Meet Sabré Cook, Infiniti Engineering Academy Winner and Race Car Driver

Infiniti Engineering Academy and Renault provide a massive opportunity to aspiring race engineers.

With the 2019 Formula 1 season concluding December 1 in Abu Dhabi, the drivers, engineers, mechanics, and the rest of the thousands of people who bring the F1 circus to life every year will get a rare break. But time off is a rare commodity in motorsport, especially for the designers and engineers charged with creating the multimillion-dollar race cars that are a huge part of the series' appeal.

Indeed, the drivers might command most of the publicity and money, but without a good car, they are essentially nothing. That's why, with the world's most capable, technologically advanced road-racing machines, F1 is naturally home to some of the world's top engineering talent. For aspiring race engineers, though, its barrier to entry can be high. At the same time, Grand Prix teams are always on the lookout for fresh talent to supply their design and engineering departments with new ideas and key team members of the future.

That's why Infiniti and its corporate sibling Renault in 2014 founded the Infiniti Engineering Academy. The program annually sifts through thousands of young applicants drawn from universities all over the world, ultimately selecting a handful of elite winners to spend a year working and training with both Infiniti on the production-car side and Renault Sport F1 at the pinnacle of motorsport.

As the F1 season draws to a close, a fresh class of aspiring engineers is just days away from this year's final U.S. competition scheduled for December 5, near Nashville. For the winner, it will represent the beginning of a potentially career-altering journey. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Sabré Cook, last year's American winner who was one of seven fresh faces to recently complete the program's 2019 installment.

A native of Grand Junction, Colorado, the 25-year-old race-car driver received her degree in mechanical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in 2017. Cook began racing karts at the age of 10, and in 2018 she competed in U.S. F2000 and F4 prior to contesting the 2019 W Series F3 championship in conjunction with her year spent in the Infiniti Engineering Academy. She gave us the lowdown on just how valuable the program can be.

Now that you've done it, how was the academy experience?

Sabré Cook: Yeah, this year's been amazing. [This time] last year I was able to win the academy final in the U.S. Then I moved to the U.K. in January and from there, I started at Infiniti Technical Center for the first six months. Then I worked in the vehicle-testing department, and I mostly worked with noise-related consumer issues and concerns. I learned a lot because I'm not a sound engineer, so I definitely got to learn a few things. So that was really fun and I've never been in as big of a corporate environment as that, getting to experience the office life and see how a big company like that functions, which is obviously very different to motorsport. I think it was a really good, valuable experience for me to be able to take that and put it on my resume for later on.

And then you moved to the Renault Formula 1 side…

I started at Renault F1 in July. I'm currently working in composite suspension design, so really busy right now obviously, working toward the 2020 F1 car. I learn so much every day and honestly I couldn't replace this experience with anything else; I'm around some of the best engineers. Even though they take us through this process and really make sure they get some of the best engineers [into their program], once you get there you still have to continue to work hard and continue to try to impress and try to contribute to the team, because if you don't—obviously you want to get invited back to maybe, possibly stay [in a fulltime position]. So, the whole year has very much pushed me to grow in a lot of ways and I'm really thankful for the opportunity.

They were also very receptive of your schedule, apparently?

Yes, amazingly. They obviously knew coming into it that I raced. Especially because the weekend that I was selected [for the academy], I was also racing [at Circuit of the Americas] in F4, so they're like, "Okay, we can probably make this happen."

Then, I did race in the W Series [F3 cars] all this year as well, so it was extremely busy with that, but they were amazing with saying, "You need to take your holiday days. We've set those dates out." I can work around that; as long as I get my work done, then it's fine. Then not only did they do that, but they also gave me access to the Renault Sport Racing Academy, so I've been able to train with them a little bit and do a couple of events. I think that's really helped me to kind of see how [Renault is] developing drivers to eventually race in its cars in the future. So overall it's been a very blessed experience for me.

What was the first thing that went through your mind when you won the opportunity to participate in the program?

After I initially won, I was like, "Okay, this is great, but I have a race this weekend, so I need to deal with this later." [The race] was that weekend, but then the Monday afterward I was like, "Oh my God. My life is going to completely change next year."

It took maybe a month and a half before it really sunk in, and then I remember on the plane over for the first time, I was sitting in the seat and we were maybe half an hour into the flight, and I'm like, "Oh my God. What am I doing?" You have a little bit of a panic mode because it's such a new experience and it is scary. You can't pretend it's not. You're going to a new country, going to an amazing company, and you wonder, "How am I going to do?"

But I think I was in a place where I was trying to figure out where I was going, the correct direction to go next in my life. For this opportunity to kind of show up almost perfectly and at the time that I needed it—I've grown immensely in so many ways personally, intellectually as a driver over this year because of this experience. I think it's one of the best that probably ever could've happened to me and I highly recommend it to anybody that is looking to go into it, obviously.

What do you think the experience gave you that no other one could have?

Living with strangers was one. Yeah, this is the first time I've had all male roommates. Obviously you can imagine my father when he first heard about that. You show up and you get to meet all of these new people, and I live with some from New Zealand, Mexico, and Germany. So it's a very diverse group, but it's a cute, little, dysfunctional family and the crazy uncle, mom and dad, and our child is Patricio who we regularly give a hard time about cleaning his room … it's great to have that experience and get to know people from different cultures more.

How far do you think the academy advanced you in terms of where you would've been without it?

If I really had to put a time on it, I guess I'd put it as maybe two to three years. It gave me a way into F1, directly into where they were confident enough that I could contribute to the team and gave me certain jobs. Then they work you up until you're actually in charge of something that's a bit more impactful in the car.

I think to get to that point versus just trying to use my contacts that I had previously, I could've maybe got an internship, but I wouldn't have been at the same kind of, looked like at the same level. Obviously I got the experience of working in Infiniti, too, so having a car manufacturer on your resume is huge. And I didn't have any contacts here in the U.S., and the car manufacturers here. So, to be able to go through that, I think that really gave me an advantage over where I would've been without it.

When it comes to the work you're assigned, it's all real projects, yes?

Yes. I'm actually in charge of the [upper suspension wishbone] for next year's car. So that's currently what I'm working on. There's so much to learn. I would love to stay at Renault because I think there are so many different areas. Just look at one piece that I'm working on; the level that you have to go through of detail just to create this one part is insane. What really was cool was, once we got to Renault, they let me go in the clean room for a few days and you actually get to make parts yourself and laminate them—and then cure them, and then take them out of the molds. So, they make sure that you understand start-to-finish how the product gets made.

I think that was really important. The same with Infiniti; you go downstairs and you work with the techs, alongside the techs, especially in my position. I would spend most of the day in a workshop, working with the techs and going through the cars. Being able to have more hands-on experience in my job was really valuable to me because I like that. I like working with my hands more, so for me I think a lot of other companies, I would probably have just sat behind a desk or something.

What's your plan for 2020?

I'm going to finish out my contract until the end of the year, as well as [attend] the U.S. Infiniti F1 Engineering Academy final Nashville. Then going into next year, I would love to stay in England. I'm actually really enjoying it and I think it's a great place for me to continue to grow, but I do have [a spot in the] W Series confirmed for next year. I do have other opportunities that have presented themselves to come back and race in the U.S. and try and pursue the dream of getting to IndyCar, so I'm trying to kind of decide right now which direction is the best way to go, as well as if they even have spots available or they want to keep some of us on [from the academy].

Is the Road to Indy ladder program on your radar, then?

Right now, I do have a team that would like me to run Indy Pro next year, through the full season, even though there would be two conflicts with W Series, but they're still willing to do it. I'm not 100 percent sure, it's not been confirmed. I hope I can confirm it by the end of the [year], but you never know what's going to happen.

What's your 10-year plan? Racing? Engineering?

Obviously, I love engineering. Otherwise, I wouldn't have pursued it this far and I wouldn't have pushed this hard to get here. For me, it's almost a bit scary in a way for me next year if I would just focus on racing because I don't want to give the engineering up. I feel like I've made good progress and I feel like I've got a lot of momentum going now, being in the academy. It's hard for me to want to step away from that to try and pursue other things, but no matter what, I'll for sure come back to engineering because you can't race for your entire life.

Engineering is definitely part of who I am as a person. I think no matter what, I will try to stay with that. You just have to kind of adjust as you go on, but in 10 years I'd love to obviously get more experience as an engineer and work more toward being a race engineer in F1, as well as an IndyCar driver. I think I can do both dually, as I've done so far, anyways. They compliment each other, so it's not like if I just go race I'm not going to learn any more about engineering. I'm glad that they both can coincide together.

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