Mechanical Engineering student Saja Mahmoud’s day at McLaren

Montage of McLaren car (left) and Saja Mahmoud in a racing car (centre) and on the testing track (right)

Mechanical Engineering student Saja Mahmoud’s day at McLaren

Saja Mahmoud is in her second year studying Mechanical Engineering. For International Women in Engineering Day, Saja won a competition to spend the day with McLaren Applied. She spoke to us about her love of motorsport and what she learnt from her visit to the McLaren Technology Centre.

Saja Mahmoud looking through McLaren IWED prize frame
Saja Mahmoud at McLaren
Growing up, my sisters used to watch a lot of Top Gear and regardless of whether it was the silly challenges or the detail they go into with the cars, I found it all really interesting. Then I got into motorsport. I loved seeing people working on the technical aspect of the cars and the exciting races that came out of all their work.

Cars are such an incredible invention and it’s amazing to see how we started with a couple of wheels, brought lots of people and components together and now we have something that’s automated and can drive at hundreds of miles an hour on a track. I’m fascinated by how they keep evolving, so I knew that Mechanical Engineering was the right choice for me.

Your love of motorsport has moved away from just the screen now. How did you get more hands on experience?

I knew that if I wanted to get into the automotive industry and motorsport in particular, I needed to learn more about cars and put myself out there a bit more. Knowing that I’d be competing for jobs against people who’ve had experience working on cars from a young age perhaps with family or friends who are in the industry, I needed to find my own way of building up my skills and experience.

I volunteer as a race mechanic for a team competing in the Monoposto F3 Championship. I spend a lot of time in the workshop, getting training on how to do things like set up the car, change the fuel or work with the tyres, then sometimes I get to go along to the races and help out there too.

I like the idea of working in car design in the future but I know that to do this, you need to know cars really well. Volunteering as a race mechanic has really helped this as I get to see behind the scenes and learn how they do the setup work to optimise a car for the race track each weekend.

Tell us about your day with McLaren

I follow Females in Motorsport and noticed their competition with McLaren Applied for International Women in Engineering Day so I decided to give it a go. They loved my video entry (below) and I was invited to join them for the day at the McLaren Technology Centre.

We had a tour of the Centre and, as it was just after the Canadian Grand Prix, we got to see McLaren Racing stripping the car from that race. We also got to see both the McLaren Applied and Automotive section and production facility where they make and test their cars.

I found the testing aspect really interesting. You usually think of the big crash tests, but the components inside need to be tested just as much because they go through the same things as the whole car, like weather conditions and vibrations.

What have you learnt about engineering from your visit?

It was really interesting to see how some of the theories and testing we’ve done in our first year translate to a bigger scale, in a large company where you’re actually providing a product or service to people.

It was great to see how engineering is much more than theory or ideas. It’s people and team working too. That’s what I like about engineering; it’s not a solo effort, everyone is involved. And that’s especially important when you’re designing things, if you don’t take different people and experiences into account, you can run into problems.

Saja working on a racing car tyre
Saja on the track
I loved hearing from some of the women working across different disciplines at McLaren too and how the company is encouraging diversity. I was particularly inspired by one woman’s story. She didn’t speak English when she arrived in the country but saw the McLaren Technology Centre and was determined to work there. She wanted to work in the industry but didn’t have any experience so took a job as a cleaner there. Whilst she was cleaning, she spoke to everyone and built up her knowledge then eventually, one of the Technical Directors encouraged her to apply as a trainee and now, seven years later, she’s Senior Build Technician in the production facility.

I could really relate to her dedication and how she was determined to overcome the obstacles in place to get to where she wanted to be.

What’s something people are always surprised to find out about you?

Actually, it’s the whole engineering thing! People are surprised that I’m an engineering student and that I’m trying to get into motorsport. It’s a sport that’s had a lot of stereotypes attached to it in the past, so they tend to be surprised that I’m actually putting myself out there to get into an industry that hasn’t always accepted certain people.

What advice would you give to other people?

Always put yourself out there. With my intern race mechanic role, I was quite scared and doubted myself a lot but my sister gave me the push that I needed to apply. After that, I realised that I can actually do it so started putting myself out there for more things, like the visit to McLaren Applied.

Don’t wait for experiences to come to you. Act first, get in touch with people, see what opportunities there are and make the most of the initiatives available to you.