Introducing Tristan Cortez, the 2020-21 Chief Engineer of Anteater Formula Racing

Introducing Tristan Cortez, the 2020-21 Chief Engineer of Anteater Formula Racing

Anteater Formula Racing, the UC Irvine Formula SAE Internal Combustion Team, constantly evolves. Experienced students graduate, with new members joining to steer it towards its goals. New cars are designed, built, tested and raced using new technology while navigating an ever-revised FSAE rulebook. Even the competition has changed locations. However, since the Fall of 2016, there have been two constants within AFR. First, the passion for racecar engineering, and second, Tristan Cortez. 

As by far the most experienced member in AFR this year, Tristan takes on the role of Chief Engineer as a fifth-year mechanical engineering major. He started as a Powertrain engineer in his freshman year, and was promoted to Engine Development Lead Engineer for the 2019-2020 season before taking on the top engineering position.


What hooked you on Formula SAE?

“I’ve been enamored with the world of motorsport since I was 5 and my eye has always been on Formula 1. Towards the end of high school, I was researching how to get into motorsport as a career and what race teams are looking for. I kept reading “Formula SAE” over and over and I hadn’t heard of it before, so I looked into it and I was completely blown away by the fact that universities all over the world allow student teams to design, build, and test their own open wheel style race car, replicating F1! I got involved with it when I started at UCI and never looked back.”


A famous recording artist once sung, “Started from the bottom/ Now we’re here.” What has it been like to spend so much time on a single project, professionally as an engineering student and personally? 

“Looking back, it is quite crazy to think that I started on the team doing whatever task I could get my hands on – cleaning the engine, sweeping the shop floor, polishing the chassis, looking for parts – and now I’m the leader of the whole team. Time really does fly! It’s been incredibly satisfying to go through that progression because I know what it’s like to be a new member of the team that is just getting started, what it’s like to be a sub-team lead, and now learning what it is like to be the chief engineer. With this, I can help my teammates succeed in their roles because I’ve been in their shoes. Spending so much time on a single project has allowed me to see how the team and cars have evolved over the years and what we need to improve on to take the team to the next level. 

Professionally, I have learned that every engineering detail is absolutely critical. Something that may seem trivial and is overlooked could very well be the thing that prevents the design from working or causes it to fail. Whether you are designing, manufacturing, or testing, you need to make sure you are taking everything that you can into consideration, as doing that could be the difference between a competitive and reliable car and one that is not. 

Personally, it has been very humbling. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many talented and knowledgeable people from all walks of life and create memories and friendships that will last far beyond my time at UCI. It has also reinforced my passion for racing and motorsports and I know now more than ever that I want to be a racecar engineer. Every day in AFR is a privilege and doesn’t feel like work because I truly enjoy it. It has also taught me to be resilient as there have been many times when things don’t seem to go the team’s way, but that is when you have to push forward and not give up. There are going to be times when it seems your efforts are futile, but they’ll pass. When you see that car zipping around the track and feel the vibration in your bones and chest as it passes by you, it is all worth it.” 

(L to R) Alex Luna (2019 Chief Engineer), Matt McMurry (2019 Team Manager), and Cortez carry safety equipment at Formula SAE Lincoln 2019. By Noah Stein.

Within the day-to-day operations of the project, how much does experience play a role?

“I would say that experience plays about 50-60% of a role because every day is spent developing both the car and team to take on the challenges of the FSAE competition and improve on the mistakes from the previous year. Someone who has gone through the entire process of building the car and competing with it has to be there to help guide the rest of the team through that process. That’s even more important this year because only 2 people on the team have traveled to an FSAE competition (2020 was online-only and we lost experience to members graduating). In manufacturing, experience probably plays about 70-80% of a role because of how difficult it is to manufacture components from scratch. Someone making a part for the first time won’t know all of the proper procedures or be familiar with the intricacies and problems that can arise.”


Racing is always a roller-coaster. What’s a high moment that you cherish and a low moment that you wish you could redo?

“A great moment I will always cherish would be the Acceleration event at FSAE Lincoln 2018! The Acceleration event times how fast the car can travel 75 meters (246 feet) from a dead stop. I remember watching with my teammates and Professor McCarthy. On our second run, we posted a 2nd-place time at that moment – 4th after every car ran – which was the highest we had ever placed in any event in Anteater Racing’s history! All of us felt so proud and overjoyed. It was an amazing feeling and those moments are really what the project is all about.

Formula SAE Lincoln 2018 Team Photo with “Phantom.”

A low moment would have to be FSAE Lincoln 2019 when our car’s engine troubles caused us to miss Skidpad and Acceleration, so those points went down the drain. It ended up being an O2 sensor failure, meaning the engine was not receiving the right amount of fuel and not running properly. Being on the Engine Development sub-team that year made it tougher to take because, during testing, we had noticed that the same engine that got us 4th in Acceleration the year before lost about 20 horsepower for no apparent reason. We had been getting a reading from the sensor, so we tried other solutions, but the reading was wrong because it was on its last leg. It only became obvious when it fully gave out the night before Endurance. If we had known to change that sensor before we left for Lincoln, our whole competition would have been different because our car was quick.”


When you aren’t running the team and taking classes, what do you enjoy doing? I know racing esports is a huge one.

“The funny thing is, even when I’m not running the team or studying, I’m still thinking about racing! I enjoy watching all kinds of racing whether it be F1, F2, IndyCar, or sportscar racing. I follow F1 religiously and wake up at 6 am most weekends to watch the races and all the post race analysis and driver interviews. I spend hours watching tech videos on YouTube to see how every team develops their car and why they chose to. I follow IMSA and GT World Challenge very closely as well to watch two outstanding UCI alumni, Matt McMurry and Samantha Tan, race their hearts out. Matt, as fans of the project will know, was our Chief Engineer last year. It blows my mind that I know two professional racing drivers and am able to call both of them my personal friends. I’ll always follow their careers with great interest.

I do a lot of sim racing on my off time and am an Esports driver for Virtual Life Xperience Esports (IG: @vlx_esports). I spend most of my time racing on Gran Turismo Sport competing in their FIA-certified championships. I participate mostly in the FIA Manufacturer Series, where I represent Ferrari and race against the top drivers in North America. Since I’m top 16 in the region, I’ve been racing in the Top 16 Superstars races that are broadcasted on YouTube with live commentary. Many of my competitors have real racing experience, so to be competitive with zero actual racing experience is really satisfying and very cool. It’s amazing and allows me to live out, even if only for a small moment, my dream of being a racing driver that I’ve had since I was a child.”

Cortez’s Ferrari  458 GT3 in the FIA Manufacturer Series on GT Sport.

Looking forward, no doubt this will be one of the most challenging years in the project’s history with the impacts of COVID-19. What’s your outlook for the team if AFR is allowed to continue manufacturing Jinx, and what if AFR isn’t? 

“If we can’t restart manufacturing Jinx, it would be a huge disappointment for everyone on the team, but we understand that the general welfare and safety of ourselves, our families, and communities is more important. If that is the case, we will focus on the digital, remote side. We’ll refine our designs even further and do as much computer analysis as possible to extract as much performance as possible for the future.

If we’re allowed to continue manufacturing, we aim to prepare as much as possible because we will be under safety protocols that decide who can work in the lab and when. Everything has to be planned ahead of time, from the upgrade designs since Spring quarter to how we will manufacture what we need, to how we will coordinate with our Electric and Baja colleagues. Right now, we’re working on a detailed manufacturing plan of every component. It is a huge undertaking and definitely something, even with all my years of experience, that I’ve never done before. No matter what happens, this work will make the program as a whole more successful in the future.”


Written and edited by Noah Stein.