NASCAR & Auto Racing

His dream was to race cars. Now this Miami kid is building them for one of best F1 teams

Elias poses with the Formula One Constructors Championship Trophy at the 2015 championship party.
Elias poses with the Formula One Constructors Championship Trophy at the 2015 championship party. Gabriel Elias

The starting lights go out and 20 cars burst out of the starting grid, scrambling for position.

The first lap of a Formula One race is mayhem. Within seconds, a racecar flies across the track and slams into a wall. The driver is fine, but he won’t be winning today.

More than 3,000 miles away in Oxford, England, Gabriel Elias watches intently. He has been a F1 fan since he was a kid living in Kendall. Now 30, he is more than a fan. He designs racecars, and two of his are on TV.

Elias is a design engineer for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team, the New York Yankees of the Formula One circuit. Since he arrived in 2014, the team has won four consecutive championships in the most competitive, most watched and most prestigious auto racing circuit in the world. In Formula One, Elias is one of a few dozen Americans, and likely the only Floridian.

At eight years old, Gabriel Elias knew what he wanted to do: become a racecar driver.

His dad disagreed.

“Well, I don’t have money,” he said.

Raising a competitive driver is expensive. Many of the world’s best started when they were five or six. Their parents bought them go-karts, paid for vehicle maintenance, and entered them in competitions across the country. This costs thousands of dollars a month. Mr. Elias didn’t have the disposable income.

Instead, he suggested that Gabriel become a race engineer.

“And I was like, ‘oh, OK. That’s what I’ll do,” Elias said.

Elias had hung around racing for as long as he could remember. His father was an auto-journalist and official photographer for the Homestead-Miami track. When Elias wasn’t in school, he would go along with his dad to assignments.

“Watch with your eyes,” Mark Elias would say. “Don’t touch anything.”

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While most people focused on the track, Elias trained his eyes on the engineers — the guys monitoring the telemetry, making set-up changes, and talking with the drivers. He knew if he wanted to make it in racing, this would be the way.

At his dad’s encouragement, he wrote a letter to Roger Penske, billionaire and owner of Penske Racing, IndyCar’s most prestigious team. It was a shot in the dark, but Elias wanted to know what it would take to become a Penske engineer.

The letter made its way from one amused employee to another until it got to Penske himself. He gave Gabriel a simple path: excel in math and science, then study engineering in college.

“And I remember just being ecstatic,” Elias said. “I used to watch his cars on TV and now he told me I could be his race engineer someday.”

Elias’ room was covered in racing posters, radio-controlled cars, a matchbox-collection — anything car-related he could find. He obsessed over Jacques Villeneuve, an outspoken and fiery racer who won some of IndyCar’s biggest races. Villeneuve’s success earned him a contract from F1, an even larger stage. Just like that, Elias was a Formula One fan.

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 1, 2018 in Spielberg, Austria. Mark Thompson Getty Images

F1 is most popular in Europe, so Elias would routinely stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning to watch races from the comfort of his bed. At Palmetto Middle School, he’d sit in the back of class and obsess about the race with his friend Andre, the only other racing fanatic.

“Every Monday after a race it would be like — did you see this? Did you see that?” Elias said. “It was like a secret language we had.”

He learned that F1 was just as much about the engineering as the driving. All IndyCar teams use essentially the same standardized vehicle. In Formula One, as long as the car meets the circuit’s standards, any design is fair game. Engineers are competing to make the car as light, powerful, and aerodynamic as possible. At season’s end, a trophy is given to the best driver and the best constructor. It would be like awarding a Gold Glove to the best fielder and the best manufacturer of gloves.

As he got older, Elias’ his car obsession remained. He pooled all his money from his Publix bagboy job for a 1991 Nissan 240SX, and spent all his future earnings on modifications. After school, he’d work with the car for hours, treating it more like a child than a car. His father said the car rode so low, it could barely make it up their sloped driveway.

After graduating Forest Hill Community High School in West Palm Beach, Elias headed to the University of Miami. The reasons didn’t have much to do with engineering. If you want to design cars, your best shot is at a big Midwestern school like Purdue, Michigan or Ohio State. But Elias, whose childhood coincided with a dominant stretch of Canes football, had no desire to leave. Plus, Miami had a special program in internal combustion engines — a nice bonus.

Staying close by also mean he could keep working on his prized car. During Christmas break of his freshman year, he did an engine swap in his dorm’s parking lot. The effort paid off; Superstreet Magazine, an import car publication, ran a full-page feature on his car.

Elias graduated with a degree but no job. Getting employed in the auto industry was a long shot. He hadn't done any internships, leaving him behind other engineering grads. But he had become friends with a UM student who raced in the Formula Atlantic Division, the highest level of club racing. He asked if he could help out.

Elias toiled away on his friend’s car for months, doing basic mechanical work. The pay was meager, but he got to work on an open-wheeled racecar, the same style used in F1, albeit much slower.

Eventually, he got a job at Honda. The trackside experience and the Superstreet feature made him stand out.

He arrived with big Formula One dreams. The only problem: Honda didn’t even have a Formula One team. During the Great Recession, the company had left the circuit. Elias reluctantly settled into his role, designing engines for passenger cars. It wasn’t sexy, but it was valuable experience.

“You always admire cars, but you don’t really know the amount of work that goes into it,” Elias said. “I was very immature in an engineering sense.”

Formula One is negotiating with Miami to bring a series of Grand Prix races — like this one in Austria — to the city’s downtown. The earliest Miami race would be in 2020. A planned city and county trip to see a Grand Prix in Singapore has hit some controversy. Charles Coates Getty Images

With a year of experience under his belt, Elias heard the news of a lifetime: Honda was returning to Formula One. He began firing off wild ideas to his bosses. If they sent him to Japan, Honda’s racing headquarters, he could be part of their F1 revival.

His bosses were not amused. They said he would need ten more years of experience before they would even consider sending him Japan. At Honda, Elias’ self-described “Miami mentality” didn’t fly.

“There are a lot of very reserved hard-working people up there and I guess I was kind of looking to come in and hit a home run and operate like a Miamian would,” Elias said. “And I got here, and I realized it didn’t work like that. I still had the Miami mentality, but I was coming upon a rude awakening.”

But there was one option in the back of his mind.

In college, Elias had Googled “American Formula One Engineers.”

“Did you mean ‘Canadian Formula One engineers?’” Google asked. Of the thousands of F1 engineers, only a few dozen are American.

Elias discovered Gavin Ward, a Canadian engineer who had worked his way up to Formula One. Instead of staying in North America and hoping for the best, Ward had moved to Oxford, England, the epicenter of Formula One engineering. He studied at Oxford Brookes University, a school with a renowned motorsport engineering department. Elias decided to go for it. He quit his cushy job, took out a loan for a year of living expenses, and flew out to England to get a Master’s.

“After my boss took the wind out of my sails, I said, ‘you know, screw this.I’ll be a Formula One engineer in a year’s time.’” Elias said.

Elias tailored his entire university experience to bolstering his Formula One resume. He used F1 simulation software on his Master's thesis, worked extensively on the school-designed racecar, and graduated with honors.

But then it hit him: what was he doing there? He was a relatively inexperienced American without a Visa trying to get a job in the highest caliber racing division in the world. Most teams rejected him pre-interview.

There was one team, however, that gave him a shot: Mercedes, the best team on the circuit.

“It was like my life depended on it,” Elias said. “Like, I gotta get this job.”

The interview was the most grueling of his career. For hours, the interviewers grilled him on every automotive nuance. He felt like he had thrown away his best, and perhaps only, shot at getting to Formula One.

After, he played soccer with a friend who had applied for the same position. They debriefed on some of the questions. Slowly, Elias realized that his friend had gotten most of the questions wrong. More importantly, he had gotten them right.

The next morning, he got the call. The job was his.

Elias’ job is not easy. He and his teammates have six months to design the fastest, lightest, and most powerful vehicle possible. The circuit is so competitive that Elias can reveal very little of his job description out of fear that other teams will steal racing secrets.

The next race Formula One race is on July 22 in Germany. Mercedes find itself in second place in both driver and team standings, unusual for them. Negotiations are also winding down to bring Formula One to Miami. Elias, who dreams about bringing F1 to Miami since childhood, is optimistic that it will go through. He'd love to show his hometown friends what he's up to.

Often, when he’s sitting at work, the veteran engineers will tell stories about past cars they’ve helped design. He remembers those cars. They're the same ones he’d watch from the comfort of his bed in the middle of the night back in middle school. The ones he dreamed of someday designing. 4,000 miles away from Miami, Gabriel Elias is home.