Engineer turned pundit Bernie Collins on going from Fermanagh to Formula One

Engineer turned pundit Bernie Collins on going from Fermanagh to Formula One
F1 pundit Bernie Collins was awarded an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast (Queen’s University Belfast/PA)

Engineer turned pundit Bernie Collins has spoken about her unexpected journey to becoming a Formula One strategist, and the strength of having a Northern Irish accent.

Collins, from Maguiresbridge in Co Fermanagh, has worked with some of the biggest names in Formula One including Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez and Jenson Button.

She graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a degree in engineering before becoming a trainee at McLaren.

After several years at McLaren, Collins joined Force India as a senior strategy engineer in 2015.

In 2023 Collins stepped away from the pit wall and became a pundit for Sky Sports F1 and now analyses and explains strategy decisions for millions of F1 fans.

Bernie Collins with the Queen’s Formula Student team (Queen’s University Belfast/PA)

Collins said she has had a lot of support from racing fans in Northern Ireland.

“Then this year was the first year that I’ve done the Sky stuff, which came about a bit randomly really, but they were sort of interested to get an engineers take on things because they’ve got a lot of ex-drivers,” she said.

“It’s been really nice, a lot of the support from home, I hear that quite a lot that a lot of people here are enjoying hearing a Northern Irish accent and enjoying someone I guess that’s more familiar to their background on TV so it’s been really lovely the support I’ve got so far.”

In 2023 Collins received an honorary doctorate from Queens for her contribution to sport, but said when she was completing her degree in engineering she had not envisaged going on to motorsport.

“That wasn’t like the planned route that I had sort of decided I would do, but it sort of happened after I decided to do engineering, because a lot of people in my degree went into sort of Bombardier or those sorts of roles and that’s what I’d envisage doing as well, that type of thing.”

She added: “And it just sort of happened in the last few years that we started the automotive stuff and that we started to think about, maybe doing some F1 and even when I applied for the job, and did the interviews and it was only actually after I finished my degree that I was accepted on that programme. So yeah, that dream came pretty late in the day really.”

Collins said it was difficult in the early stages dealing with “imposter syndrome” coming from a background not typical in F1 circles.

“But the thing that I think was more of a struggle was when you get to the race team, and you’re at the trackside environment or in that very competitive environment where there’s a lot of very loud voices and it’s almost aggressive at times because people are trying really hard to get the point across,” she said.

“That’s really more difficult, I think, and it just takes time, takes resilience. You sort of have ups and downs or days that you feel you’ve done poorly and then you realise actually, you know, that wasn’t a bad day.

“And it takes some time going through races, going through events, building up that sort of belief in yourself that you can do it.”

Bernie Collins with students from Queen’s University Belfast (Queen’s University Belfast/PA)

Collins said she embraced being the only Northern Irish woman in the room, and that her accent came with some advantages.

“I think people are really keen for new ideas and I think you can look at it as coming from a different background from everyone, or like a lot of people went to Cambridge or Oxford so yeah, sure, you can look at it as you’ve got a very different education, but you’ve also got very different ideas and there’s something to be valued in that,” she said.

“You’ve been taught in a different way, you’ve got different life experiences. So I think there was real value in bringing new ideas and that’s actually what teams were trying to pursue.

“And that’s the same in any of the meetings or any of the work that we went on to continue to do; it’s about having a variety of backgrounds.

“Being the female in it – pluses and minuses definitely. You stood out in a room but I think in engineering you did anyway because at uni it wasn’t an equal split by a long way. So I got pretty used to that.

“My voice stood out well on the pit wall … when I spoke it was the only Northern Irish female voice that there was in the room. So in some bits it worked to your advantage, because nobody had to ask who was speaking when I was speaking.”

Collins said her highlights from her shift to broadcasting in 2023 include getting to do commentary for races and doing the gridwalk at the Mexico grand prix, but it has also come with its challenges.

“The stuff I struggle with is, the TV have a lot less data with them than the teams do in general, and a lot less insight than what the teams do, so I struggled initially with sort of feeling like I’d not done my homework, you know, that was the feeling of going there and being not quite sure about a few things. So we’re working to improve that,” she said.

Italian Grand Prix \u2013 Race \u2013 MonzaBernie Collins said her highlights from her shift to broadcasting in 2023 include getting to do commentary for races (David Davies/PA)PA Archive/PA Images - David Davies

Looking forward to the 2024 season, Collins said she hopes the other teams can bring the fight to RedBull after the team had one of the most dominating seasons in the history of the sport, winning all but one race.

“The hope is that Mercedes are doing a full new car hopefully that brings them a step closer to RedBull and what have McLaren and Ferrari learned from this year being quite close behind them at the end of the year. So you could end up with a three, four car fight at the front, which would be ideal.

“Let’s see. My worry is that Red Bull have just been developing away or looking at this year’s car and are another step ahead.”

Collins’ advice to any budding motorsport enthusiasts inspired by her is to “be a little bit brave and go for it”.

“You have to apply for every opportunity that you think you might want to go for and if you don’t get the opportunity, which you won’t get all of them, ask why, figure out why, figure out what experience or training or what it is you could have done differently.

“But ultimately, you have to go for the positions that are there,” she said.

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