Bernadette Collins

The deafening roar of the turbocharged engines as racing cars circle the track at speeds of up to 215 MPH, the fumes of petrol permeating the adrenalin-soaked atmosphere.

At the pit wall Bernadette Collins, Head of Race Strategy for Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One™ Team, is listening to the information feeding into her headphones from Mission Control - track temperature, the impact of rain, potential tyre changes, the lap times of rivals… What instructions will be relayed to team drivers Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll as they hurtle around the course? Will they stay with the pre-arranged race plan or adapt to unexpected conditions?

Split second decisions made now could be the difference between a place on the podium or not.

The race day frenzy is a long way from Bernadette’s childhood in the tranquil Fermanagh countryside, where she spent much of her time helping out on her grandparents’ farm. But perhaps there were clues even then of her future direction.

“It was all hands on deck,” she says now. “You have to work hard on a farm and I was very inquisitive about how things worked. I was always taking things apart, trying to see why things worked that way. I was a bit of a handful really. Even though there was just me and my younger brother, we grew up in a large extended family so there was always someone to be helped.”

After A-Levels Bernadette chose a mechanical engineering course at Belfast’s Queen’s University, partly because she enjoyed maths and physics but also because the five-year course was broad enough to give her a wide career choice when she graduated. And one aspect of her time there hit the jackpot when it came to leading her to where she is now. The Formula Student Project in her fourth and fifth year, which was organised by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, involved designing, making and testing small racing cars.

“I really enjoyed all my time at Queen’s,” she says, “but that really stood out. That was my first real insight into motor sport as a career. At that time I hadn’t even been to a motorbike rally, but here was something I could see myself being part of in the future, working as a team, with people I could learn from. I loved being able to design something and see it through. And getting such quick feedback on what you designed. When you’re young and starting out in most fields it’s hard to know if you’re doing the right things but in motorsport you know very soon if the design is good or bad. It either works on the track or it doesn’t!“

It was also where Bernadette first drove a racing car, or at least a trial version her team had created. ‘I was the lightest at that time, so was chosen to drive it. You just hit the throttle as hard as you can for the straight line drag test. The only problem was the pedal box was so far away as I was also the shortest in the team. I loved the adrenalin and excitement of driving but it’s not where my natural ability lies.”

Now with her eyes fixed on a career in motorsport, Bernadette took a one-year graduation scheme course with McLaren, which allowed her to experience several of the aspects of the racing industry, working in the design, aero dynamic and systems departments, spending time in the wind tunnel and various workshops, her first understanding of how a Formula One team pulls together and makes the best of what they have.

Bernadette stayed on with McLaren full time after the course ended, largely working on the design of gearboxes. To learn more she volunteered to join the team at GT racing meets. “It was those cold weekends on racetracks around the UK that made me realise I wanted to be in racing”, she says now.

In 2015 she joined Force India, helping them to fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship the next year. Force India later became Racing Point and is now Aston Martin, where Bernadette is Head of Race Strategy.

The racing season is frenetic and endlessly challenging, but she loves being part of a team that is currently on the up. A recent highlight was Sebastian Vettel’s second place on the podium at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on June 6th this year.

“That was our first podium, a really important milestone for us,” she says.

Although she featured on Forbes list of 30 Under 30 for Manufacturing and Industry in Europe and was an ambassador for the United Kingdom government’s Make it in Great Britain campaign, Bernadette does not feel comfortable seeing herself as a role model in what has been a male dominated industry.

“I don’t think what I do is important enough but I am passionate about getting more women into engineering and also to promote STEM subjects, to make people from all backgrounds know what is possible if you work hard enough.”

Even in the relatively short time since she joined the world of Formula One, Bernadette has seen a significant improvement in the number of women getting involved.

“I might often be the only female engineer travelling to the races with our team,” she says, “but, overall, about half the strategists in racing are now female. That’s pretty good!”