Meet the new Formula E Engineer of the Year Winner

by Modis on July 20, 2018

Formula E racing is the newest form of motorsports, highlighting the energy efficiency of electric transportation. The 2017/18 Formula E Grand Prix, or the E-Prix, held in ten different countries around the globe, culminated in a doubleheader race through Manhattan in July. And for the first time ever, race sponsor Modis presented its Formula E Engineer of the Year Award to Leo Thomas, technical director of the Techeetah Formula E Team.

As a child, Thomas had the opportunity to attend some races, so when the time came to decide what to do for a career, he chose to study automotive engineering at the ISAT (Institut Supérieur de l’Automobile et des Transports) in France.

“During the first year of school, I did a month-long training period on a race team, which was doing GT1 racing at the time,” he said. “I did another training period the second year, and from the third year I started to do a proper racing season.”

After completing his five years of training, Peugeot hired Thomas as a data analyst in its LMP1 program.

“Unfortunately in 2012, that program came to an end, and I had several options,” Thomas said. “Along with some friends, I decided to start my own motorsport simulation business, with a simulator based in Monaco, and in parallel, I worked as an engineer helping to set up the Sebastian Loeb racing team.”

Getting into Formula E

Thomas worked his way up to head of the technical team, managing all aspects of the organization, and that’s where he first became involved in Formula E racing, which launched its first race in 2014.

“I could see from the beginning Formula E was a really great category, and when a friend was looking for an engineer, I decided to go there,” Thomas said.

“I think Formula E is a very good compromise for engineers who like motorsports because it’s actually proper engineering, which is not often the case in other series motorsports,” Thomas said. “You can do simulation, you can do research, you can do physics, and because it’s quite small compared to Formula 1, you can go really deep into your specialty, but you can also have an overall view and see the global picture, which is quite interesting.”

What does a racing engineer do?

According to Thomas, racing engineers can specialize in a lot of different areas, such as simulation, software coding and hardware development, including cab design and bench technician.

“In proper racing, you have the race engineer, which is the link between all the engineers and the driver, and you have performance engineers, who are setting all the details in the car to extract the most performance from it,” Thomas said. “Then you have the system engineer looking at all the electronics when the car is on the track, and the person in charge of the energy and efficiency – which is really important for Formula E because it’s all about efficiency.”

“So whatever your specialty, you can find a way to work in Formula E,” he said.

For the Win

As the Formula E Techeetah Racing Director, Thomas’ job was first to make sure that he had the correct people and resources in place for each race, in order to extract the most out of the regulations and beat the competition.

His second job was to ensure the engineers stayed within the race rules and kept the car reliable, while also keeping an eye on the performance versus cost ratio so that for a given budget, they gained the most benefit in terms of laptime and other parameters.

“In summary my job was to be sure that the car, the driver, and the engineers were all working together, because you can have the best engineers on your team, but if they are not working together – if there is not a good team spirit – then it will never work,” Thomas said.

How the Simulator Works

Formula E racing limits the amount of real-life testing, so simulation becomes a huge part of the research and preparation.

“With the simulation, we are trying to model as closely as possible our real car in all aspects,” Thomas said. “This allows us to prepare everything beforehand, and to know everything about the track and the car so that when we get to the race, we are just focused on the driving.”

Especially on the Formula E courses which run through large metropolitan cities, training on the sim helps the driver and the team to learn the track so they know how to position the car even when you can’t see around a corner, or when tall buildings cast dark shadows on the course.

“The sim is good training for the engineering team to use all the systems in the car, which is not that simple, and it’s a very vital tool for us and for the driver as well,” Thomas said.

In the case of Techeetah, the hyper-realistic race simulator Thomas and the team developed made all the difference. That’s because the other contestants built their own motors, but for the 2018 E-Prix, Techeetah decided to purchase a motor, rather than build it themselves.

“This made more sense because we could be sure of the performance, but the big downside of this was that there was a 15-day difference in testing between the other teams and us,” Thomas said. “That is one of the reasons we needed a better simulator than the others because that was the only way for us to compensate.”

But it was worth it at the end, when Jean-Eric Vergne from the Techeetah team emerged as this year’s driver champion of the E-Prix and Thomas won the Modis award.

“My only goal was to win races, so winning this award was kind of the cherry on the cake,” Thomas said.

“I need to thank Modis because as far as I know, this is the first time in motorsports that the engineers have been awarded for anything,” he said. “And to be honest, even though it’s an award for me, it’s really an award for the engineering team, because alone you cannot do anything, and this shines the light on the job that all the team are doing. ”

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