Both sides of the border, Ireland has a strong affiliation to rallying. In recent years, Kris Meeke and Craig Breen have represented the island on the world stage, the World Rally Championship. They both know they are living the dream of many of their fellow countrymen but the ability and costs of pursuing such a career are beyond many. One man from Ballyclare, N. Ireland, has found a different way to reach rallying’s premier championship.
23-year-old Jamie McMillan, graduated from Queen’s University Belfast less than a year ago and has already been to four WRC rounds as a Junior Engineer for M-Sport. The Mechanical Engineer was Queen’s Formula Racing’s Team Leader last year, guiding the team to seventh overall in Formula Student UK 2017.
Introduced to motorsport by his Father, Jamie has fond childhood memories of spectating at rallies around N. Ireland. However, his first passion was for football but at 12-years-old upon realising the difficulty of making it professional, he decided to focus his passions on motorsport. You could say he hasn’t looked back since!
“We had some old autotest cars in our garage and I knew Dad used to compete; I did some research and knew you could autotest from 14,” said Jamie.
“Coming up to my fourteenth birthday I pestered my parents for a few months to get a car so I could compete.
“We started off with a front-wheel-drive Toyota Starlet SR; it was a great wee car, complete with the full Toyota works Castrol livery. We still have it as a runaround, competing in the odd lanes rally.
“I won the N.I. Beginners’ Championship and was making fairly good progress so when I was turning 16 we took the plunge and bought a Nova. This was and still is the car to have for the Class D championship.
“I won the odd thing here and there and have represented Northern Ireland as first reserve driver for the last three years. I still compete as regularly as possible, traveling home for events when they don’t clash with rallies.”
Jamie’s passion for motorsport as a hobby quickly changed to something more serious while at university. A placement with Formula 1 team, Force India, was quickly followed by two years in Formula Student. His technical and management skills were tested leading QFR last year which has helped him jump straight into a demanding motorsport role.
“Being involved in Formula Student is one thing, but you need to dedicate all your spare time to it to really make the most of it and get the best experience,” said Jamie.
“I basically dedicated my life to it for a year, but it was all worth it in the end so I wouldn’t change a thing.
“I also did a placement in Formula 1 with Force India as a Research & Development Engineer.
“This was a steep learning curve but I loved working in the full-pace, high-pressure environment. The job those guys do is phenomenal and I have serious respect for them, going toe-to-toe with the best in the business on such a tight budget is quite something.”
Jamie experienced the full range of highs and lows as QFR Team Leader in 2017. The car performed well at the competition, achieving top honours for acceleration and most efficient internal combustion engine. But it was certainly not all plane sailing.
“We made it to our first track day three days before the car was due to travel to the competition,” explained Jamie.
“During our first brake test, the front lower wishbones buckled, it was a disaster! It was looking like we wouldn’t even make it to the competition.
“I could have cried but the rest of the guys were amazing, they picked the spirits up and set about making a plan to tackle the major fight we now had on our hands. Within two days we salvaged all we could, rescheduled the boat for a day later, remade the damaged components and had the car back on track. A proper QFR miracle.
“Then we made the trip to Nutts Corner the day before the boat and successfully completed the brake test.
“After about 15 minutes of track running I came into the pits for a driver swap, it was lucky I did because the water pump belt had snapped. We were due to be on the boat in 12 hours so a water pump belt was sourced in Birmingham and picked up on the way to Silverstone.
“It was a crazy few days with not much sleep but it was worth it in the end.”
As well as leading the team, Jamie also did a final-year project in suspension analysis. This involved setting up a wireframe suspension model in CAD to enable users to virtually adjust suspension bump, droop, and roll. His understanding of suspension characteristics will be paying dividends now as he offers M-Sport’s WRC2 drivers their first port of call at the end of each stage.
“They relay the handling of the car on the stage or any issues they’ve been having,” said Jamie.
“I suggest some modifications before the next stage; damper clicks, ride height changes, tyre strategies, or come up with a plan for a more significant set-up change in service.
“If anything goes wrong, I am the person they contact looking for an explanation or solution so it can be very stressful at times; you always fear the worst when the car stops on the GPS tracker or when a split time is late to load.
“I then create a job list for each service based on any reported damage to the car or any issues the driver has mentioned as well as various routine jobs. Once the car is in service, I work closely with the No. 1 mechanic to prioritise the most important tasks and ensure we get as much completed as possible in the short space of time.
“The amount you can do in a 30 or 45 minute service is amazing, the technicians know the cars inside out and watching them work is seriously impressive, especially when they have a major fight on.”
In between WRC rounds, Jamie is busy at M-Sport’s factory in Cockermouth, Cumbria. The team, owned and managed by former rally driver Malcolm Wilson has manufactured over 250 Ford Fiesta R5s in the past four years. Releasing almost one per week to its customers, Jamie carries out data analysis and systems checks on them during the 10 km shakedown at a local airfield.
He’s also kept busy with different design projects on M-Sport’s R5 and World Rally cars. M-Sport is introducing a new Fiesta R5 next year so Jamie has been involved in its design and development ahead of its launch.
“One project I got involved in was comparing plumbed-in extinguisher systems for the Fiesta WRC,” said Jamie.
“The research work resulted in a new system being implemented for Rally GB last year, saving over 3 kg.
“It was good to know that something I had been working on had been fitted to all our entry cars and benefited the team.
Rally GB was Jamie’s first visit to a World Rally as an M-Sport engineer. Assigned to Kalle Rovanpera for the weekend, he was very much thrown into the deep end.
“Kalle had just turned 17 at the time and was regarded as the Max Verstappen of rallying,” said Jamie. “He was backed by Red Bull and there was a big story around his first WRC event, I ended up doing three or four interviews with Red Bull TV!
“I’ve been doing various national and international events since then and have been assigned as the engineer for Gus Greensmith in his WRC2 title bid from Rally Finland to the end of the season.
“I am actually just back from a pre-event test with Gus in Portugal. He is currently second in the championship so it’s an important role which I am looking forward to getting stuck into.”
With trips to Mexico and Argentina already this year, Jamie will continue to rack up the air miles as he is set to travel to most of the remaining WRC rounds. Suffering from a few baggage mishaps along the way, he’s adjusted to the on-the-road lifestyle of motorsport and has even taken up reading as a past-time. Quite the change from the days of autotesting a Nova around N. Ireland.
As he hopes to progress through the ranks at M-Sport, engineering a World Rally car being the ambition, Jamie left some advice to people looking to get a similar position in motorsport.
“Don’t rely solely on your degree or even on Formula Student to get a job, you need to show that you’ve taken the initiative and got involved in something extra-curricular.
“Get stuck in – get involved in motorsport of any form, whether it’s driving, co-driving, marshaling, organising or spannering. It’s the best way to open up opportunities for yourself and gives you plenty to talk about in interviews.
“It doesn’t have to be just motorsport, if you can show commitment, determination and competitiveness in other aspects of your life then it adds an extra dimension and another talking point.
“I played football competitively right up until final-year, when I gave it up for Formula Student, and helped out coaching at a local football club. I was training or coaching four nights a week and then went back home and worked at a local restaurant from Friday night to Sunday.
“I think it’s really important to show an employer that you are willing to work and put the hours in, whether in motorsport or something else.
“There are a lot of students nationwide who compete in Formula Student, so as I mentioned above, if you want to stand out, you really need to commit and sacrifice a lot of your free time to the project and really get the most out of it. If you do this, then you’ll have plenty to discuss in any job interview, I can assure you of that!”