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How to be an ace engineer: Simulation guru Kia Cammaerts

Having experienced the bleak reality of working with underfunded Formula 1 teams, Kia Cammaerts turned an engineering passion project into a full-time career and today services some of the world's biggest manufacturers with industry-leading simulation hardware. He explains how he did it and shares advice for aspiring engineers

How to be an ace engineer: Simulation guru Kia Cammaerts

From a little-understood niche, the significance of simulation to the motorsport industry has grown to the point that it has become essential in understanding and improving car performance. As the co-founder and technical director of Norfolk-based advanced simulation systems company Kia Cammaerts puts it, “you wouldn’t dream of doing anything without first simulating it at some level”.

But in his early days of working in Formula 1 with Lotus, data acquisition and analysis was “relatively primitive” and commercial codes weren’t available. As Cammaerts puts it, “if you wanted to simulate something, you pretty much had to write the code yourself.” So that’s exactly what he did.

Cammaerts’ love affair with engineering began in the late 80s, working at sportscar constructor Tiga alongside his studies for a postgraduate diploma in industrial design engineering at Imperial College London. He firmly recalls having an “epiphany” that his calling was in motorsport upon seeing a Jaguar XJR8 blow past him on the pitwall at Brands Hatch, and duly set about making it happen.

Following graduation, his first proper job came at Ralt, where Cammaerts served as the design engineer on the Ralt RT33 Formula 3 car and Alfa 89C IndyCar, also overseeing the windtunnel programme for its successor, the 90C. Working under late Ralt boss Ron Tauranac – his company bought out by March in 1988 – and Lotus 72 designer Maurice Philippe while at March shaped Cammaerts greatly.

Cammaerts describes Tauranac as “extremely on the ball”, capable of out-thinking “just about everybody around him” even in his 70s, who taught him “a great deal about thinking through what you’re doing on a value-basis and also a value-performance basis”.

Philippe fired in Cammaerts “a passion for deeply understanding the engineering domain that you happen to be in. And by deep, I mean he was deeper into almost everything than almost anybody else I’ve met before or since.”

Ansible is based on Chapman Way, a stone’s throw from the current Group Lotus HQ that houses the Hethel test track where legendary Team Lotus boss Colin Chapman gave his innovative creations their first run outs. But Team Lotus was in terminal decline when Cammaerts joined in 1990, eight years after Chapman’s death, in the last days of the Tony Rudd era before its brief revival under Peter Collins and Peter Wright.

PLUS: The gradual decline and demise of F1's greatest innovator 

Despite the best efforts of Derek Warwick and Martin Donnelly, 1990 was not a good year for Lotus

Despite the best efforts of Derek Warwick and Martin Donnelly, 1990 was not a good year for Lotus

Photo by: Motorsport Images

His overriding memory from his time as the head of aero on the Lamborghini-powered TS102 of 1990 and slightly updated Judd-powered TS102B of 1991 – in which Mika Hakkinen made his F1 debut – isn’t overly positive.

PLUS: How F1’s other champion to emerge from 1991 thrived at Lotus 

“It was a crumbling stately pile, possibly one of the most inappropriate places to locate a Formula 1 team ever, but still an astonishing place to work in,” he says of the “extraordinary” Ketteringham Hall HQ. “The drawing office was in an old orangery with views out of panoramic glass house windows over the capacious grounds and lake, the engine shop was located on the other side of a cobbled courtyard from where the race trucks dropped parts off.

“While I was there, somebody actually dropped a Lamborghini engine off the stand trundling across the courtyard and cracked the crank-case, which is not something that you’d find happening in a modern F1 team…”

"The main limitation was the lack of money for R&D and aero development was probably one of the key things. There was plenty of capacity for chassis development, but aero was starved of funds because it’s such an expensive thing to do" Kia Cammaerts

The purse strings were always tight, which heavily limited compromised designer Frank Dernie.

“Cash was a problem in every corner of the team in those days,” Cammaerts says. “There was 3D CAD software and it was quite expensive and quite capable for its day, but the main limitation was the lack of money for R&D and aero development was probably one of the key things. There was plenty of capacity for chassis development, but aero was starved of funds because it’s such an expensive thing to do.”

Cammaerts left Lotus in 1991 to work as a freelance design engineer, taking with him inspiration from working under the “exceptional” technical director Enrique Scalabroni, whose stay at Hethel lasted only nine months. Latterly the team boss of the BCN Formula 3000 and GP2 teams, Cammaerts says the Argentine was known as ‘Neptune’ behind his back.

“He was a genius level designer, who could have achieved much more fame in just slightly different circumstances,” Cammaerts says. “Definitely one of the great poly-math designers who flitted lightly from one discipline to another.

“I wouldn’t compare myself to him in any way, but I was inspired by his lack of fear and willingness to apply himself in almost any engineering discipline.”

Cammaerts was inspired by Scalabroni, the pair linking up later on at the Ikuzawa project

Cammaerts was inspired by Scalabroni, the pair linking up later on at the Ikuzawa project

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Money was an also issue at the Robin Herd-led UK design arm of Larrousse in 1993, where Cammaerts did the detail work on the gearbox in the LH93 that Philippe Alliot took to fifth at Imola.

“Even in the mid-90s, the time was up for the plucky, small under-funded team, they were pretty much not going to get anywhere,” says Cammaerts. “Those environments weren’t great places to be because you just knew you didn’t have the resources to do the job properly.”

Cammaerts’ last direct involvements in F1 projects never saw the light of day. He was contracted to work as an aerodynamic engineer on the development of the proposed TOM’S car for 1994, the car design being “the relatively cheap bit” compared to seeking the funds to build it. These ultimately never arrived, and it was a similar story with the Ikuzawa project he worked on under Scalabroni, before joining McLaren partners TAG to develop data acquisition and analysis software.

“A car was not built, but a car with a complete aero package, chassis, suspension, gearbox was built and there was a full aero programme put in place so we would have been ready to go and start aero development in earnest should the funding have come,” he says of the TOM’S project.

Cammaerts found that F1 was “quite hard as an individual to make a really deep contribution to any activity,” even before its adoption of formalised processes that marked the “dying of the wild west days” as specialists effectively became more valued than generalists.

“From the mid-to-late 90s really, I think the industry settled down a lot, it matured,” he says. “With that came a loss of individual contribution, which is a pity. But it was inevitable and the extremely professional process-driven teams that you see now were not just a product of the increased funding available, it was just something that emerged naturally from the competitive environment.

“Working hard wasn’t enough, you had to work right and that meant bringing in process and it meant bringing in more people, more capability and therefore less of a contribution from a single individual.”

Alliot took rare points finish for Larrousse at Imola in 1993, but the tide was turning against small teams and individual input being reduced

Alliot took rare points finish for Larrousse at Imola in 1993, but the tide was turning against small teams and individual input being reduced

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Simulation, by contrast, does not suffer from this problem. Working as what he calls an “experimental aerodynamicist”, Cammaerts’s first involvement in the simulation space resulted from his desire “to understand the effect of aerodynamic forces on the car” and to nail down “what the actual key drivers behind racecar performance were”.

“I started to wonder how these aero forces affected the performance of the car,” he says.

No small undertaking, this required a full understanding of the whole car, involving detailed models of suspension, chassis, engine and aero characteristics, plus the driver. He started work on what became the successful simulation programme AeroLap initially “for my own use and it extended from there”.

"I don’t think I planned to do one thing or the other. I like all aspects of engineering, so as I’ve stumbled from one domain to another, I’ve just tried to collect as much knowledge and keep my interest up as much as I can" Kia Cammaerts

He left his job at TAG to form software company Ansible Design, “purely so I could concentrate on building the [AeroLap] programme up to become a fully usable tool”. In this, he was successful – after making his first sale, it became self-sustaining “and then it actually grew to be a bit too much for me to do on my own”. The tool is still in use today by major manufacturers – “all of whom are designing vehicles in a number of different categories,” says Cammaerts – supported by Ansible Design.

“It’s used with many other tools, all specialising in different aspects of car performance,” he says. “There are many vendors in that space, but it’s nice to see an idea that was 20 years old still providing value to the engineering community.”

Reflecting on his diverse career, Cammaerts self-effacingly describes his path as “the random walk of a drunk man in a toy shop”, collating knowledge in different areas from software design to integrated simulator systems.

“I don’t think I planned to do one thing or the other,” he says. “I like all aspects of engineering, so as I’ve stumbled from one domain to another, I’ve just tried to collect as much knowledge and keep my interest up as much as I can, and I think that’s a very good approach to recommend to anybody.”

Cammaerts shares helpful tips with Autosport before a hopeless attempt to lap the Rome E-Prix track

Cammaerts shares helpful tips with Autosport before a hopeless attempt to lap the Rome E-Prix track

Photo by: JEP

This certainly proved useful in the early days of Ansible Motion. As one of only two employees when it started out in 2009, together with his business partner, Cammaerts was initially working across everything with the broad remit required by his title of technical director. Although his “day-to-day involvement in the detailed engineering has reduced” as the business has grown, he still has a key role “in looking at the overall system’s performance and trying to envision what the future will look like and steering the company’s engineering activities towards that future”.

Now his primary role is as a supplier of technology that allows teams and manufacturers to do their jobs better, he believes “will occupy me for the foreseeable future”.

“There is just so much engineering available, so many engineering problems required to be solved, so many more things to optimise that haven’t been optimised yet, just in my current domain,” he says. “We work with some OEMs where on an individual site you might have 10,000 people, all employed in an R&D function, and the creativity and energy of some of the individuals there equals anything I’ve seen in my career. They’re just great to be involved with, and backed by large resources that gives them more power to embody their visions.

“Equally, other places are more process driven and you see the results of that in reliability, quality, consistency and absolute assurance of delivery of whatever is required, so I take pleasure in all of these things.”

Advice for engineers from Kia Cammaerts

Keep your eyes open – engineering is engineering and you can move from domain to domain. The terms change, but the actual concepts remain the same, so mechanical, electronics, software, there’s a lot of transportable knowledge. Be open-minded, don’t let artificial barriers insulate you from what’s happening elsewhere. If you’re an electronics engineer, learn some software. If you’re a mechanical engineer, learn some electronics.

Ensure you have a good view on how the money flows through an organisation because that’s the engine that provides you the means to do your engineering. Large F1 teams are marketing mechanisms and engineers are there to service the marketing requirements of the company. It’s not a very popular view, but that’s the economic reality and you don’t do yourself or the organisations you’re working for any good unless you do understand the requirements.

If you’re an engineer with customers, understand what customers want, try to improve yourself continuously and try not to silo your knowledge.

Cammaerts encourages engineers to develop experience in different areas

Cammaerts encourages engineers to develop experience in different areas

Photo by: JEP

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