Bernie Collins began her Formula 1 career at McLaren, before moving on to Force India where she became head of race strategy, through the Racing Point and then Aston Martin years. She stepped away from the team last year and now helps fans understand the sport via a regular post-race column right here on F1.com, and on Sky and F1 TV.

    Bernie is this week's guest on our Beyond The Grid podcast, and you can read every word from her interview with host Tom Clarkson in the transcript below, listen to the episode in the audio player, or head here to catch it on your preferred platform.

    Tom Clarkson: Bernie, thank you for coming on the show. It's great to see you. Are you enjoying civilian life away from the stresses of the pit wall?

    Bernie Collins: I'm definitely enjoying civilian life. It's been a very nice break. It's been nice to not be going to every race. It's been nice to watch a few at home or the few I’ve managed to watch down the pub has been quite nice just to have, like, an overall view of everything and not be so embedded in it for a little while. It's been really good.

    TC: To actually see 20 cars on the grid, and not only two…

    BC: Yeah, exactly, because you sort of end up watching your own little race of people just ahead and behind you and to see all of it again has been quite nice.

    TC: Do you miss the adrenaline rush, though, of the pressure of the pit wall, making decisions on the spot on the hoof?

    BC: 100%. Like, I really loved what I did. I loved my job. I love being on pit wall, part of the team. I really enjoyed the team I was part of. So it was that was a real difficult thing to walk away from.

    And you miss – it's going to sound really selfish – the influence that you have on the race. So before, I made a real difference to the outcome of the race or what happened for that team, you know, particularly. You do miss that, get on the pit wall and making those decisions.

    Knowing what's going on. From the outside, we can make assumptions about what's going on. But actually knowing what's going on is very different.

    TC: Has your view of Formula 1 changed since you stopped being with a team?

    BC: I don't think necessarily my view of the sport has changed. I'm more aware of the fans’ views now that I wasn't before because I wasn't doing so much reading on social media or the press or what's going on around it because you're so focused on what you're doing, you're not doing all of that. So I've got more of an understanding of an outside view of things than I had before, but I don't think it's necessarily changed my view of the sport.

    TC: Well, for people who were watching the 2022 Hungarian Grand Prix, you're the person that Sebastian Vettel was referring to when he asked over the radio…

    Sebastian Vettel [Team Radio message]: "Can Bernie hear me? I nearly forgot. Thank you very much, Bernie. Thank you for... I was only there for two years – one and a half – with you, but it's been good fun and you're a great person. Thank you, big kiss."

    Aston Martin engineer [Team Radio message]: "She’s gone very red, Sebastian."

    TC: It was your last race for Aston Martin and Sebastian wanted to give you a public thank you. Did that mean a lot?

    BC: It would have meant more if he hadn't [announced his retirement from F1] and stole my thunder! But, yeah, you know, to have someone of his stature. He came in a four times world champion. Very strong persona, very well respected in the paddock and has often in the past been so critical of strategy that that was a real sort of, ‘oh, how is this going to go?’ moment.

    And then for him to sort of embrace what we did and get behind and be on board with it, and then to have that sort of relationship to the point where he was grateful for the work that you put in, that was, yeah, felt really special and it's nice to have been respected to that level.

    TC: How apprehensive were you? Because you're right, some of Ferrari's strategies he did get stuck into and I'm thinking I think there was the 70th anniversary race at Silverstone. He was very critical over the radio. How did it feel working with him?

    BC: Yeah. Well you know, when he first arrives, you know, he's coming to the team, you know, he's going to be there for testing. And obviously as a strategist, I didn't go to testing and you don't immediately start to build a relationship. And then you're trying to go through some races that you've done in the past and start him understanding how we make calls on things, why we make calls and things, how we build the tyre model, how we form our strategy, how we interact with the media, all these things.

    So it was very daunting, knowing that he has been so critical in the past. Even in the strategy meetings still, he would ask a lot of questions – very on top of what's going on. Really wanted to understand the plans. It did feel a bit of a spotlight on strategy in that moment, just because you wanted to get off on the right foot. It was very important to start off on the right foot. And, you know, we did we did that pretty successfully, I think.

    And he was definitely a lot kinder in person than what I expected. And maybe that was just expectation managed. But, you know, the relationship was really great.

    READ MORE: From Monza magic to press conference laughs – Our writers pick their favourite Vettel moments

    TC: What stood out about Sebastian, what made him a strategist dream, if we can call it that.

    BC: Two things: he had very good understanding of what you're trying to achieve and why it might or might not work. And he had a very good memory for what had happened in the past. He would often have gone through some previous races, and he'd say, ‘oh, what about like in, I don't know, like 2010?’ I was like, ‘I've not looked that far back’. So then you'd have to go and look at that one.

    You know, a lot of the great drivers, which Sebastian did, could really build a picture of what was going on around them and what you were trying to achieve as a strategy so he could imagine, you know, the lines that we have on the paper as it was happening in real life.

    TC: So he would be in constant communication with you on the pit wall?

    BC: He would always communicate through his race engineer, but he would always be discussing what was happening in the strategy. And you hear it a lot from those drivers that are fit to watch a TV screen and say ‘so-and-so has pitted. I've seen them come in the pattern on the TV. I know what's going to happen next’ – and they're building the image of what it's looking like.

    TC: What you're saying about Sebastian, I think says two things. One is clearly, you were very good at what you did, but also the relationship between strategist and driver is clearly very important. I'd like to look into both of those things. First of all, let's talk about you and strategy. In the hierarchy of a race team, where does the head of strategy sit?

    BC: it varies a little bit team to team, let's say. Generally you have a head of engineering or head of trackside performance, whatever the name may be given, that sits on the pit wall is responsible for the performance of both cars and generally strategy sits within that group. So you'll report to whoever that is on the pit wall that head group, so overall responsible for everything that's happening at the track.

    Generally you report into them and generally the head of strategy role is aligned, with race engineering or with the race engineers, but actively making a decision. And the race engineer, although may question it, doesn't generally go against it.

    TC: Are you an engineer in your head, or are you a mathematician, or are you both?

    BC: I'm more an engineer because that was my degree. My degree was engineering, whereas most of the strategists on the pit wall, their degree is mathematics. It's a bit of an abnormal route that I've ended up taking to get to being a strategist.

    TC: Was it quite a gulf to make the jump from engineering to strategy? BC: Yeah, 100%, because the thing with engineers and probably mathematicians as well, but with engineers in particular is we like an exact answer. So when I was doing performance engineering in my previous role, there was a brake balance that was right. There was a right answer to the question. And in a lot of engineering, there's one right answer, and that's what I like about engineering.

    Whereas in strategy, there's a lot of averaging of lap times to get a degradation or averaging of track improvement. And there's a lot of statistics on averaging and probabilities and things that don't sit well with the old engineer in me who likes an answer, and that took a lot of adjustment. That took a long adjustment phase between the two. TC: So how much of the work that you do over a race weekend doesn't get used?

    BC: Loads of it! So like the way I explain it is that if you think we can look at a one stop race and it appears like the strategist makes one decision, whereas actually we make decisions every lap. Every lap, we’re deciding to stop or not stop. Every lap we’re deciding if there's a Safety Car, what we would do.

    AUSTIN, TEXAS - OCTOBER 22: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Aston Martin F1 Team prepares to drive
    Bernie worked with Seb Vettel at Aston Martin

    TC: Is that all pre-planned or are you coming up with solutions on the hoof, depending on what's going on around you?

    BC: There's a mix of both. You'll have started with your grid position, what you think your tyres are going to do, what you think the track's going to do, and you'll have a plan. We hear the ‘plan ABCs’, whatever. And you’ll know, for one of those plans when your Safety Car window will open.

    So if you're just following that plan, then, yeah, you’ll open the Safety Car window about the right time. But based on who's in your Safety Car window or how the track’s evolving or the feedback from the driver, these are all evolving, so they're changing all the time. So every lap you’re trying to re-check your model, re-check where you're at.

    Does everything that you thought at the start still apply or have things changed? Often if there's an accident or an incident or whatever. that changes it. But you're continuously reevaluating that, which is what makes it tough.

    TC: Is this what Tom McCulloch, who's the engineering boss at Aston Martin, is this what he calls situational awareness?

    BC: 100% He uses that expression a lot. And he uses the expression, ‘big picture’. You've got some big picture people on the pit wall who aren't ‘in the numbers’, they're just observing.

    It is about being aware of what someone else has done around you, how they're likely to react to what you're doing, and if they're having a bad day or a good day, because you can go into the race and think of who your competitors are likely to be and actually that might change quickly during the race, or we might be on for a better result. Often, it's more difficult to recognize a better result that you're on for.

    TC: Are you naturally a risk taker or are you quite conservative in your approach on the pit wall?

    BC: Well, it's interesting when you ask the question directly after asking about Tom, because one of the things in strategy and engineering and any of the pit wall stuff in any of the engineering side is you need to understand your team. So I was probably quite risky. In qualifying, if I thought that we were safe, if I would be more inclined to take the risk and not run again.

    So I'd always be on that side of things a little bit in my mentality, whereas Tom was always more conservative and you needed that balance, right? You needed one of us to play off the other. So I knew that if he thought we were safe, we were definitely safe. And equally he knew if I thought we weren't safe, then we definitely weren’t! You get to know the personalities you're working with.

    TC: That's an interesting point: it's not just the races, you're involved in run plans for qualifying, even practice as well.

    BC: I think there's a lot of people who contribute. If you think of going into a race, there's lots of answers that a strategist wants before the race. You want to check your pit loss, you want to check your tyre model, you want to check all these things. So it's up to me to ask that those things get done in practice sessions, and to push that we get the answers to what happens in practice sessions.

    Obviously the engineer needs some time to set up the car, the driver needs some time to practice qualifying, but there's lots of questions that you need. Now, some of those are standard questions that we try and answer every week. But sometimes it would be, you know, ‘is four or five laps on the soft [tyre] enough to work out tyre degradation?’.

    There is this mix of people trying to get different answers out of those practice sessions. And, you know, most importantly at the moment, trying to decide which tyres you run in Practice 2? Which are the most likely tyres you're going to run in the race? Which tyres do you not need any information on? What do you need to save for Saturday? There's so many things you end up feeding into.

    TC: We're talking at the Las Vegas Grand Prix. New racetrack for everyone in the pit lane. Does that make this even more stressful than normal?

    BC: The way to think of strategy through a race weekend, is you go in with a pre-event model and every session you're trying to build confidence in an element of that pre-event model. It might be pit loss, it might be tyre degradation, it might be the car pace, it might be what other tyres people have.

    So every session, and then into every lap of the race, you're building more confidence in the model you're working to. And in this race weekend, in a new race weekend, your starting model is very poor. You're totally on simulation. You don't know what the track's going to be like.

    You don't know what the improvements are going to be like. So there's lots of things that is really uncertain to start of this weekend and you're still, you know, removing uncertainty lap on lap, but from a much poorer starting position.

    TC: So experience counts more at a race like this than Barcelona, where we've been 100 times before?

    BC: I think so. And a lot of it is reaction and a lot of it's being very regimented in how you split the resource. So for example, in Free Practice 2, if you don't get a good read on pit loss, then you need someone working on that in the race for another car or whatever. You need to be very split in the race about who's looking at what elements, what are you going to be fit to eliminate quickly and what are you working on? The most effective teams will do well at a new race.

    READ MORE > THE STRATEGIST: Did the wrong strategy cost AlphaTauri P7 in their constructors' battle with Williams?

    TC: So at Aston Martin, how many people do you have back at the factory supporting you? Do you call it Mission Control?

    BC: Yeah, Mission Control. I think a lot of people call it Mission Control. I think a lot of the strategy groups work the same. You've got a ‘head of race strategy’ or some other title on the pit wall, you have one strategist per car back at base – one would be looking, in my case, at Sebastian, and one would be looking at Lance – and they're looking at their pit windows and their lap times.

    Then you'll have one or two others that are looking at competitor analysis or other aspects of strategy. And then for race day in particular, you end up with something like three to four volunteers that are listening to the radio comms of other teams or looking at the videos of other teams. So on race day you end up with a team of around seven. But in normal strategy land, you've probably got a team of like three.

    TC: I wanted to ask you about some case studies: do you know if there is a Safety Car on Lap 7, what you're going to do before the race starts?

    BC: You'll have a pretty good idea, based on where you think you will be on Lap 7, what you think the gaps would be to others, what you think your pit window will look like, what you think the life of the final tyre will be. So you'll have a pretty good idea.

    TC: Okay, so let let's take some real-life instances: Russia 2015. Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez pits on Lap 12 during a Safety Car, and then has to do something like 41 laps at the end of the race. What made you pit him then? Because it was a big ask. I know he's the tyre whisperer, but it was still a big ask.

    BC: It was a massive ask. I think that we realized that was our best chance of a good result. So it was worth the risk and it was possible with Checo because he was so good on the tyres. But it was way outside our tyre life.

    TC: When he pitted, did he know that he had to get to the end of the race?

    BC: We knew that was what we were going to try and do, yeah, but that wasn't planned in advance. We had a pit window which is limited by your life on the final tyre, but you get to that and you think ‘this is the only chance we have of getting some really good points here’ and we just go for it.

    And you hope that he can manage and extend. And I don't actually remember what he came back on the radio with, but there was a lot of, you know, hoping that we would make it, really hoping you make it.

    TC: I'm sensing this was definitely a Bernie Collins strategy call! I’m imagining Tom McCulloch next you going, ‘oh my god Bernie’.

    BC: I actually think that because I only started a few races earlier and only started doing strategy, I actually think a big part of that podium is down to Tom.

    TC: And do you need sign-off from someone higher up the chain like [Force India Deputy Team Principal] Bob Fernley when you're doing a risky one like that?

    BC: No. Strategy was left to strategists. Setup is left to engineers. If the call proved to be wrong, then we would discuss it afterwards. We’d go through it and review and analyse it, but never in the time that I was there did Otmar [Szafnauer, Racing Point Team Principal] or anyone of that sort of level come on the radio and go ‘oh, I wouldn't have done that’.

    Nobody did that. That was all left for analysis, post-race. Now, when I started, obviously because of my inexperience, a lot of those discussions were managed between Tom and I. And, you know, I leaned very, very heavily on Tom at the beginning. And then gradually over the years that equalized more. But no, above Tom, there was no interaction.

    You know, I think probably Tom was getting a lot more feedback than I was on some sort of direct channel to him, but it never came to me.

    TC: Let's fast forward a year to Monaco 2016. You've got your feet well under the table now, and it's Checo again. He qualifies eighth. You get him to third ahead of Vettel's Ferrari and Nico Rosberg's Mercedes. It was wet-dry. It sounds to me like this was the perfect Bernie Collins race.

    BC: I actually always felt I was reasonably strong in the wet. But we've had recently some terrible wet races, but that was one where we boxed [Nico] Hulkenberg a lap earlier. He actually emerged behind a Williams that was trying to get from wet to dry and stay out, so he lost loads of positions. It was one of those ones that got away from Hulkenberg, where actually he was ahead of Checo at the time.

    TC: And he finished sixth still in the race, didn’t he?

    BC: Yeah. It was one of those ‘what could have been’ for Nico. Checo, actually, on the in-lap, the next lap, said ‘I think we should do one more’, because he'd seen that Nico had got caught behind the Williams.

    So we extended the first one, we extended the wet-to-intermediate tyre a few laps and managed to overcut some people and then on the inter-to-dry we were very aggressive, which maybe I could take more credit for, but definitely not the wet-to-intermediate. The intermediate-to-dry we were very aggressive and undercut some people on that one.

    Checo was totally right because Nico had got caught behind the Williams, but we were expecting the Williams wouldn't try and extend the wet tyre. That was so outside of our thought process at that time.

    TC: When you talk about Checo, is he one of the best drivers you've ever worked with? Because I feel his reputation has taken a bit of a hammering this year alongside Max Verstappen.

    BC: I think his reputation has taken a hammering and I think when we went into the start of the year, he was very strong and I was surprised at how strong he was against Max. I 100% have a soft spot for Checo, because Checo for many years was the person scoring points in the team doing things like the Russia 2015 strategy, doing what was asked of him.

    He was very easy to work with in terms of going through the analysis afterwards. He was very easy to work if you had a bad qualifying, because he would immediately turn it around and be good for the race. He’s not the driver that Max is. Max is a much stronger driver. He's probably not the strategist that Sebastian was, because Sebastian is a much stronger strategist. But he was very good at the tyre management stuff and he worked very well with his old engineer, Tim, on improving his qualifying.

    At one stage he was very poor in qualifying, which was definitely his weakness, so he worked at improving that. I would say Sebastian is probably the best driver I've worked with, but Checo in that team with the pit wall group that we had, that’s not that much different today, did a lot of good things with that car.

    TC: I'm interested that you say Checo can have a bad qualifying come back, talk to his engineer and have moved on by the race the next day, because one of the observations I got of him this year is that he did get himself into a slump that he couldn't get out of. But you're saying, back then was capable of moving on.

    BC: It was amazing back then. There was at least one point where you have a bad qualifying for whatever reason. I would always come into the office a bit deflated, like ‘that's not what we expected, we wanted much more, it's going to be a difficult race’, whatever the case may be. And very often, Checo would be in there already going ‘right, what are we going to do in the race? We’re starting P18’ or whatever it was. I was like, ‘I've not even got over the negativity yet, and you're already asking me how we're going to fix it’.

    You've obviously not simulated a P18 start or whatever. I always felt that, particularly his family around him, he had a very strong emotional resilience at that stage. Obviously, it's very different when you're the driver that’s scoring the most points. It’s a very different situation to Red Bull.

    TC: Do you think he's one of those drivers, a bit like Giancarlo Fisichella, who was brilliant in a small team, close knit bunch of engineers around him, put him in a big team and perhaps a little bit overwhelmed by the pressure and the situation? Nowhere to hide.

    BC: Yeah, there is that. If you think of your own self, it must be much easier to be leading a team than struggling behind week-in week-out. It must be much more confident to be getting good results, getting good points, doing well in qualifying, whatever the case may be. That must feel better than being second driver.

    The number of people that have failed in that Red Bull seat – Albon, Ricciardo actually did really well, you know the number of people like Gasly, there are so many people that haven't done well in that second Red Bull seat. I could imagine it from an engineering side on the pit wall. When you're outperforming the car, it feels very successful. And even if you're achieving the same results but underperforming the car, it feels very unsuccessful.

    TC: Do you think Lance Stroll is going through a similar process at the minute at Aston Martin alongside Fernando Alonso that Checo is going through alongside Max at Red Bull?

    BC: I think Lance gets a bad rap for, you know, his father owning the team. And I think it's very hard to remove that aspect when judging his performance. This year his performances have been poor, particularly since the car’s got worse.

    Checo in Force India was probably underrated. So then when Lance wasn't beating Checo, Lance is underrated even more, which is why I think there's been this drive to bring in Vettel and now to bring in Alonso to bring in, you know a driver that is very highly rated such that if he can get some close results, it brings up the overall rating.

    I will be interested to see, I don't think we've had a good feel of him to Alonso because of what's happened through the year. He does need to work at it more than you know, the likes of Alonso or Vettel.

    TC: There's one more Checo race I wanted to ask you about and that is Sakhir 2020.

    BC: The win.

    TC: The win. The spectacular Bernie Collins win. The risk-taker. He qualifies fifth I think it was he then collides with Charles Leclerc on the opening lap, drops to back of the grid.

    BC: Last, apart from the two that had retired.

    TC: How did you win that race?

    BC: That was an interesting race because we did Bahrain the week before. The garages haven't moved, the pit walls haven't moved, your hotel hasn't changed, All these things haven't changed. But the track is now very different. The pit straight looks the same, turn one looks to see him, but the track is very, very different requirements.

    The first weekend's high degradation, the second week is low deg. The first weekend's very easy to overtake because of the high deg, second weekend isn't. The first weekend is multiple stops, the second weekend isn't. You need to get everyone aligned that this is a very different race – it’s not a normal Bahrain anymore.

    A lot of people, I think, were still thinking of multiple stops, still thinking of, you know, in the final Safety Car that they should box and put on new tyres. Well, we were thinking the deg’s quite low, whatever.

    We were forced to start on a soft tyre. That was a regulation then, because we qualified so well.

    But we always work out where we would start on if we had free choice. We knew that the soft wasn't the quickest tyre – the medium was the quickest tyre. We knew that a medium/hard one-stop was going to be much quicker than the soft/hard one-stop that we were on. We knew all of that before we went into the race.

    On Lap 1, when Checo crashed, everyone’s trying to figure out if the car's damaged, if we need to do a pit stop, what we need to do, when we need to do it. Actually, the information coming back from the car was fine. We didn't need to do a pit stop – but we did a pit stop for the medium tyre, because we knew it was the fastest strategy.

    Chris, Checo’s engineer at the time. turned to me and goes, ‘are you really sure about this?’ It’s the easiest decision I've ever had to make on the pit wall. I was so confident it was the right thing to do.

    MUST-SEE: Sergio Perez's maiden F1 race win sparks tears and wild celebrations

    TC: How could you be so confident? So just to remind the listeners, we're on the outer loop of Bahrain. A completely different racetrack. We were still fact-finding even come the start of the race. I'm amazed that you were so sure.

    BC: Because we knew that the degradation on the soft would mean it was not the quickest tyre. And we were last and there was a Safety Car anyway, so we had nothing to lose by making that decision.

    TC: And you had full buy-in from Checo?

    BC: Yep. I think there was very little time to have full buy-in from Checo. We always work out what our ‘bail-out’ tyre would be if we had to do a pit stop. So if we had to do pit stop, we knew it was going to be a medium, that was already decided. So the only decision was, we don't need a pit stop. We don't need a front wing, we don’t need any of these things. It was still 100% the right thing to do.

    The car was quick and Checo was quick. So it's not just down to that strategy decision, but it would have been much more difficult without that strategy decision. And then the next strategy decision being, at that final Safety Car, not to do a pit stop when lots of other people did a pit stop.

    TC: I find it amazing that all you strategists, I'm assuming, have the same information available, and yet some do a much better job than others with that information. I know the cars are different, I suppose that's a huge factor. I remember one engineer in a rival team, I probably won't mention his name, but we were talking about strategy and he said, ‘tell you what the best strategy is: make a faster car’.

    BC: One of the running jokes is that strategy’s easy when you’re fast, and to a good degree that's true. Even for the years that we were the fourth or fifth fastest team, but the others were a step behind, it just gave you a bit of margin. You could get your pit stop lap wrong. You could not do that while in qualifying or it was easy to go through Q1, the faster the car, the easier strategy becomes. I think. Maybe Red Bull disagree, but it does give more margin. You know, they can do a two-stop and others do a one stop and it's probably going to be okay.

    We do all have the same information. We spend a lot of our time on average lap times of all of the cars, average degradation, that sort of thing. But it is how you pull it together and I think it is how you react and deal with that within the team, and how you best build your case for what you do going forward.

    One of the things that we did very well, I feel, was our analysis. We analysed everything so carefully. One of the things with F1 is you can analyse nine other teams as well. So if they made a mistake, why did they make a mistake and how do you avoid that? And if you're not learning from their mistakes, then you're not learning as quickly as they are.

    TC: So Checo crosses the line. His first win in Formula 1. I remember chatting to him in the press conference after the race and he was a very happy Checo. I think relief was the overriding emotion for him. How was it inside the team?

    BC: Well, it's one of those things that, you know, the race is going well and you know that your own for a good result, but you're always struggling to believe it might actually be a good result. And then obviously Mercedes had their bad pit stops, which is, you know, actually where we won. But you're just sort of hoping that it's going to be okay.

    That was one that we won by a good distance. We won by like 20 seconds. Checo had lost his drive [with Racing Point]. We didn't know that he had another drive somewhere else [at Red Bull for 2021]. He'd been with us for so long and it was quite an emotional few weeks. It was a triple-header at the end of the year – at the end of the COVID year – it felt tiring, and I felt relief that we'd finally got the win for him.

    F1 TV Inside Story: Perez's astonishing last to first victory
    F1 TV Inside Story: Perez's astonishing last to first victory

    TC: How does resource help you in the strategy department? You've lived through all the different stages. You joined Force India, you know, and then we go through the administration, all the frustrations associated with that, and then suddenly there's cash flow [when Lawrence Stroll took over the team]. How much easier did your job get when you became Racing Point, and then, of course, Aston Martin?

    BC: It was happening gradually for years. I joined Force India as half performance engineer, half strategy. And at that stage the strategy group was Randy [Singh], who’s now at McLaren, and Oliver Knighton, who’s been at Force India since forever. So the strategy group was one full time person and Ollie, who does it part time. I was there to help the strategy group and help the performance group, so like a middle person.

    So that brought the group from one and a half to two people, I'd say. But it was one and two halves. But as I joined, Randy left. We had two race overlap for Randy to teach me strategy, having never done strategy before, because Randy was going to McLaren. So we had one race where I went in and watched him, and then the next race he watched me, and then the third race he was gone.

    All I wanted to do was performance. I didn't want to do strategy. I just took the job because it was half performance, half strategy. Tom McCullough was like ‘now it’s going to be pretty much all strategy’. I was like, ‘okay, fine’. It was still only me as a full-time strategist, who had no experience in strategy, and Ollie.

    We went from one-and-a-half people doing strategy when I started in 2015 to, when I finished, four people, full time strategy. That's massive in terms of what you can do, in terms of working practices you can develop, the tools you can develop, how much analysis you can do. It was massive. When money came along, we were getting better bits of software or, we were fit to do more radio comms or more video clipping.

    Everything just becomes easier, much easier. I always had this massive list when I started of things that we should be doing better, but just no time to tackle it. And then it becomes this point where you are crossing stuff off the list, which feels really nice.

    TC: The analysis gets better. But did the results get better?

    BC: I think yes. And I think we improved how we were doing it and doing it in a more reliable way and becoming more resilient, if I wasn't there. The results on paper weren't getting better, but the car wasn't getting better. I think as a team we were operating much more efficiently in a much better way because you're doing more races. It's harder on everyone. And the expectation grew massively, so it felt like not as much fun. We had a lot of fun at the start.

    TC: I suppose with expectation comes pressure. Were there ever moments where pressure got too much, and you made wrong decisions for reasons that perhaps you wouldn't have made in the early years just because there was too much going on?

    BC: Tom McCullough did a very good job of sheltering us from that pressure. The race team were allowed to operate very largely like the race team had always operated, and make a decision for what we felt for the right reasons. Obviously, you do feel more pressure, you do feel more expectation, and it's harder to make decisions selfishly for the team, maybe against Lance's side, for example, you know, but you always have to be fit to defend the decision to yourself at the end of the day. So you have to always do it for what you believe are the right reasons.

    TC: How different was the culture at Team Silverstone [Force India, Racing Point, Aston Martin] compared to McLaren, where you started your Formula 1 career?

    BC: Massive, massive, massive. At that stage the sizes of the teams were massively different. I think McLaren was going through a bit of a political time at that time when I left. I didn't realize how much I wasn't enjoying being part of the McLaren trackside team, until I left.

    There was a lot more pressure at McLaren. It was more political at that time. It has definitely, 100%, changed now. I can see it in the people at the track that it's a very different culture now compared to what it was then. Then there was a lot more of a blame culture when things went wrong, rather than the ‘let's figure out why it's going wrong and let's make sure that doesn't happen again’, and that was throughout the mechanics, everything.

    There was much more of this ‘oh, let's just cover up that mistake and hope that nobody finds out’ type of thing. So it was a very different culture. It was my first full year racing. There was a lot of pressure, self-inflicted as well as from the team. But, I think McLaren has changed massively since then.

    But I moved from this big corporate pressure cooker to this family, where there wasn't enough people to do all the work. So everyone was just getting stuck in and doing whatever they could to make the car go faster and make the results better. Such a different environment.

    THIS WEEK IN F1: 10 quiz questions on all the F1 news after the season finale in Abu Dhabi

    TC: Hence your job description when you arrived was so broad. It said ’performance engineer and strategist’, but it could have just said ‘everything’ couldn’t it?

    BC: Yeah. And I think that actually made my career in a way, because I wouldn't have been offered that opportunity at a different team. No one would have put me in as the sole strategist on another team. And that was just a team with less resource where you had to get involved in all these other things. It was very broad [at Team Silverstone].

    At McLaren, it was very narrow because there was someone for each role. I was told by McLaren I wasn't racing in 2015, I didn’t decide not to race for McLaren in 2015. And then I decided I didn't want to stay in the factory either, so then I left. Without that, sort of, forced decision, I would have never left. And actually the leaving and the moving was the making of many things to come.

    TC: We've talked a lot about the drivers you've worked with, particularly Vettel and Checo. What about Jenson Button? He was your man at McLaren, he was a world champion at the time. What was impressive about him?

    BC: The thing that’s impressive with Jenson, both him and the race engineer would take the time to explain things to me because I was new. If I was suggesting a different brake balance or differential setting or whatever, he would take the time to go through why that wouldn't work or why he thought it wouldn't work.

    So he was quite calm. We did that year together. I think it worked really well. I found him very easy to work with and to give suggestions too. He won't like me saying this, but he didn't like being told what I thought, so I used to just leave it on like a piece of paper, like ‘this is this is where you're braking wrong’, you know, just sort of like highlight it and just leave it there and he'd see it himself.

    TC: I know you weren't his strategist, but I'm sure you were aware of the conversations going on. Do you think Jenson had the complete picture as well in the way that Vettel did?

    BC: I think he did. It's hard to remember because you weren't obviously as engrossed in those conversations. But I think he was strong in that, and I was always impressed by how much he could take in, and I'm still impressed by a lot of the drivers how much they take in from the TV.

    You expect when they're racing that they're not watching the TV, but they are. With all the switches that you're asking them to do and everything else that’s going on in the car, it's impressive that they're, you know, also on the start finish straight going ‘oh, I’ve seen that so-and-so’s pitted, or so-and-so’s retired'. That level of awareness is pretty exceptional.

    TC: Do you think the pressure that we've talked about at McLaren was perhaps born out of having two world champions because you obviously had Button and Lewis Hamilton, I suppose, when you were first there and then Checo comes in for a year?

    BC: Yeah, and then the year that I was with Jenson, it was Jenson and Kevin Magnussen. I just think that they were a team at that stage or in the years prior that had struggled to get the car right, a few years where they'd won the world championship, they'd had Lewis, and then they had years where it was a struggle and it was just trying to rectify that struggle, I think, that ended up with this, in the design world or the aerodynamics world, the sort of blame culture of where it's going wrong or why it's going wrong.

    And that just got this sort of negative spiral for a few years until they got out of that. So I don't think it was necessarily the pressure of the world champions, it was just that the car wasn't performing at the level that they were used to.

    TC: The best form of strategy? Have a faster car.

    BC: Exactly.

    TC: How did you end up at McLaren, Bernie?

    BC: I did mechanical engineering at university because I didn't know what to do. I really enjoyed maths and physics and I thought, well, I don't know what I want to do as a job, so let's just do some engineering because I was quite broad and I could still do loads of things at the end of that.

    Then halfway through my engineering degree I started Formula Student, which is a single seater race car that universities build and race against each other. And as we were going through that process, I sort of thought this is quite nice because you got to do some design work, you get to do some build work, you get to drive the car.

    We drove the car at Silverstone two weeks after the Grand Prix. It was the first time I’d been to Silverstone. And that experience made me realise that actually that suited me. It was a good mix of theoretical and build work. It was like a grid of everything.

    On the back of that I was encouraged to apply for the McLaren graduate scheme. My lecturer that actually ran the Formula Student program encouraged me to apply. As you’re going through the layers of the graduate scheme, you're just sort of thinking, ‘oh, let's see how this goes’. So it got to a point that ten of us went to McLaren for an assessment.

    I and another guy I went to uni with went. It’s in the McLaren Technology Centre, so you get to see this fantastic building and everything. We were both a bit like, ‘we've got to see round McLaren. That's fine. We're sort of happy with that’. And then I was called back. I don't know how many were called back for like individual interviews. That was the most difficult interview I've ever done.

    BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - APRIL 28: Tom McCullough, Performance Director at Aston Martin F1 attends the
    Performance Director Tom McCullough was a close colleague of Bernie's at Aston Martin

    TC: What was so hard?

    BC: The guy who did the vehicle dynamics at McLaren gave us this really technical question. I don't think there was ever a way that you were going to get it right, but it was to show how your mind works, how you could work it out. You're trying to go through this problem solving thing.

    I just remember thinking, ‘God I don't know how I've done in that’. Then I had a sit down interview with Paddy Lowe [who was then McLaren’s Engineering Director] and Jonathan Neale [then, McLaren Managing Director]. It was just really random. It just felt like this different world.

    TC: That proves how seriously McLaren were taking Formula Student. Paddy Lowe and Jonathan Neale were two of the most senior people in the team.

    BC: It was pretty impressive. We just sat in the office and had a bit of a chat. And then I remember going back to the same university lecturer and him saying, ‘oh, how did it go?’. I was like, ‘oh yeah, it went really well, actually, it was just like a chat, we just had a chat’.

    And he was like, ‘you know, that's to catch you off guard, right? So you’ll say something more naturally than if you were in an interview.’ I was like, ‘oh, I didn't I didn't realise that’. So God only knows what I said, but it was obviously okay.

    TC: And you got the job! Was there any motor racing in your family?

    BCL No, I'd never been to a race. Even for all of the bike racing and the car racing and that's in Northern Ireland. I'd never done any of those things.

    Dad would have watched Formula 1… I would have watched some of them. At that stage, you didn't think of working in it. When Formula 1 was being shown years ago, they weren't showing the pit wall and you weren't shown the race engineer and you weren't listening to the comms between the two and you weren't really thinking of the car designer.

    You're just thinking of the driver, and I knew I was going to be a driver, so I just didn't really think about the jobs that were possible in Formula 1. I know that sounds stupid now, but I didn't imagine a strategist on the pit wall deciding when the pit stops were happening. I didn't imagine a race engineer deciding what the car setup should be. You just didn't think about that.

    TC: Were there many women doing STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects at Queen's University, Belfast?

    BC: I think in my final year it was about 10%, which is actually pretty good. I went to an all-girls secondary school and then went to university, so it was a big step, but somehow that didn't really phase me. I didn't think too much about that and I enjoyed what I was doing, so it didn't really matter to me so much. It's got a lot better now, I think. It's definitely got better in F1 now than it was then.

    TC: Just in the strategy department. There was you, there’s Ruth Buscombe, who was head of strategy at Alfa Romeo, Rosie Wait at Mercedes, Hannah Schmitz is one of two leading the Red Bull charge.

    BC: 50% of the pit walls have a female on it regularly. In strategy, it's very strong. I think the only thing is that in the back-room team – in my back-room team, I was the only female. Same in Red Bull, the same in Mercedes, I think. So there's maybe one out of the team. It just so happens that one is the person on the pit wall. So still the ratio in the team isn't great, I think.

    TC: Was that intimidating?

    BC: I never find it intimidating. I found that there was advantages to being the only female. If I think back to the McLaren graduate scheme, they interviewed ten of us in the assessment centre. I was the only female, so I imagine when they were discussing how X, Y, Z had done in the assessment centre, it was easy to say, ‘oh well, she was the only girl, how do you think she did?’.

    Whereas if you're talking about a ‘David’ or a ‘John’, you know, it's like, ‘oh, which one is he? Is he the tall one?’ It's much more complicated. Then on the pit wall, when I speak, people know it's me. There's no question mark of who's the female on the pit wall. It's obvious it’s me. So some things, you know, it was beneficial.

    TC: Do you think Formula 1 is doing enough to get more women studying the STEM subjects?

    BC: I think the things that are helping are the visibility that we're getting. So the visibility of people like myself or people like Hannah when she goes to the podium and things. So it's slow, but I that’s the most natural way of doing.

    If you ask any of us that are on the pit wall from a strategy point of view, we all got the jobs because we were the best candidate in each of our representative positions, rather than the team felt they needed to be 50/50, so they needed to hire a girl. And I don't think any of us would wish to change that.

    It's about encouraging enough kids, girls, parents, to say ‘engineering is not this male job that it used to be’. Particularly in the UK, I think initially when I said to people I would be an engineer, people assume you’re in a boiler suit. People don't think of the designers, so we need to sort of correct the image of engineering a little bit.

    I think it is just about getting that visibility, showing the females on the pit wall, in the garages, mechanics. We need to sort of try and encourage. Formula Student is a good way of doing that, those types of things institutions are doing well.

    F1 NATION: Verstappen signs off in style and Mercedes grab P2 – it's our Abu Dhabi Grand Prix review

    TC: You were very driven, though. I'm filling in the gaps here, but you go to McLaren thanks to Formula Student. You are a designer, but you want to go trackside. Tell me if I'm wrong, but I think you then took it upon yourself to get experience in other formulas. Is that right?

    BC: Yeah. At that time, McLaren had built the 12C [sports car], the GT3 version. Although it wasn't very reliable, they were trying to get trackside on a GT3 programme. A guy called Mark Williams, who was an ex-race engineer for McLaren, came up with this project: people who wanted to volunteer could go and help race teams. So I did ‘weekend warrioring’ and basically, GT3 trying to get the car on the program.

    It got to a point where I was taking days off on a Friday from work in gearbox world to go to a track somewhere to race engineer a car for the weekend, to then come back on Monday. It was pretty relentless, to get some track experience, to prove that you were good enough for the track.

    As well as that, I ended up in their mission control, volunteering in mission control for a vehicle dynamics role for McLaren – all just to get into doing the trackside stuff. And then when Tom Stallard, who's race engineer there now, went on paternity leave in 2013, I was given the opportunity to be his replacement for those two races with Jenson. And that's all what led to it.

    I was very determined because to take that route from design engineer to performance engineer to strategy engineer is very abnormal. They're not normal career moves. I think it made me a much stronger strategist to understand the other elements, but they're not normal moves. So I had to work pretty hard, particularly the design to the performance one.

    I guess the saying is Jack of all trades, master of none. But when I moved to strategy, the reason I was strong at that was because I'd had all this performance engineering experience, so I understood all the engine modes, I understood all the fuelling aspects. You understand all a lot of these other things that are happening in the race that are affecting strategy, but not necessarily in strategy world. I wouldn't change it.

    It was difficult. For sure, it was difficult. And there were some tough times. I race engineered [McLaren CEO] Zak Brown in GT3. It was amazing, but we had one race in particular. I don't even know where the race was.

    In GT3, there is a set pit stop window. You have 10 minutes I think to stop in. It is not difficult strategy. You are told when to stop, but you're always trying to maximise the performance. And just whatever way I'd worked it out, I thought we had one more lap, so I sent the car on one more lap. And it's that moment where the car goes by and every other car, every single other car comes into the pitlane And I'm like, ‘argh!’

    TC: Did you realize immediately?

    BC: Once the pit lane’s full with every other car, you're like, ‘oh, we don't have enough time to get back around, do we?’ And we took a ten-minute penalty or something ridiculous.

    TC: How was Zak after the race?

    BC: He was actually better than I thought he was going to be. I think he just accepted that nothing could be done at that point. And we changed whatever spreadsheet I was using to try and make it better. But it wasn't a great start to a strategy when you can't hit the window you're given.

    TC: Zak is a decent peddler, actually, isn't he?

    BC: He was. He was really good. I had to push him pretty hard. He was pretty no-committed at times, would hardly ever do a track walk and I was trying to push him to do it. But nobody in GT3 really is doing a track walk, so he felt it was unnecessary.

    The McLaren GT was always really hot, so he was always really struggling with that. sure he's a very hard businessman, but I find him actually reasonably easy. It's his fun weekend, isn’t it?

    TC: Will you ever go back to the pit wall?

    BC: I did love my job. I love what I did on the pit wall. I loved the effect I had on the race. So never say never, you know? And even when I was leaving, I thought, never say never, but I'm enjoying this new life. And everyone I've met so far has been very grateful of the explanation of strategy and engineering and things that they're getting. So as long as that continues, let's see where it goes.

    TC: Is there one team on the grid that you thought I'd like to work for them?

    BC: Nope. Just because I actually really loved the team I worked with at Aston and the people, and I thought I felt like a very good environment to work within. Obviously, it would be great to stand on the podium like I've never done that and I'm not like going to do that.

    That would be great if I could still steal [Red Bull strategist Hannah Schmitz’s] job just for the one race to do that, that would be perfect. But I probably wouldn't do as good a job as Hannah!

    Obviously, you’ve missed those opportunities or some of those opportunities for sure. But am I going to gain a lot as a person by putting myself under pressure to do those things? I don't know.

    TC: Bernie, thank you. Good luck with everything that comes up.

    BC: Thank you.

    To read on, sign up to F1 Unlocked for free

    You'll unlock this article and get access to:

    Free Wall_Article.png