Richard Hopkirk – from the F1 pitwall to Ben Ainslie Racing's America's Cup campaign

If you wanted a poster child for the potential glamour of a modern engineering career, you’d be hard pushed to come up with a better candidate than Richard Hopkirk. A graduate of Cambridge with a first class MEng degree, he won a scholarship to Harvard where he gathered a 2nd Masters, before joining the McLaren Formula 1 team straight after his academic career.

The kind of ability that Hopkirk had for maths could well have opened lucrative doors in the City, building financial models for hedge funds, but he wanted something more practical. “I like making stuff – as a kid I used to tinker around in my shed and make rubbish contraptions. I love maths and theory, but it’s much more stimulating when you’re using it to make something.” Something like a Formula 1 car, or an America’s Cup boat.

He isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty, and took a gap year commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, followed by six years as a platoon commander in the Territorial Army. He was a very enthusiastic rower through school and university, and these days competes regularly in the triathlon. When the going gets tough, you’ll find him down in the workshop, or in the black bowels of the boat, surrounded by the flickering LEDs and laptops that are such a big part of modern America’s Cup boat work.

It was that same desire to be hands on that led him to the pit lane of F1. “After five years working in simulation at McLaren I was asked to move trackside for a few races to try and build links between the simulation and race-engineering teams.  I also had a strong interest in race strategy, and as luck would have it a position on the pitwall as tactician became free at the same time and so I ended up doing both jobs.  It was a dream ticket, and meant I got to travel to every race in the season.”

These jobs have direct links to his role at Land Rover BAR as Head of Systems and Analysis; as race tactician he was directly involved in the process of performance analysis and the car operation. “The race engineers are responsible for the car set-up, and the overall execution of a GP weekend. They’re the bridge between the drivers and the rest of the engineering organisation.”

“The tactician focussed on the operational-detail, so that the race engineer could take time to view the big picture.  In practice sessions that meant executing the run plan, getting the car into clear air, reminding the driver of procedures.  In the race I’d be talking the driver through the strategy, and watching the data and television feed for incidents so we could react immediately. To stop information overload, all the messages to the driver went through the tactician – I’d talk to them on the straights so as not to distract them in the corners.”   

“I think this role is most like the tactician’s role on the boat, that’s Giles Scott, who is handling a lot of the strategic thinking for Ben so he can focus on flying the boat.”

In his first year, Hopkirk was assigned to a largely unknown driver called Lewis Hamilton… “It was just when Lewis was starting in 2007, and I got involved with him through the winter…  our engineering team had a very good relationship with Lewis, he was open, extremely talented, and keen to learn. There was zero expectation for him, even after the first race when he got on the podium. But then after the second race he podiumed again, and by the third we realised he was a serious title contender. We were lucky to have a competitive car and he was clearly a stellar driver. His career just rocketed from there.”

“I did the role for three years. It was an amazing experience. In that sort of role you are at the coal face of what a big team is doing – you’ve got this entire machine of 500 people blowing their way through a couple of hundred million pounds a year trying to put these cars on the start line, and actually being on the pit wall talking to the driver minute by minute through the race you can see first-hand where all that effort it’s going.”

“That experience certainly helps me here at Land Rover BAR, our ‘Race Engineer’ is Rob Wilson [Sailing Team Coach].  I can appreciate both what he is trying to do, and how our analysis may be able to help.  Then I can try to manage the team to provide the right sort of information in the simplest way possible.  Getting a strong, cooperative link between the sailing and design teams will be key to our success in this cup.”

Hopkirk’s role as Head of Systems & Analysis, bringing in his experience from the world of Formula 1, is just one small part of the knowledge transfer that the team is undertaking. It’s a department that didn’t exist in Cup teams ten years ago and it speaks volumes to the spectacular increases in computing power that it now ranks as one of the fundamental pillars of performance development. It is also an area that could radically change the way the team approaches their time on the water but more about that in part two of this story.

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