Open Eye: Getting a life in the fast lane

Tracey Inglis's OU degree took her from a sheet metal factory to designing Formula One cars.
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The Independent Online
Tracey Inglis had a childhood dream - to work in the car industry. More precisely, in Formula One motor racing. Trouble was, there weren't many openings in that field for 16-year-olds leaving school in Dorset. Tracey's was, however, a dream that wouldn't fade. Ten years ago, employed as a sheet metal worker, she started an Open University course in CAD - computer-aided design - taking in programming, design and microprocessors. This year, as a member of the TAG-McLaren F1 design team, she will collect her bachelor's degree.

Tracey readily admits that it was her OU education that moved her to the front of the fastest lane in the world. And when the cars of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard made it a one-two victory recently for McLaren in the opening race of the 1998 season in Australia, 34-year- old Tracey could feel justly proud as a senior printed circuit-board designer at TAG Electronic Systems in Woking, Surrey - where the McLaren team has its headquarters. It's her input that helps design the engine management systems for the cars which are already the bookies' choice to win this season's constructors' championship. And not just McLaren. Tracey and her colleagues help design cutting-edge electronic equipment for other top motor sport names, such as Jordan and TWR, Indy cars, world rally championship cars, touring cars and GT and Formula 3000 competitors in Japan.

But it wasn't always so state-of-the-art for Tracey. Before she decided to let the OU shift her life up a couple of gears, she was earning fairly basic wages making metal equipment for ships. "It was quite interesting, but it wasn't very well paid and it hadn't really a career path. Starting the OU course was my way out."

It took a long time. Tracey's passion for travel clashed with her OU commitments, stretching her time spent on the course to 10 years. "I took two years out to go travelling around Europe, watching Grand Prix in Monaco and Monza. With other distractions, such as soaking up the sun, I reckon I spent about six years working on the course in my spare time. But it's been worth it. It helped me get a job with GEC Plessey Telecommunications and later I moved to the Benetton Formula One team, which was a great thrill. I came to Tag-McLaren about 18 months ago and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. My OU qualification certainly helped me get through the door."

Her boss, Russell Widdecombe, says: "There haven't been any formal qualifications for printed circuit-board layout designers, so when Tracey came to us her OU degree certainly helped. It showed not only her talent but also her ability to apply herself and work hard."

And hard work is what she is getting. Since joining the company she has worked on last season's McLarens, as well as the new ones, plus the so- called black boxes for the Prost, Jordan and TWR teams. "I've always been a motor-racing fan," she says. "Even as a little girl, I was fascinated by racing motorbikes. Now to be able to work in an industry that is also a hobby is like living a dream. It's also a bonus to get paid well. I now earn almost four times as much as I did as a metal worker."

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