The Life of a Race Team Composites Technician: Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN’s Sam Leeks
"If you’re passionate about something in your life, you should go for it - be selfish about it, but don’t forget others on the way. I wouldn’t be where I am without my friends and family, however; following your goals in life can seem a selfish task. If you have a goal and want to achieve it, you have to go and do it. If you don’t try, then you can’t look back and say at least I gave it a go.”
Sam Leeks is a Race Team Composites Technician at Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN team, having joined the outfit for the start of the 2021 Formula 1 season. A fascination with carbon fibre during a school project has evolved into a rewarding career that she adores, allowing her to combine her two biggest passions: composites and F1.
“I look after all the carbon fibre - bodywork, repair work and most of the aero stuff,” Sam tells Females in Motorsport. “If we’re doing aero updates or changes on the car, that’s my responsibility.”
Part of her role requires her to travel to the races, where Sam’s role can vary greatly to what she does when at the team’s factory in Switzerland. At the circuits on the grand prix calendar, Sam looks after Antonio Giovinazzi’s car and the front wings during the track sessions.
“During the sessions, my focus is on Giovinazzi’s car,” she says. “When we’re out of session, it’s important that we help each other out. Basically, I like to make a mess with carbon fibre...which means I tend to get glue and carbon dust all over my uniform when we’re grinding and using glue! I have several holes in my t-shirts, but that’s life!”
A Race Weekend
In Sam’s job, she travels to the F1 races and will usually fly out with the first group of mechanics at the start of the week.
“Wednesday is generally a fairly relaxed day,” she says. “We get all the parts out, check that there’s no damages, start to build assemblies and get stuff ready. Thursdays are very much the same but the cars will go to the bridge and be measured. There’ll be some changes to be made which I’ll be responsible for.”
Sam’s role also entails pit stop and single-crew practice, forming part of the vital team that services the cars during a grand prix weekend.
“I’m still learning to do the front-left tyre on and off on my own,” she says. “It’s definitely something new. “I did pit stops at Williams - front wing flap adjust which is what I’m doing here for normal pit stops. It’s fairly second nature but the wheels are definitely something new! I can’t say I’m the quickest but I’m getting there. It’s all about muscle memory and practice.”
After this, the team will have the car ready for FP1 on Friday. This generally means a late night on Thursday, ensuring that everything is ready for the hour of running the following morning.
“The aeros and engineers will make a decision on what set up they want to do and cooling options,” she says. “Stressful is the wrong word but it can be last minute that we get the information. It has to be ready for Friday. We have to be reactive.”
On Fridays, Sam is stationed in the garage and her responsibility is the front-left of Giovinazzi’s car - getting it off the rack and putting it on the car, doing the blankets and looking after the composites.
“When the car comes into the garage, I put the fans on and start the process of taking the wheels off and checking the vehicle over,” Sam says. “I’m looking for even small damages that could’ve been caused by a loose stone or general wear and tear.
“I do find it hard to describe what I do sometimes. What I do is equivalent to a bedtime routine. You don’t think about what you’re doing! I don’t know everything and I’m always learning. Coming back to F1 after leaving in 2016, there’s still a lot of similarities for me, but I’m doing different jobs. I’ve never done wheels on/off the car before. Some stuff is second nature.”
The three practice sessions are fairly similar for Sam and the processes will depend on what the aerodynamicists want to do and whether there are any incidents.
“Qualifying is more hectic and there’s less time,” she says. “There’s more pressure to make sure the car is ready to go within seconds. The turn around is very quick. This has also been a challenge for me, learning how to put the blankets on top of the tyres correctly and keeping them warm. You look at mechanics and think it looks natural but when you’re not used to it, it takes a while.”
Once qualifying has finished and checks have been completed, there isn’t much more Sam can do until race day comes. With this, she’s made it her mission to run every race track on the grand prix calendar.
“I’m a believer that it’s a fantastic opportunity and so I should take it,” she says. “It’s two in one - I get to exercise and get to know the circuit. I’m lucky that I have quite a lot of friends in the pit lane. I have a really good support network so coming to Alfa Romeo and not really speaking the language or knowing Switzerland, I know that when I’m at the track I have a pit lane family.”
Sam’s fascination with composite materials began at school when she worked with glass fibre for a project. This evolved when she studied vehicle design at university and got to carry out aero work and clay modelling. With hard work and determination, she landed a role at Red Bull Racing.
“It was a good start but the problem with being a model maker now is that it’s more and more rapid model prototyping,” she says. “It’s different work and I like that I can use my hands and my brain and create different things off the cuff or a high-pressure moment.
“I was really fortunate at the time that Red Bull had a rotation scheme so I got to experience the race track. It was really good as a model maker to go testing because we’d probably tested the parts or the configurations before.”
Carbon fibre for Sam seemed like a natural progression to make, with the modern-day F1 cars being 90% made of the material.
Inspiring the Next Generation
“I don’t ever want a job because I’m female,” Sam says. “I want the job because I’m the best person for it.”
Sam has never seen herself as a “female in motorsport” but instead viewed it as her job.
“Promoting it is huge for the next generations so they can see it’s not only media people or on camera that can be in motorsport,” she says. “There are people like me, generally in the background and you can do it whoever you are.
“It’s been tough, really tough. I’ve had a lot of not so great experiences. I was in the pit lane in 2016, on the race team for Williams and no one even noticed. I was happy about that but it’s great that we’re pushing it. If you have passion and enjoy your job go for it. I support the fact that we’re a minority still. Sometimes the younger generations aren’t as receptive as the older generations.”
Sam recalls a time she was working at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a young girl visited her in the pit lane. Sam took her from the crowd and they had a photo together, the young girl just seven-years-old.
“Her dad said that she watches out for me all the time,” Sam says. “They’re the people that I want to inspire. You can still be a part of the F1 circus and not be a driver.”
Over the years Sam has spent working in motorsport, she has learnt an enormous amount. She’s clear that the journey hasn’t been easy and there is still a common misconception that as soon as you have a degree you will automatically land your dream job. However, if you’re willing to start from the bottom and work your way up, then the sky really does become the limit.
“You have to push, push, push - you have to fight for it,” she says. “You start trying to get a job but you haven’t got experience. Well, how do you get experience? It’s really catch 22. That’s how it is but if you’re passionate about it you start from the bottom. I had a degree but I still went in as a junior.
“You have to be persistent and you don’t learn that at university. I sent my CV to so many places when I left uni and I was so lucky that Red Bull gave me an opportunity. I wouldn’t be at Sauber now if they hadn't opened the door for me. Never give up as the opportunities will arrive.”
You can find more information about the current roles available at the Sauber Group here.
All imagery is courtesy of Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN.