Holly Watson Nall: Having the Bigger Picture in Mind

© All pictures (including featured cover) provided by Holly Watson Nall

Four years ago in November 2015, during Season 2 of Formula E, Roborace – the autonomous car racing series – was announced. In 2019, Season Alpha – the first of two test seasons – was launched for the teams involved in Roborace and a series of competitions such as localization, obstacle avoidance, overtaking was carried out. Among the people pushing this cutting-edge racing series forward was Holly Watson Nall, a young woman who took on the passion for motorsport herself, and built a path to realize her dream.

Holly’s passion for motorsport was mostly self-developed, “My parents are not into motorsport, and they don’t know really anything about the industry. So I had to come up with the ideas on my own. When I was younger I used to like playing racing games, and that kind of developed my liking for cars. I started watching Top Gear on TV, and then I started watching Formula 1 on TV, it was when Jensen Button won his first World Championship. I really liked that, I really enjoyed watching the sport.” The passion for motorsport combined with her interest in engineering, gave her the idea of becoming an engineer in motorsport, “I got more into engineering as a general topic, so when I was studying at school, I really loved the idea of applying the physics and the math, which are my favorite topics, to creating solutions for things. Then I kind of gained the idea of wanting to work in a really cutting-edge industry. Through watching Formula 1 on TV I slowly realized that it was like a real job. I started to understand that you could actually do high level cutting-edge engineering on the sport. So that’s really what got me into it.” The first time Holly attended a Grand Prix weekend at the circuit was in Silverstone in 2012. She had to convince her parents that the motorsport interest is not just a phase, “From that moment on I was absolutely obsessed with it, and I knew I had to work in motorsport somehow.”

For a young girl from London, it wasn’t like there are a ton of opportunities lying around for her to take or a million role models around for her to follow. But Holly made the most of what was available for her. “I grew up in London. For me it was very challenging to find anything that was about motorsport. There’s no teams in London. There’s no factories I can go and look at. As a 13-year-old in central London I didn’t really know where to go. What I did was I just broadened my mind with engineering in general. I went to a lot of open public lectures at museums and it wasn’t even motorsport specific. I just learned about all kinds of things from dinosaurs to particle physics.” She also took advice from legendary Le Mans/IndyCar race engineer Leena Gade to join Formula Student, “I met Leena when I was probably 14 or 15 years old. Her and her sister Teena did a lecture at the science museum once. I was very nervous about meeting them, because they were really important people to meet. They’ve been one of the only few women faces I could see in the industry. So it was really important for me when I met them. They were really lovely and gave me great advice on how to move forward. They actually suggested doing Formula Student. So that really helped me form my path forward, which is another reason I’m no keen on doing outreach now. I try to work with schools, because I know it’s so important to give little kids, especially girls, a way forward in the path.

Taking Leena’s advice, Holly participated in Formula Student when she was studying motorsport engineering at Oxford Brookes. It was a good place to apply what she learned in lectures and figure out where to go in her future career. “At Oxford Brookes it was really useful to learn all the theories in the lectures. So you learn all the mathematical formula, you learn things like fluid dynamics, and then you apply it to a real engine. So we do engine mapping, we learn all the engine cycles in the lectures, and then actually go and practice the skills on the Formula Student car. But then I learned a lot of new stuff. The team work and communication are not something can be taught in lectures. But it was really useful to learn on the team.”

“Before doing Formula Student, I knew I wanted to do motorsport, but I wasn’t sure which area to go into. On the team, I took a wide approach and tried to learn many different things. I did almost everything such as doing basic mechanics on the car and learning about electric wiring. I also helped manage what was called a cost report. It was a task to analyze every single part of the car, every single nut and bolt had to be costed and put in a report. I liked managing that, because it was a good way of learning about all the different types of systems on the car. I never became a lead of a design section, because I wanted to keep my focus on the bigger picture. That was what I really enjoyed and what I ended up doing as well at work. One of the most important things that Formula Student taught me was that as an engineer, you are part of a system, part of a team. You don’t operate on your own. Especially in motorsport, you need to have in your mind the rest of the car. Say you are working on the aerodynamics of the front wing, you have to bear in mind the rest of the requirements for the vehicle. Not just in terms of the aerodynamics, you have to think of the whole package: how the suspension design is gonna affect what you are doing, and what you are doing is gonna affect the engine mapping of the car. You have lectures independently of each other, then Formula Student for me linked up all the different areas. It’s been so useful in the real world. On the business side, how much is this design gonna cost. You can’t just come up with a really fast engineering design and expect everybody to pay millions for it. You have to think about how it’s gonna be made. Formula Student really taught me how to link everything together to create a successful car. It’s like fitting a puzzle together, a problem solving exercise, where you have all these bits that don’t quite fit together and you have to come up with a way to connect them all up. Formula Student is quite unique a university project, and you can actually do that on a bigger scale. I thought it was really useful.”

During her time in the university, Holly also took part-time jobs and internships at various institutes and organizations, including Wirth Research, the technology and engineering consultancy firm led by Nick Wirth, the former Formula 1 aerodynamicist and engineer. She worked on projects for LMP3, Formula E, and Formula 1. For Formula E, she had the opportunity to work with Amlin Andretti Team (now BMW i Andretti) in the simulator. “I worked with Robin Frijns and Simona de Silvestro. They came to our driver-in-the-loop simulator, which was the project I worked on that year (2016). It was really interesting because they were doing practice runs of the qualifying and race sessions. In the simulator we had an exact digital copy of the circuits they wanted to work on. We had a very in-depth developed, detailed vehicle model, which basically replicated the car in simulation, and it would allow the driver to drive the simulator. It was a full 6-axis full motion 360 simulator. I got to drive it a lot too, which was great fun. It actually really improved my understanding of vehicle dynamics in a very practical way. I actually get to feel what understeer felt like in a car. We worked with the drivers on lots of different things, but mainly energy savings. It was the early days of Formula E, you really have to save the battery and save your energy. You have to do a lot of lifting and coasting, so a lot of driver skill was required in there. If some of the drivers are better at it than others, we will help the drivers to learn how to save energy over one lap whilst you still have a performance to win podiums. A lot of the simulator work we did at Wirth was to show them the data. We have loads of data that came off the simulator, very much like a real car. So you can directly compare the data from a real car to the ones in a simulator. We show the drivers the control, throttle, brake and steering, an example of a real driver who is good at saving energy or other things we wanted them to do, and then ask the driver to replicate that in the simulator. Then you can compare the data, compare their laps and show them where they are doing well and where they need to improve. I got to meet the engineers of the team as well. Andretti brought along the race engineers, the vehicle dynamics engineers, and the system and control people as well. Again it was a really good exposure to the different areas.”

Since Holly worked on both sportscar and single-seater at Wirth, does she have a preference of the different type of racing? “For watching I actually prefer sportscars. My favorite thing to watch is endurance racing, like 24h Le Mans, that kind of thing. I really enjoy the team work aspect of it. Three drivers have to work together to win the race. So I really liked watching that. There are also nerdy details we can go into. There is loads of different teams and cars. So I liked watching that. But to actually work, I really enjoyed the single-seaters. I think I like the optimization, the details you can go into with a single-seater, which is really what I enjoy with that.”

After graduating from Oxford Brookes with a Master of Engineering degree in motorsport engineering, Holly joined Roborace. This is quite a leap from designing the car, to designing the driver. “It’s interesting how your career ends up and the places you end up working. Throughout university, I had an interest in coding and programming, but coding was only a little part of what we learn in motorsport engineering. While I was at Wirth, I wanted to teach myself programming. So I learned a lot of the programming behind the vehicle model we used in the simulator. That really started me off on my journey to try and understand how you simulate a human driver. So I became really interested in this idea of how you make a virtual driver. That very naturally then lead to an interest in autonomous cars. Because of the benefit it could bring to the society, I was really interested in the idea that it could save so many lives and really improve safety on the roads. Obviously I still want to do something in motorsport and actually fulfill my passion at the time. I wanted to combine the two, so when I discovered Roborace, it was perfect. That was really my thinking behind wanting to join Roborace and help them on the journey to create an autonomous competition. I thought that was a fantastic idea. At Roborace I didn’t personally work on the programming of the car. I was more like higher level systems engineer. I looked after all the different systems on the car. But (programming) was definitely part of my interest there. It was a really fascinating job.”

In Season Alpha of Roborace, three team were competing: Technical University of Munich (Technische Universität München, TUM), University of Pisa (Università di Pisa), and Arrival. Holly’s team are responsible of helping the teams get their algorithms onto DevBot (the testing prototype of Roborace) and perform various tests and competitions. “The teams code their algorithms. It was up to us to help them integrate their software and make the car do what they want. It was a lot of data analysis. They would come and test with us. They would put their algorithm on the car, and I would help them look at the data from the vehicle and help them understand whether the car is doing what they wanted it to do, how can we improve the control algorithms and all sorts of aspects of an autonomous car that humans don’t really need to think about. There were problems like ‘how does the car understand where it is in the world’ – localization, so that was an extra problem to solve. There was path planning as well. You have to use all the data from the sensors on the vehicle to understand whether the car is actually following the path that it was supposed to take. Even before you get to performance, there were already loads of interesting questions. For example, TUM was really keen on working on the performance of their algorithm, but you have to solve all of the problems beforehand to actually get to that point. So it was a really interesting journey.”

“It took a long time to understand what the teams wanted. Like Arrival really wanted to do the whole stack, they wanted to work on the whole problem (from sensor/perception to control). Whereas other teams only want to do a certain part, like path planning. So it was really interesting. We tried to provide certain basic software modules to the teams that only wanted to focus on certain part. So that was the more open source aspect of it. The teams shared some of their code with each other, but obviously they kept some code separate and private for the competition part.”

Holly with DevBot 2.0 at Goodwood Festival of Speed

In September this year, Holly ended her time at Roborace and (re-)joined StreetDrone, a company providing autonomous-ready vehicles for autonomous fleets and autonomous R&D. It is now time for Holly to apply what she learned in the motorsport world, to everyday life on the street. “I think it comes to a point in a company where you’ve learned all of the major skills you wanted to achieve out of the company. I’d gained the experiences I wanted to gain from Roborace. I’ve been trackside for 10 months, learning about the systems on the car, learning about the autonomous problem. So I think it’s a natural crossroads for me to wanted to focus more on actually implementing autonomy in the real world. My passion for motorsport is still there but I wanted to start applying it to road cars. To really help people was my idea. I’ve learned all the valuable skills that Roborace had taught me. It was a fantastic opportunity to travel a lot. But I now want to focus on more strategic planning. That’s what I wanted to do next. StreetDrone needed somebody to help them for strategic planning on where they go next. So it was a natural time to go.”

Even though Holly is working on real world problems, like she said, her passion for motorsport is still there. When asked about whether she sees herself back in racing in the future, Holly was pretty open about the potential. “I think I don’t know yet (chuckle). I’m quite flexible really with where my career will go. I don’t have any set ideas of what I have to do. I would say never say never for sure. I still have love and passion for motorsport. Formula E is definitely an interest for me. Combustion cars are not really on my radar any more. I don’t expect myself to go back to Formula 1. But again I’d say never say never. Lots of the companies like McLaren and Williams have very interesting projects around Formula 1 that I would be still interested in. But I think Formula E and electric cars would be my focus. I think I could do in the future for sure.”

Speaking of Formula 1 and internal-combustion car racing, we also asked Holly about F1’s new initiative of reducing emission and the fact that less than 1% of F1’s emission is from on-track action, “It’s an interesting problem. It’s been too long for the motorsport industry to come around to the idea that the problem seems to be the transport. The problem is they spends 23 races or however many they have a year traveling across the globe. I think it’s really come to everybody’s attention that this is a problem. But it’s a perfect place to solve it. You have all these clever engineers. I have a lot of confidence that the industry will start to solve this problem. I think that initiative is really good. Teams like Sauber, or Alfa Romeo as they are now called, they’ve been doing this for a number of years now, I think since 2011. They were aiming to be carbon neutral. I think it’s about time. Obviously Formula E has been a bit ahead of the curve on this one, but Formula E has a lot to learn as well. I think it’s about time, to be honest, the conversation gets going.” While we were writing this article, Volkswagen (only the brand, not the whole VW group) announced that it will cease factory involvement in combustion engine racing. Whether it’s on-track action or overall for the industry, motorsport is standing in a challenging position now to figure out where to go next.

As Holly mentioned, she is keen on doing outreach to help young kids build their interest and their path in motorsport and engineering. So let’s end this story with some advice from her to people who want to be involved in the engineering side of motorsport. “For kids, just read about what you are interested in. It doesn’t have to be that you go to expensive races. Follow what you are interested in and try to get involved in community projects, such as robotics club at school. I know some schools have computing clubs, I help run some on Saturdays in Oxford. So it’s all kinds of things like that you can join in, especially with software and programming, I think it’s really easy now to learn it. You can buy a Raspberry Pi for 20 pound and start programming at home. It’s really easy and cheap to do that kind of things. That’s why I try and go to schools and help them start robotics clubs. It really doesn’t cost much. It’s a great opportunity for schools to do that. That would be my tips really, to get involved with small things where you can and it all leads to bigger things in the future.


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