Case Study - Rob Thomas

Chief Operating Officer at Mercedes - AMG Petronas -14 years with Mercedes

Rob Thomas graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 1990. He’s since worked in many industries from the oil and gas industry at Shell, as an automotive engineer at Rover and BMW, as well as being the Vice President of GKN Aerospace. Little did he know he would end up working as the Chief Operating Officer at Mercedes – AMG Petronas Motorsport.

He tells us how he’s spent his career ‘chasing the challenge’.

 

Mechanical Engineering is such a broad degree, and touched every element of engineering

I was originally an apprentice at Jaguar Land Rover cars and wanted to do a degree. Even back then Coventry had a really good name in automotive engineering and it was a perfect fit for me.

The blend between theory and practice was really good. We learnt something in a lecture and then had to go and apply it straight away.

This degree gave me that breadth of engineering knowledge and skills to work in a lot of different industries. When I graduated I worked on oil rigs for five years at Shell as a drilling engineer, before moving to automotive to work for Rover and BMW, then into aerospace engineering at GKN, before finally ending up where I am today in Formula One.

 

The key thing in making a successful career is not being afraid to change

If you see something you’re interested in but it looks like a difficult challenge, don’t be afraid to face the challenge head on. The easy option can be to just stay in the role you are in as it is comfortable and secure. That is fine for some but I would encourage people to take some steps out of your comfort zone and go and try different things. Not everything will pay off but you’ll learn, develop and gain new skills. So don’t be afraid to move around, and if you are fully committed to achieving your goals, and enjoy what you are doing, then the promotions; the salary and the rest will come. For me, Mechanical Engineering was quite a tough degree, coming straight in from an apprenticeship, but it was well worth doing because coming out of university I was so prepared. I was in a position to make different choices and have done so throughout my career. It’s really about chasing the challenge.

 

There’s nothing quite like working in Formula One

I’ve worked in different industries from oil and gas, automotive and aerospace, and Formula One is a combination of different elements of these industries all speeded up massively. I joined the team in 2010 and we won our first World Championship in 2014, and we’ve won every one since!

In the Mercedes – AMG Petronas team we have a large Engineering function responsible for the design of the overall car. When the designs, drawings and models are finished and released, they then enter my world. I oversee this process with roughly around 300 people and our objective is to turn these designs into actual parts as quickly as possible and build them into the finished car. The speed of development is very fast so we have to be very quick in all elements of the business. In Operations, we decide whether we make the components in house or buy them through purchasing. We manage all of the planning, the Quality control, the testing and ultimately the finish build of the race cars.

The year is roughly split into two halves. The race part of the year starts in March and goes all the way, 21 races later, to November. In the winter period the whole car changes for the following year and this is our most busy time. Everything we do is constantly developing and moving and we are in a fight and a battle every single day because there are another nine teams that want to beat us. A modern Formula 1 car is extremely complicated and we are constantly looking at how to find more performance through factors such as aerodynamics, tyre management and vehicle dynamics. This means the environment is fluid and very dynamic. That’s what I enjoy the most. We could easily build a car that’s really reliable but it would be very slow so we have to walk a fine line to get the balance between that and having a car with good pace. That’s difficult and you have to have original thinking and a continuous improvement mind-set every day at work.

Last year, when Lewis Hamilton’s car crossed the line in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season, it marked our 5th World Championship win. This year is set to be the hardest one because nobody has ever won six consecutive World Championships, Driver and Constructors, so if we do then we will have made history. That’s a challenge worth chasing!

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