Meet the Formula One Grand Prix engineer with West Kerry roots
An entire West Kerry parish was on the edge of their seats as they watched the recent Turkish Grand Prix unfold.
They were cheering on the pink racing cars of the BWT Racing Point Formula One team and for 37 of the 58 laps the team’s drivers Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez held first and second place.
In the end, Mexican Perez took a valiant second place behind World Champion Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
One of the women behind the BWT Racing Point Formula One team can trace her roots to Smerwick Harbour in the west of the county.
Sósanna Ní Dhubháin is the Senior Composite Designer engineer with the Silverstone-based team that began life as Jordan F1 in the early 1990s, It is to be rebranded to Aston Martin F1 for the 2021 Formula One season.
Working in the team’s design office and has direct responsibility for brake ducts that are an essential feature on cars driven by the likes of Sergio Pérez and Stroll.
Sósanna’s West Kerry story began over 30 years ago when her father Tomás Ó Dubháin, joined the Civil Service and married a County Down woman, Siubhan, who worked as a music lecturer at Dundalk Institute of Technology. Siubhan is also an accomplished writer with two historical novels published by Brandon Books of Dingle, under her pen name of Kathleen O’Farrell.
Sosanna grew up Rostrevor County Down, her mother’s hometown and father’s adopted town.
“We spent every summer in Kerry, on my grandparents’ farm which is just beside the Beal Bán in Ballyferriter. Now that he’s retired, my dad spends about five months over the summer fishing for lobster in Smerwick harbour and the ocean beyond,” she explained. “We loved helping my grandparents with the milking, the sheep and above all, playing on the sandy beach. We learned plenty of songs both in Kerry and Down, and my brothers would go busking in Dingle whenever they had the opportunity. Our great aunt Péigí Chorcaí told us all about our family’s connection with the Blasket Islands and how all our cousins came to stay in the house with Náin and Dáidí Críonna every time there was a First Communion or Confirmation. Many of our cousins in West Kerry are known as Ó Catháin, Ó Sé, Murphy and O Muircheartaigh, and several footballers play for a Kerry team.”
A typical West Kerry childhood story but an unlikely background for a career in the world’s fastest and most demanding motor racing series and one even Sósanna finds hard to explain.
“I’m not sure where it came from, to be honest, I just remember watching the Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen battles, getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Formula One fly away races. The cars fascinated me, I always wanted to learn more about how they work. I just knew I wanted to be involved,” she said. “When I was 13, I wrote to every F1 Team asking for a job! I received one reply. That I am forever grateful for. [The reply] went through all the different types of jobs and what you needed to get into them. I decided from quite early that I wanted to be a design engineer.”
She studied mathematics, physics and design technology at secondary school which paved the way for a mechanical engineering degree at University College Dublin.
After Dublin, she switched to Cranfield University, in Bedfordshire, to study Motorsport Engineering.
“My passion for motorsport grew even more here. It was such a difference being around people with the same passion as you. I built up a lot of connections within the motorsport industry and it opened a lot of doors. While studying at Cranfield I applied for a job at what was then Team Lotus, and after a few tense weeks received a job offer as a Junior Composite Designer. I was over the moon, not in a million years did I think I would get a role straight out of university,” she added.
She joined Team Lotus in 2011 as a Junior Composite Designer where she would have worked alongside racing greats like Finnish star Heikki Kovalainen and Italian ace Jarno Trulli.
At the start of the 2012 season, Team Lotus relaunched as Caterham F1, moving into to the former Arrows F1 factory in Oxfordshire.
The new team retained Kovalainen and added Russian Vitaly Petrov to its driver line up. Caterham F1secured tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship helped no doubt by Sósanna’s input.
“I loved working for team Lotus, it was a very small and young team, I was definitely thrown in the deep-end. I remember that within three weeks of starting the job I had a part that I designed on the car. It was an awesome feeling. I spent a further two and a half years at Team Lotus and Caterham,” she added.
An opportunity to join the Force India Formula One Team came up, finally, she was able to shed the junior element of her working title when she joined the Silverstone-based outfit as Composite Designer for the 2014 season.
Force India bought out Spyker F1 for the 2008 season. Previously Spyker F1 was known as the Midland F1 Team and that team the took-over the declining Jordan F1 team in 2006.
As a result, Sósanna found herself working in the same factory founded by the entrepreneurial Dubliner Eddie Jordan ahead of the 1991 Grand Prix season.
“I am now a Senior Composite Design Engineer with ownership over major sections of the car. The feeling of getting a good result is still as great now as it ever was, I don’t think that will ever change. The work can be long, stressful and difficult at times but being part of a team and achieving is definitely worth it,” she said.
Over the last six years, she has worked with some of the best-known Grand Prix drivers in the sport. In her first season with the squad, Perez put the car on the podium of the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix.
The following year the team re-hired Perez and Nico Hülkenberg and took fifth place in the constructors’ championship.
Force India retained Hülkenberg and Pérez for the 2016 season. It proved to be the most successful season in the team’s history to that point, after finishing fourth in the Constructors’ Championship with 173 points.
The following year, 2017, they replaced the departing Hülkenberg with Frenchman Esteban Ocon and took a successive fourth place in the constructors’ championship.
However, the financial challenges of the sport meant that midway through the 2018 season the team was placed in administration.
It was bailed out by a consortium of financial backers led by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, the father of then-Williams F1 driver Lance. The newly funded team made its competitive debut as Racing Point Force India at the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix.
At the start of last season, the takeover and rebranding was complete.
The team once known as Jordan F1 was now labelled as BWT Racing Point F1 Team until next season’s Aston Martin F1 re-brand comes into effect.
Lance Stroll joined from Williams and Perez was retained – both played a crucial role in the Turkish Grand Prix.
Stroll qualified on pole and led for much of the damp race, only falling back when damage to his front-wing caused tyre problems.
Perez held second for the entire race, and even with his tyres degrading badly he held off late challenges from the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc to record his best ever result.
Ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix on November 29, BWT Racing Point F1 Team is third in the title race ahead of McLaren and Ferrari. A team still living with its Jordan heritage by punching well above its weight.
This upward trajectory is helped in no small way by the 13-year-old girl, with West Kerry roots, who dared to dream.
“I was never top of the class nor the most academic person, but I knew what I wanted and achieved grades that enabled me to study,” she said. “You don’t need to be brilliant academically, you just need to be determined and willing to put in the work.
Formula Female’s ambitious plan
Sósanna Ní Dhubháin has received support and mentoring from Formula Female, an organisation set up to encourage more Irish women into motorsport, but particularly through the engineering side.
It was founded last year by Nikki Daly, a member of the Irish Hockey team that took silver in the 2018 Women’s Hockey World Cup.
Daly is the daughter of Irish Formula Ford Racing legend, the late Vivion Daly and is an experienced motorsport data engineer.
Her dream is to use motorsport as a platform to teach STEM subjects and to empower females through the visibility of powerful female role models.
“It is a great story because I also studied the same motorsport engineering course as Sósanna in Cranfield and I did my thesis with Force India at the time,” Daly said.
“Formula Female have just helped another girl from UCD get started in the same motorsport engineering course in Cranfield in September. So Sósanna was there in 2010, for her motorsport course I was there in 2013 and Pippa is now 2020. It is great to be able to continue that trend going forward by raising the awareness.”
This article was previously published in The Kerryman. Kerry Motorsport News is the motorsport content provider to The Kerryman