F1’s new Bernie on race-winning strategy calls and getting her chance ‘by accident’


Posted on

| Written by

In the cutthroat world of Formula 1, you could be forgiven for thinking that getting to the top means you must be determined, single-minded and have a clear focus on your goal.

If you want to be a driver, you start karting from a young age. If you want to be a mechanic, you study engineering. But Bernie Collins ended up calling F1 strategies for Aston Martin partly by chance.

Despite arriving in the role with no prior F1 strategy knowledge, Collins became one of the most prominent women in the paddock, working for one of the top teams, travelling the world and achieving a win and podium finishes.

The now ex-head of race strategy at Aston Martin began her journey to the top at a rival team. Collins started her career in 2009 alongside many other hopefuls at McLaren’s graduate programme.

Collins has moved from pit wall to television role
“I started engineering and I really enjoyed it but I joined F1 by accident,” she told RaceFans in an exclusive interview. “Well, not by accident, but lots of people know that they want to work in F1 and I didn’t know that.”

Collins, who was born and raised in Northern Ireland, began her motorsport career through Formula Student when studying at Queen’s University Belfast.

“I then did a graduate scheme and I became a designer. But during my time in design, I wanted to go to the track. McLaren had a really good program at that time to get young graduates onto the GT3 program. It was a really good trackside experience.”

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

After university she joined McLaren before stepping up to graduate engineer in 2010. At the time she worked largely within suspension design before becoming a design engineer in 2011, concentrating on the gearbox.

She joined Aston Martin when it was Force India
“People find it mind-blowing that you would do gearbox design as a woman,” stated Collins. “Doing mathematics and stuff, people are more accepting as a female than doing mechanical engineering.

“The image of engineering is wrong. People assume we’re in a boiler suit and getting dirty, which is not always the case. Sometimes it is. Whereas I think if I said I was a designer, people would have a different view. The difference between engineer and designer is quite different.

“I remember at one point someone ringing about a drawing I had done at McLaren and it was clear they expected a guy to answer. I was like ‘yes, that’s me’ – at the time [the drawing] would just have your initials printed on it.”

On other occasions she was mistaken for hospitality staff. “When I used to be in the paddock in the same team kit as everyone, I would very regularly get asked to make a cup of tea. I’d be like, that definitely is not my job. But sometimes I would be like, I’m just going to do it because it’s easier in life, you know?”

After spending two years with the design team, Collins knew she wanted to be working trackside. She began spending some weekends with McLaren as a designer in their mission control, where race engineers analyse every race, qualifying and practice session to help to support the Formula 1 projects. Her big break came in 2013 when she was working alongside Tom Stallard, who is now Oscar Piastri’s now race engineer.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

“I was performance engineer stand-in for Tom as he went on paternity leave for two races,” Collins explains. “He then went to do some more factory-based stuff. It meant I did all of 2014 in place of him.”

Alongside Stallard, Collins learned how to analyse data of the car and driver, working with the race engineer to maximise the most out of their package. Collins was responsible for a number of areas of performance including throttle pedal maps, differential settings, brake balance, braking performance and fuelling.

At the time Collins felt McLaren was “very blame culture-orientated” – something she stated is not the case anymore. But after being told the role was changing, Collins decided to move across to Force India, a team she already had a connection with as her partner worked there.

“At the end of 2014, there was a lot of political stuff,” she explains. “A lot of people were being moved around. A lot of people were let go and I was told I wouldn’t be travelling in 2015, but I could still work at the factory. That wasn’t for me.

“I got the job, which was half-performance, half-strategy. My aim was the performing side of it, and I learned a bit of a strategy because naturally you do follow what’s going on. Even working in performance, you’re still following the race – you’re more worried about the engine, motor fuel and all these things.”

But Collins’ role at Force India changed soon after she joined. Randeep Singh was about to leave his role as strategy engineer to join McLaren – where he remains as strategy and sporting director.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

“We had two races cross over,” Collins explained. “It was meant to be me doing the performance and a bit of strategy, but now I was doing all strategy because Randy was leaving.

Force India’s sharp strategy secured rare 2015 podium
“There was another strategist there at the time, and [my role] just became all strategy with a tiny bit of performance. Then over the years it just became no performance and all strategy. When I joined I had no strategy knowledge.”

However the modestly funded team, fielding Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, developed a reputation for punching above its weight. During the Russian Grand Prix in 2015 the team took a strategic gamble by pitting Perez during a Safety Car period on lap 12. He then had to complete a marathon 41-lap stint to the end, which he pulled off, scoring the team’s only podium finish of the year.

“[The decision] was across me, the tyre guy and Tom McCullough – he was my boss,” explained Collins.

“I think I wouldn’t have been given the [job] opportunity or pushed if it hadn’t been for Tom. I think if it was someone else, they would have probably said, right, we instantly need to recruit another strategist, this isn’t going to work, whereas Tom was a bit like, no, I think it’s going to be okay.

“If I was to say who made that call, It was probably Tom, but with the support of strategy in the background. We worked a lot like that in the early days.”

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

From fifth in the championship that year Force India rose to fourth the following season, which it repeated the year after. But behind the scenes their financial situation was worsening and in 2018 it was purchased by a group of investors led by Lawrence Stroll, who renamed the team Racing Point.

Sergio Perez, Racing Point, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020
2020 Sakhir Grand Prix review: Perez makes his case for 2021 chance with masterful recovery drive for first win
In 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic forced Formula 1 to compress its season. Races came thick and fast as the championship managed to fit in 17 races into six months. Strict rules were imposed to reduce the risk of infection, each team forced to remain with a ‘bubble’ and unable to socialise.

Amid the additional pressure, the renamed Racing Point squad demonstrated huge potential with its Mercedes-apeing RP20 chassis. The Sakhir Grand Prix in December began unpromisingly, Perez falling from fifth on the grid to 18th by the end of lap one after being hit by Charles Leclerc.

But incredibly, through a superb recovery effort by driver and team, plus a slice of luck, Perez delivered a breakthrough victory. Collins plays down the significance of their decision to pit him after that first-lap tangle to get him onto a set of tyres which would last longer.

“I actually felt that was one of my easiest decisions because we planned in advance what we would do if there was a first lap shunt,” she said. “So I even got the little ‘are you sure?’ question from the pit wall and I was like ‘100%, I know this is the right thing to do’. It wasn’t just me because lots of stuff fell into place that day.”

In 2021 Racing Point rebranded as Aston Martin, and Sebastian Vettel arrived in place of Perez. Collins stayed at the team until 2022 as head of race strategy but found herself struggling with the demands of a second pandemic-affected season.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Covid years were “really tough”
“Covid I found really tough,” she said. “I disliked the restrictions of who you could see, when you could see them, what you could do, all of that.

“My other half was working for Mercedes so he was in a different bubble. Like, we’re not 12, you know?

“Then we did our first triple-headers. I did the Brazil, Mexico, and Qatar one in ’21 and I just sat in the pit lane and had a cry after qualifying.

“My other half was like ‘are you okay, what happened in qualifying?’ I said I think quali was fine I’m just broken, I’m just so tired.

“In a team, you do prep the week before, you do the race weekend and then a review the week after. You’re working four weeks in a row with no breaks as an engineer. The mechanics try and get a day off. Your biggest break is the long-haul flight in between. I just thought ‘this isn’t life’.”

Collins left Aston Martin at the end of the 2022 season. “I asked to do less and they weren’t prepared to do less – there was some rotation where I could work factory, but like I said, that’s not an option for me.

“You still do all the hours, you still work just as hard, you still can’t go to your friend’s wedding or birthday. I just thought ‘this is a lot’.”

She now uses her pit wall expertise to demystify F1 strategies for television viewers. But while she is clearly keen to return, for now her place on the pit wall has been a casualty of F1’s ever-growing schedule.

“I would go back,” she says. “I loved working for Aston Martin. I love the team and I really enjoyed my job as a strategist. But I didn’t want to do 23 races.”

Become a RaceFans Supporter

RaceFans is run thanks in part to the generous support of its readers. By contributing £1 per month or £12 per year (or the same in whichever currency you use) you can help cover the costs of creating, hosting and developing RaceFans today and in the future.

Become a RaceFans Supporter today and browse the site ad-free. Sign up or find out more via the links below:


Browse all Interviews

Author information

Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

7 comments on “F1’s new Bernie on race-winning strategy calls and getting her chance ‘by accident’”

  1. Thanks for this interview. I’ve seen barely anything this season beyond the explicit race and qualifying action. I’ve heard her name come up a couple of times and her distinct N.Irish voice, but I didn’t know who she was or her fascinating background before this.

  2. I love Bernie. She’s my favourite by a long shot when she comes on board with the Sky team. A very intelligent engineer who has worked in F1 and has an Irish accent…

  3. Bernie is a big asset for Sky. I’m travelling to Belfast for a crash course of Irish phonetics to stand me in good stead.

    1. I thought it was a good idea bringing Bernie into the commentary team box. She is clearly a subject matter expert but unfortunately I understand very little of what she is saying. I really want to understand her. Her accent is just too much for this untravelled Aussie.

  4. Bernie has been such a great addition to the Sky broadcast. I could listen to her talk strategy for hours. She is well-spoken and well-informed and that is a magic combination.

  5. She’s not really added anything, blethers on about things which should be obvious to those watching. Can’t stand her accent either.

Comments are closed.