on the racing side of things. So I wasn't sending out a ton of resumes trying to get a job anywhere and everywhere, because I was more focused on the racing side of things.

I actually ended up applying for the Infiniti Engineering Academy just because I thought it was a great opportunity. So it wasn't that I was actively trying to find a full-on engineering job, but it was such a good opportunity I thought that I should give it a go. So I applied and ended up winning the US Final in the end of 2018, which then got me the placement with Infiniti and Renault F1 in the UK later on in 2019.

So about that win... were you up against other engineering students in some sort of X factor-style competition?

[Laughing] I don't know about X Factor! But yeah, it was a competition. You applied online, answered a bunch of questions, took a test, submitted your resume. Then, out of those, the recruitment agency picked ten of us finalists to go to the Finals, that happened to be actually at COTA in Austin.

So the first day we took an engineering exam, we had interviews, we had group tests... almost like group projects sort of thing where we were competing in groups against each other... like engineering challenges. Then we were given certain information, and we had to make the correct decision as a group of engineers. Then they picked three of us to make it to the finals the next day.

So they took three of us to the track the next day, and we did a [...] technical competition, there literally inside the Renault garage. Then we did some media engagements and interviews, as well. So they could see how we communicate clearly and if we would be a good representative of the brand. Then, after that, based on the technical competition results, they chose a winner, and I happened to win that year. That secured my placement for the next year.

That was on a race weekend, then? If you say you were at the Renault garage?

Yeah, it was. I was actually racing the same weekend in F4 at COTA with the F1 weekend. So we had the engineering competition – I think it was the Tuesday, Wednesday? Wednesday... Thursday...? I can't remember! Then I was on track the rest of the weekend racing.

Let's focus on the Formula One element then, with the Renault side of things. What's your day-to-day, nine-to-five job when you're working for such a large organization?

Nine-to-five... that does not happen in F1! [Laughing]. It's a little more than that... Our start time was about 8.30 am when you had to be there. For me, a typical day at Renault usually... depending on how late I'd worked or how much I had going the night before, I would either work out in the morning and they have a gym there on-site. So I could work out in the morning and then arrive to work after that.

When I was there, mostly it was preparing for the 2020 car, so a lot of it was working on designs for that. Or it could have been adapting past updates... in the beginning, it was updating the current [2019] car and sending out things to put on the car for the next race weekend. Then the rest of it was full-on design for the 2020 [car]. So it was basically working with my seniors, as well as my people that were within the suspension group, on what they needed done for creating the parts in CAD.

And then getting the drawings out, getting the molds out, working with stress, working with production on making sure they could actually feasibly get the parts made the way we wanted it to, or working with manufacturers and seeing if they could create the parts that we wanted. But a lot of time was spent making things in CATIA and integrating that into the full car model.

I know there are updates throughout the season. So you've got this baseline model for the 2020 car, and you're trying to get the best, in your case, suspension modeling as possible for version one of that car, correct?

Yes, yes.

[Fortloc] - And are you looking at updates to have a completely different suspension for, say, Monaco than at Monza... And creating multiple versions of that for the rest of the season or the next season?

I don't know if I'm actually supposed to tell you! Let's just say that yes, there are certain adaptations. But, obviously, we want to create a package that can be pretty consistent throughout the year that then has a range of variability for those different tracks and packages.

And you're doing that throughout the preceding season? You're just hammering these different models out, making sure they all work, and then dealing with suppliers to get these created?

Suppliers for some things, but there's a lot that is done in-house as well. They have a full clean-room/ composites room at Renault, or Alpine now, [where] they create most of the carbon parts, and they have their own autoclaves and everything. It's pretty cool.

And of course, you were working on the designs for a podium-achieving car!

Yeah, I mean you're always trying to get the best design that you can out of it. I mean, for us, it wasn't like a drastic overhaul because, obviously, 2019 to 2020 [had] similar rules. So it wasn't reinventing the wheel at that point, but when there's a massive rule change there's obviously a lot more involved.

Are there times that you, as a race driver yourself, find it frustrating watching other race drivers driving the car that you helped design?

No, not really. I guess I never thought of it that way. I mean, obviously, at the time, we had [Daniel] Ricciardo and Hulk [Nico Hulkenburg] and Esteban [Ocon]. So they're amazing drivers, and I think they deserve to be in those seats. So I guess... maybe if it was someone that was a little less deserving, maybe I would feel that way but, no. No, I guess I was really happy to be part of the team and just happy to try and help them succeed.

Who or what made you want to pursue that career in motorsport as an engineer?

I don't think it was any one person. I think I just liked it myself. I think I just enjoyed it, and it tied in really well with obviously my passion and career as a driver. So it was just something that I just love to do, so I did it.

My dad, as well as other mentors or people that I had around me growing up, were, you know, very mechanically inclined. So having that sort of experience, exposure, and role models definitely helped and obviously fostered my intrigue and interest with the engineering side of things.

Would you say that not having family involved in motorsport would have made you want to pursue a different career?

I think I would have chosen engineering or something in Sim; [...] with mechanical [engineering] you can do so many things, which is kind of why I chose it. Because you can do anything from electrical, computer science, mechanical design; but you can also do aero. I actually took more fluid dynamics classes than anything else, I think, in my undergrad. There's so much that I can do as a mechanical [engineer], that I would love to do, actually.

If you weren't doing motorsport engineering, what do you think you would be doing?

If racecar driving and engineering were banned, I would probably have, maybe, been a veterinarian because I love dogs and animals. I did a little bit of biology but, honestly, not as much as like the material sciences and everything.

But honestly, I just love dogs. When I was a kid, I remember when I was really young, I thought about being a veterinarian. So it was not out of the question, but I obviously pursued other things.

[Fortloc] - Do you have a dog?

We have a family dog, yes. He's a chocolate labrador. He loves the racetrack. He'll ride with me in the car on the way to the track, and when he knows we're going to the racetrack, he gets so excited he barks and spins in circles. I'll take him for slow laps, I have a little [Mazda] Miata, and he'll sit in the passenger seat, strapped in, and go for laps because he just loves riding in cars and loves riding in trucks. It's pretty cute.

I know you deal with a lot of young people on the mentoring side with the racing side of things. But what advice do you have for young people now who might not want to do the racing element, but still want to pursue that career in engineering?

YouTube wasn't a thing when I was younger, but now it is, and there's so many resources out there. There are so many things, and even all the F1 teams... they create career websites, and they have a lot of resources that they just put out there for people to learn more about the sport and make it more accessible.

So I would just say research anything that you're passionate about. Look it up, understand how things work. I can't tell you how many engineers don't even understand how some simple things work and they go get the degrees [...]. Just understand the basics and get more hands-on, because I think a lot of engineers don't necessarily get as hands-on. Especially in the States with our degree requirements versus [...] the way that sometimes the European system works.

So, I think it's important to really get that hands-on experience. Especially as you're working as an engineer with production. Sometimes engineers create things that aren't feasible. They can't be made the way we can easily just create it in CAD. So, understanding all of the steps that go into creating parts and how they're meant to actually integrate with the system, I think it's important to have that hands-on experience.

People always ask, "How do I get into engineering in motorsports?" and I think it's the same as race car driving; if you're not there, if you don't show up for the opportunities, you're not going to get them. So just going to the races, introducing yourself to teams, seeing if there's even volunteer opportunities for you to get involved in your undergrad career. Or even before that in high school! There's so many things that people would be willing to share with you and share their passion. You just have to present yourself and be there for the opportunities.

When you say about the difference in the US and the European school, can you speak more to that?

Yeah, from my experience, knowing I have friends that obviously went to school here in the States and I went to school in the States, and then I have friends that have graduated, went to school in Europe. It tends to be that with [European] engineering programs, they are required to have more internships or industry experience throughout their undergraduate career. Versus in the States, we're not required to have those internships.

So is that something you're suggesting then with young people going to a race track? You're not going to get the internship, but you might get some voluntary experience... a de facto internship of sorts by saying, "Hello," to the Formula 4 team or something?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean volunteering, essentially is an internship sometimes. So there's a lot of teams that are willing to take people in if they're interested in the sport. In the US, we need to be able to keep growing the field of engineers and mechanics that are available, so that way the sport as a whole moves forward.

So many times they bring in European talents and I think that we have plenty of people here that could definitely do the job, they just need to be there and get the experience.

What would you say the most difficult part of that engineering role is?

It depends. I mean, right now, I'm not working full-time anywhere as an engineer. I do independent contracting essentially.

Honestly, working for a big corporation like [Nissan], the hardest thing for me was understanding how different the timelines can be. How long the timelines can be for big corporations and being patient, and understanding that change and everything takes time with those sort of situations. That was honestly the biggest challenge for me.

So when you're used to Grand Junction, you want to get a change that'll be ready [in] the next couple of days. You're doing your timelines way more extended when you're working for such a big organization.

With Renault, everything is very fast-paced. Everyone is extremely passionate, pushing every minute to get what they need to do because everyone's very competitive and it's just... it's a different perspective when you work for those bigger corporations.

What changes are there within the different sized organization structures? Can you do the same job at all of them?

I mean, you could essentially do the same thing at all of the places if you wanted to. I did not, but you could essentially do the same... similar job in all situations; just the environments, the timelines, and the tools are going to be different.

What changes between a Formula Mazda-type team and a Formula One team would you see?

Budget. And then, with Formula Mazda, I was able to have way more free-range. I would create a part that was part of the engine and then create something that was part of the exhaust, and then create something that was part of suspension, and create something that was interior in the body panels, or the front wing! There was a lot of things that I was able to do. With Renault, you have more of a specialized role that you get put in.

So you kind of did that backward I suppose. You went from being niched down into a very specific role and then expanded? Compared to, I would guess, a lot of people who have that generic field, and then come into being a suspension engineer?

Not necessarily. I think honestly people do it in so many different ways, I don't think there's one way.

What do engineers do in-between seasons? Is it just planning for next season's car?

With Renault, you work in the beginning of the year. Let's say, January, until car launch, you're pretty much like finishing sewing up that year's car, making sure everything's ready for that year's car. Then the next few months are optimizing whatever's come out and then updating it to get the best out of it for the next few months. Then usually, August-time, it starts to transition pretty heavily into car build for the next year. Then, obviously, the last half of the year is extremely pushed for car build for the next season. So, that's like a rough outline of how it happens.

With Formula Mazda, they don't put out a new car all the time. So, this is a new one; I worked December through to June pretty heavily on finishing design and everything like that. Then, the final bits of integration happened when I was racing in W Series, so I wasn't there for this. They've got the first running model of the car done, and then they're doing testing and basically updates on the car.

So it's almost similar to Renault, in that you put in full focus on the design, you get a car, and then you work on updating it and increasing the amount of vetted things to work out any bugs that happen. Then you have, essentially, the fully optimized car. And then you sell that final version of the car.

So it's always an iterative process? You make and then just improve, and then the next year you make a better car than you did before.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think every design, every engineering position that you're ever going to be in is always an iterative process. Relying on past experiences and data that you can collect, from anything that you do, is key to being a good engineer. And learning from things that you've done in the past in order to make things better in the future.