Life in the fast lane
Caroline Hargrove, Sc’89, a rarity in the male-dominated world of Formula One racing car design, wishes more women would seek careers in applied engineering.
Caroline (Hogue) Hargrove’s workplace in Woking, Surrey, 25 miles southwest of London, looks like the set of a James Bond film.
Getting into the facility involves passing through a security checkpoint, flashing a futuristic-looking access card, and navigating tubular elevators and some stark, well-lit corridors. It’s no wonder that the makers of more than one spy movie have asked for permission to film here, but all have been denied.
The secrets of Formula One racing are many, and protecting them is more important than giving 007 a location to blow up some bad guys.
Hargrove works at the headquarters of the McLaren Group, a technology corporation that specializes in designing and building some of the world’s best – and fastest – high-performance racing and sports cars. Originally from Quebec, she came to Queen’s on an English-immersion summer course in her last year of high school. She enroled at the University the following year.
“I fell in love with Queen’s. I took a math and engineering course. That’s what attracted me to the school in the first instance; I didn’t know if I wanted to study mathematics or engineering. The fact that I could do both is what in the end drew me here,” she says.
From Kingston, Hargrove proceeded on a scholarship to Cambridge, where she completed a PhD and then post-doctoral studies in impact mechanics before taking a faculty job at the prestigious university. Ultimately, however, she found this was not her cup of tea.
“I think research is interesting, in the academic sense,” she says, “but as an engineer, it became too divorced from reality for me. There’s some research that is very applied, but I also had to teach as well as do the research. I felt I wasn’t very good at balancing both jobs. If I put all my energy into putting on good lectures, I didn’t do good research, and vice versa. And, like a lot of the people at McLaren, I’m a perfectionist; I don’t like to do something if I’m not going to do it very well. I know that if you stick with lecturing you get better at it over time, but it just wasn’t me. I like a faster pace.”
Enter her interest in Formula One race cars. After seeing an ad in an engineering magazine, Hargrove applied to join McLaren Racing, a Formula One team, to work on driving simulators.
“It was early days in modeling for cars. We were doing very simple simulations at the time, and we didn’t have full dynamic models. By that I mean representations that you make in a model sense, where the car is moving on the track and not just as a quasi-static approximation, so you’re going through the whole movement of the car in your simulation; you have everything moving.”
McLaren became the first Formula One team to have a simulator, and now has not one but two of them: the original, which Hargrove helped to design, and a clone of the original that is available for use by other teams. Up-and-coming drivers also use it through a driver training program.
“I was fortunate to arrive at the beginning of a massive project,” says Hargrove. “I have seen it from the very beginning, where [the simulator] was only a concept, to a tool that the drivers use all the time, which is fantastic. I was very lucky.”
After 10 years with McLaren’s racing division – years that included maternity leaves for Callum and Sophie, the two children of Caroline and her husband, Neil – Hargrove left Formula One and began working with McLaren Applied Technology (MAT), a branch of the company aimed at sharing some of McLaren’s advanced technology with other groups, notably and most recently the athletes for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Hargrove, as a specialist in vehicle dynamics, worked with Great Britain’s cycling, sailing, canoeing, and rowing teams in the lead-up to the 2012 Summer Games in London, and she’s now involved with Olympic-level skeleton luge and bobsled athletes on a not-for-profit basis.
She says working with elite athletes and their coaches is a favourite part of her job. “One of the reasons I like it so much is that these are people who are full of energy and dedication. I absolutely love working with people like that. It’s very inspirational.”
MAT has grown rapidly in the past few years, expanding from a tech team of three to more than 40. “We’re growing in a big way,” Hargrove explains. “We’ve got our performance systems, which include the simulators, human performance, and we’ve also got sports equipment. We’ve been involved in making bicycles, which is lovely for someone like me who’s now spent so many years in cars. At this point, I like anything that isn’t a car.”
Although Hargrove has lived in the UK for more than 20 years, she says settling here was not the plan.
“I ended up staying because I loved my job. I still do. When you’re lucky enough to be in this position, you just think, ‘Well, I have to cling onto this.’”
Hargrove notes that in Britain, as in North America, women are not the majority in engineering in general, and especially not in a field as applied as hers.
“There are always a few women who work here at McLaren, but never many. I don’t quite understand why. MAT has been small but growing, and we’ve done a lot of hiring. Yet I’ve hired only one female engineer so far – the only one who’s ever applied. She’s fantastic, and we hired her on merit, not gender. It’s disheartening that we haven’t had other women applicants.”
She was dismayed to learn in a recent Alumni Review feature (Issue #2-2011, p. 20) and from other journals that the number of young women applying to engineering programs has leveled off in recent years – to less than 20 per cent – and likewise the numbers pursuing applied science to the doctoral level, as she did. “I’m disappointed that it has plateaued. I would have thought it would be slowly increasing, now that there are more women engineering graduates who theoretically, would be providing career models in those fields,” she says.
“Engineering is an excellent career, one that’s fulfilling. I get an immense enjoyment from having completed something that people use or benefit from. There aren’t many jobs in which you can feel like that. I wish more people – more women, especially – would see it that way.”