Moving Parts | CFD Engineer Max Starr

Moving Parts is an INEOS TEAM UK series looking at the invaluable work of different members from across the team. This time we are looking at CFD Engineer Max Starr.

Growing up Max Starr had two dreams. To become an astronaut or, inspired by memories of watching Formula 1 races on his grandfather’s lap, to work in Formula 1.  Max never did travel to space, but he achieved one of those dreams and in doing so started a journey that would eventually lead to him becoming a CFD Engineer for INEOS TEAM UK.

Max was born in South London and grew up in Guildford. At the age of 10, however, he moved with his family to Dubai and spent the second-half of his childhood growing up in the Middle East just after the first Gulf War.

“That was an interesting time. I have memories of growing up in Dubai and seeing a lot of fighter jets flying over. It was also where my Dad introduced me to sailing. I remember learning to sail on Optimists and Toppers and then moving on to Lasers, although the weather got so hot that we had to stop sailing in the summer!”

It wasn’t long before Max returned to the UK, and back to Guildford, to complete a degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Surrey, before going on to study a PhD at Cranfield University focussed on the atmospheric re-entry of spacecrafts.

“Six months into that PhD, however, everything changed. The project I was working on was dropped. I had to quickly shift gears and I was almost accidently dropped into a purely numerical CFD PhD instead. The PhD was tough, I had a lot of hurdles and I learnt a lot about pushing my own limits and my own physical and mental capabilities. It was an invaluable experience though and in a roundabout way resulted in me getting to live through a different childhood vision when I was offered the job to work with Formula 1 teams.”

That job was with a CFD supplier company called CD-adapco, who in 2016 was acquired by Siemens, and is now known as Siemens PLM Software. CD-adapco/Siemens had, and continue to have, a wide range of clients from across many different industries. They also have been the official CFD supplier in both the 35th and 36th America’s Cups for INEOS TEAM UK.

“I joined CD-adapco after my PhD as a Technical Support Engineer. It is a role where you are assigned several clients, usually around 10-12, and then are dedicated to those clients 100% of the time. I worked on a range of applications; from industrial filtration through to big marine projects. I had been there for a short period of time and quickly made it known that I was a big Formula 1 fan and wanted to get involved with one of the teams that were clients of CD-adapco at the time. Fortunately, a role opened up and it resulted in me being assigned to a Formula 1 team. It was a great time. I remember working with the CFD team on a front wing design that the team went on to win a race with; my only Formula 1 race win! That really was a dream come true.”


After nearly five years, however, Max decided it was time for a change. A friend at CD-adapco who was the support engineer for BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) at the time (and who remains the CFD Support Engineer at Siemens for INEOS TEAM UK to this day) pointed Max towards a job advertised online at the British Challenger for the America’s Cup.

“I had been sailing since I was 11 and had always been aware of the America’s Cup. I watched the Cup in 2013 because CD-adapco were supporting ORACLE TEAM USA at the time and found it very interesting. When I saw the job of CFD Engineer being advertised with the team I applied for it and it all blossomed for there really.”

In early 2016 Max joined INEOS TEAM UK, then BAR, as CFD Engineer for the team’s challenge for the 35th America’s Cup. Whilst he did not travel with the team to Bermuda in 2017, his role being one that can be done remotely, his first experience of an America’s Cup is one that remains with him to this day.

“The Cup in Bermuda was an exhausting time. I’d be working full days in the UK and then working through the evening when the guys out in Bermuda, who were five hours behind, were busy and trying to keep up with their demands. It was tough but I took a lot from my time studying my PhD, it was a similar experience in many ways that you find yourself being pushed to your limits mentally. The key difference being that a PhD is in many ways selfish, you are doing it for your own benefit, whilst in the Cup it’s not just for you, it’s for everyone around you who is pushing for the same goal. And it’s for all our families, friends and fans who are supporting us and living it with us. It’s a shared experience.

Now, for the team’s 36th America’s Cup challenge, CFD is arguably more important than ever before. The rules for the 36th America’s Cup have effectively banned all physical testing. No challenging team is permitted to two-boat test or test components in a controlled environment such as wind or water tunnel testing. That is why, more than ever, the computational world is crucial to developing the fastest race boat possible. That is where CFD, and Max, come to the fore.

Ben Ainslie and Chris Brittle analysing CFD results with the Siemens team

“CFD, Computational Fluid Dynamics, is a numerical way of representing the world, or in our case, the boat. Take a 3D box, for example. We split that box into lots of different small cells and then within those cells we solve mathematical equations to work out what the fluid flow is doing inside each cell. If one cell contains a solid wall then the fluid will be deflected by that wall in a particular direction and will be slowed down through a transfer of energy to somewhere else. That’s what CFD is, it is essentially the whole computation of what that fluid flow is going to do inside the domain you have given it.

“My main role within the team as CFD Engineer is to create that domain. To run a successful simulation, you need to create a mesh to represent the world and the body you are trying to simulate. There is a huge amount of detail that goes into that. This is followed by setting up the numerical solver, where we set up the water physics, the air physics, the solver to resolve turbulence and much more. We then focus on automation of tasks so that people from across the team can just submit CFD simulations and get the results back without having to run the CFD themselves. I do lots of coding for this!  

“With no physical testing allowed in the Cup pretty much everything that people will see externally on the boat will have gone through CFD simulation in some form or another. From the sails through to the deck layouts, the foil shapes, the hull shapes, the rudder shapes and more. Every part is built in 3D CAD models and then put through simulations, which are based on the conditions we expect to see in Auckland in March 2021, to work out what would perform best. We run a huge spectrum of different case types from the small and quick simulations of the order of tens of thousands of cells, through to hundreds of millions of cells for full-blown simulations.”

The results of the team’s simulations inform a huge amount of work that goes into designing the fastest race boat possible for the America’s Cup and the data that comes out of the simulations goes in several different directions to different team members.

“One direction the CFD results go to is to feed work of the Velocity Prediction Programme, the VPP. That programme is how our designers compare different designs against each other. We start with a baseline design to see what forces and moments are exerted on the part (or parts) we’re simulating in conditions we define. We then make tweaks to the design and run the new versions at a range of different speeds and conditions to assess which designs are better.

“Another direction the CFD results go to is to feed the simulator. The data is fed through the VPP into the simulator as a boat model that can run on our motion platform simulator in our base. That means that when we are designing components such as hulls or foils, our sailors, even though we’ve never even built the parts, can sail the boats and compare the different designs back-to-back. To see that development is pretty amazing”.

The team practising in the simulator in INEOS TEAM UK HQ in Portsmouth.

Crucially for Max, however, the role of a CFD Engineer in an America’s Cup team is by no means one-dimensional. It is a varied role that requires Max to have both the technical and numerical understanding to be able to build and run the CFD simulations, but also the in-depth wider knowledge required to be a part of an America’s Cup design team.

“Even though my official title is CFD Engineer, as there almost hasn’t been an external part of the boat that hasn’t been through the CFD team, you become involved in the collaborative design work as well. I’ve worked with the teams and performed analysis on designs from the hull of our first race boat through to the rudders and foils we are designing now.

“That’s one of the parts I love about this role. It is hugely varied. The nature of the Cup and it being a relatively small design team for a very complex boat means you need to be prepared to try and do different things wherever you are needed. I of course need to be able to develop the CFD simulations and techniques and understand the models we are dealing with, but I am also required to be a bit of a designer and be able to put both caps on. It’s an exciting challenge.”

Despite a significant amount of Max’s role being focussed on the design of the team’s race boat, however, it is not a job that ends once the boat is on the water either.

“Once we get to the point where we are finishing the designs then our focus shifts to working on helping the sailors and the coaching team guide how the boat is sailed. Take a single hydrofoil, for example. We may have the final design but once you consider the real world and the different elements the boat may sail in, from the different boat speeds to the different wind speeds to the different angles and more, you have a near infinite range of different ways of sailing the boat. Only one of those ways will be the optimal set up for a particular foil and a particular sail.

“For us it becomes all about fine-tuning and finding that optimal set up. We may run a few hundred different simulations on that foil just to get a better idea of the characteristics of the component. This will then help us to understand if there is a better way to sail the boat. The job never really ends.”

From growing up and learning to sail in the Middle East through to studying the world of spacecraft and aerospace in Surrey and Cranfield, to fulfilling a childhood vision and working with Formula 1 teams, Max’s journey to the America’s Cup has certainly been an unconventional one. Now he is here with INEOS TEAM UK, however, he is hooked and has a new dream.

“I feel very proud to work with this team. It’s made up of a fantastic group of people all working on the same, unique, challenge. My role in that really excites and drives me; as does the prospect of winning the Cup. Bringing the Cup home would be a spectacular feeling and an amazing achievement for the team.”