Conducted and Written by Jasmin Low, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
If you follow any feeder series, you’re sure to have heard the name Prema Racing.
Prema has a long-lasting legacy of being the strongest and most successful team in Formula 2, Formula 3, and Italian F4, often dominating both the drivers’ and teams’ championships.
Since Formula 2 is a spec series, the outcome of a race is mostly down to driver skill and car setup. Whilst we can watch drivers shine on the racetrack, it’s not often we see the behind-the-scenes on a race weekend. So, how does such a successful team work?
Antoine Okla, one of Prema’s Chief Race Engineers for the 2023 Formula 2 Championship, gave some incredible insight into becoming a race engineer, and life as an engineer at one of the top teams in the Feeder Series. A Race Engineer acts as the link between drivers and mechanics on the team, playing a critical part in getting the best performance out of the car. Okla is no stranger to success, being part of the team that achieved 2nd place in the LMP2 category of the 2022 24 hours of LeMans, and having worked with notable drivers such as Alex Lynn, Jolyon Palmer, and Alex Albon during their junior careers, apart from his magnum opus: Winning Formula 2 titles with Mick Schumacher and Oscar Piastri in 2020 and 2021 respectively.
Okla’s success continues into 2023, as he works with rookie driver Oliver Bearman, and had played an instrumental part in Bearman’s double delight in Baku, as well as his feature race win in Barcelona, and podium in Hungary.
Jasmin Low: You’ve had some incredible achievements and opportunities. What has been your career highlight, and why?
Antoine Okla: As you’ve just said, I've been fortunate enough to have great opportunities in my career so far. One of them is working with largely professional teams, where people trusted me to run top drivers.
I would say the highlight has been to run Oscar Piastri to the title in 2021. First reason, he is a top driver, as well as a great guy. We had a great relationship from the beginning, and it developed into results very quickly. It was very rewarding, even more as it was his first year in F2.
The second reason is more from the Prema side. I joined the team in 2019, and 2021 was really the culminating moment, when all the work we put in came together to produce a quick car in both qualifying and races, with an incredible group of individuals.
JL: What pathway did you take to get to where you are today? Was there a moment when you realised you wanted to become an engineer or was it something you always aspired to do?
AO: I graduated from an engineering school in France, called ESTACA. From the moment I entered, I tried to get as much experience as possible on trackside engineering, to get better internships, and ultimately a good position as I graduated. As I said earlier, I went to very good teams: ART, DAMS, and finally Prema, following a common trackside path of Data Engineer, to Performance Engineer, and finally Race Engineer.
I could never really see myself doing anything else other than trackside engineering, to be honest! I have always been passionate about F1, and it has always been a dream of mine to work with race cars and drivers. The combination of technical analysis and communication, being under pressure and tight deadlines, is something I really enjoy.
JL: What does a typical race weekend look like, from a race engineer’s point of view?
AO: The race weekend really starts the week before, when the drivers come to the workshop for meetings and simulator preparation. That's also when we finalise the engineering work, analyse the previous race, and define the setup, with the mechanics building up the car in parallel.
During the race week, the team usually travels on Tuesday afternoon, to be at the track on Wednesday morning. For the extra European races, we travel a day or two earlier, depending on the distance.
Wednesday is really much a setup day, as we install our hardware. We deploy our double-decker truck, and install the tent on the side of it, which will turn into the garage for the weekend. So, not much to enjoy, but that's part of the job!
Thursday starts to get more interesting, with the car scrutineering, car setup, track walk, meeting with the drivers to discuss the weekend, and run plans. It's when you really start to be more focused on the weekend, and make sure the driver is focusing on the priorities.
The action finally starts on Friday, with Free Practice and Qualifying sessions. It is a day I enjoy, as it is quite fast paced, with only two to three hours of actual work between sessions. So, you have to be effective, focus on the right areas, and make sure the car and driver will be ready to perform at their best during qualifying.
Saturday morning is dedicated to the car preparation, as the setup changes quite a bit between performance runs and race trim. We have the first race in the middle of the afternoon, the Sprint with an inverted Top ten for the start.
We tend not to leave the track too late on Fridays and Saturdays, as the team operates very well on a car we have had since 2018, which is well-known.
On Sunday mornings, we have the main feature race, with one mandatory pitstop. It's usually the earliest wake up of the week. After the race, we have to pack everything up quickly, as the team needs to leave for the airport, and the truck for its next destination.
JL: How do you deal with stress on a race weekend? After a weekend that isn’t optimal, how do you bounce back from disappointing results?
AO: I don't believe I am really hampered by stress, if anything, it is more of a catalyst for me. If I have done my preparation to the best of my knowledge, capitalising from past experiences and anticipating possible scenarios, then there is not much else I can do, so I usually feel pretty relaxed.
Sub-optimal weekends will always happen, it is part of the game, and you have to accept this fact. I believe these moments are the most important, and define winning or losing championships, since depending on how you react can really create a positive or negative chain of reactions. That is the real motivation for me after a disappointing result, knowing I cannot change the past, and my present reaction will define (partly) the future. You just need to be intellectually honest with the reasons for the bad results, and apply the necessary changes.
JL: Is there anything you hope to achieve in the future?
AO: I really hope to keep learning and growing! Let's see what the future brings, and how it will materialise. At the moment, I am fortunate to be part of an incredible team that has been expanding over the past few years. I still have an interest in joining a series involving development of the cars, which would be a great additional challenge.
JL: What advice would you give to aspiring engineers, or people wanting to work in the industry?
AO: Working in motorsport is demanding, no doubt about it. You don't feel it too much when you are young, just out of University. But as you grow up, you will want to develop your personal or family life, and it will be difficult to find a good balance with work. You will be away many weeks a year, and will miss many events. So before starting, just make sure you are really, really passionate about the sport. It will also bring you a lot of incredible experiences, and can be as rewarding as it can be tough.
Then, as a student, try to get as much experience as possible, even if it may not feel relevant compared to higher-end motorsport. It will allow you to get used to working trackside, the lifestyle involved, and hopefully will make the difference when you will look for your next internship or job.
But ultimately, just enjoy what you are doing!
Considering Prema’s legacy of success and Antoine’s incredible abilities, it is only a matter of time before we see another one of his drivers on the top step of the podium.