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Bernadette Collins: “You need not worry about other people’s perception of you and that’s difficult"

Representation in motorsport matters. There’s no denying that fact. However, representation doesn’t always mean the representation of minority groups but also includes the representation of lesser-shown job roles. Although we regularly see drivers, team principals, and media personnel on screen, only recently has attention been brought to the other roles which play a vital part in the running of a race weekend.

Having worked in Formula 1 for over a decade, former Head of Race Strategy for Aston Martin F1 Bernie Collins is using her time away from the sport to combat this. Helping to promote greater visibility and understanding of the part which roles in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) play in F1.

“It’s so important to just see other people do it and see other people do it well,” she tells Females in Motorsport. “To see us on the pit wall and say, ‘you know I could do that, why not’. Representation is very important.”

Bernie started her career in F1 in 2009 as part of McLaren Racing’s graduate programme, experiencing different departments over the course of the year. Going on to join the team’s design department in suspension design, and later gearbox design, she cites the experience as beneficial in helping her to understand what role she wanted to take moving forward.

“It was a year-long graduate programme where you got to experience different parts of the industry and as a new graduate that was really good,” she says. “I did three months in design, three months in systems engineering, three months in vehicle dynamics and then three months spread out around the shop floor.

“Part of what I think is really important is the person. I’m never going to be the type of person who sits at a desk nine to five writing code, because that’s not me. I really enjoyed the roles, like the gearbox role, where there was some design but also some going and physically looking at the parts. You need to find a role that suits your personality.”

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Bernie was introduced to the world of motorsport engineering through Formula Student whilst at Queen University Belfast. Giving her the necessary trackside experience is what led her to consider a career in F1.

“Your first aim shouldn’t be F1,” she says.

“Your first aim should be a local racing team, be that a kart team, a GT team, whatever it is that’s close to you that you can get involved with.

“Motorsport and F1 are such big commitments and people think that it’s a good career to do, but unless you spend some time at a track experiencing it, then you don’t know for sure that you’re prepared to put the commitment in.

“What I’ve tried to say to people in the past is whatever degree you’re doing, get as much experience as you can. It’s really useful to rule careers out as much as it is to rule them in.”

After leaving Aston Martin at the start of the summer break in August 2022, Bernie has been focusing her efforts on helping to improve the understanding of F1. Appearing on Sky Sports F1’s Any Driven Monday to discuss the events of the Singapore GP, over the past few months Bernie has also worked on a three-part series with Formula 1 and Workday breaking down race strategy decisions from the races at Spa-Francorchamps, Zandvoort and Monza.

Alongside her desire to help audiences understand F1 better, Bernie also believes a greater focus needs to be put on offering a range of opportunities for girls at a young age. Raised by her parents without a gendered perception of jobs in STEM, Bernie's biggest limitation when considering a career in engineering was the lack of information and guidance she experienced in school.

“We need to have a range of options for kids, so they don’t just feel they’re not good at English or History or whatever the other subjects may be,” Bernie says. “There needs to be this other option - there needs to be the more practical thing.”

Focus needs to be put on young high school pupils to help them understand the careers which are available to them when choosing their A levels and degrees, especially young girls who are often shrugged off or questioned when expressing interest in STEM subjects.

Programmes such as FIA Girls on Track are beginning to tackle the issue and give girls aged eight to 18 a greater understanding of the opportunities STEM subjects can offer them. However, more needs to be done in schools to promote the practical application of STEM at an earlier stage.

“When I was at school, when you do maths and physics, it’s really hard to see how that’s applied, to see what job you could do out of it, to imagine what an engineer does,” says Bernie.

“It’s about getting involved and showing this is what it means in real life. Those things are vital to what we do.”

Thankfully Bernie has found her ability has outshone any preconceived notions surrounding women in motorsport throughout her career and believes it’s key to let your experience, degree and determination speak for itself when breaking into the industry.

“I remember when I started, feeling unsure of myself and people would question drawings that you had done,” she says. “

You think ‘is that because I’m a woman or not good enough or whatever?’. But, in hindsight, I actually think those people would have questioned any young 20-something that came down with a drawing, whether they were male or female.

“You need to not worry too much about other people’s perception of you and that’s very difficult.”

Reflecting on her time in F1 Bernie emphasises that the adrenaline of such a high-pressured role is in part what she enjoyed about working in strategy and, although there were moments of disappointment, the reward of receiving a good result and feeling she was a crucial part of it is what she worked for.

Remembering the clearest ‘wow’ moment of her career she recalls the day she arrived at the McLaren factory for her interview.

“It was one of the things where you think you’ve not really envisaged working there or being in that environment,” she says. “It was something you’d associate with other people and not with yourself. That was the moment where it was really cool.”

We cannot wait to see what Bernie does next with her career and watch the next generation of women in STEM make their way into Formula 1.


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