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Racing for the Future - how Formula Student builds the engineers of tomorrow

Lee Williams

(Credit: Formula Student/IMechE)
(Credit: Formula Student/IMechE)

Ready, set... IMechE’s annual Formula Student motor racing event aims to produce the engineers of tomorrow.

The car swings into the pits at the Silverstone circuit as the team of engineers rushes to gather round like paramedics to a casualty.

There is a problem with the cooling system. The engine needs to be switched off while the engineers scurry to and fro carrying parts, or huddle around like concerned family members.

After several minutes of frantic work, it becomes clear that the engine won’t restart. That’s it, the race is over. There is disappointment, pain, but also a steely determination to fix the problems and move on. There will be other races to win.

It could be a scene from any British Grand Prix, except it isn’t. This isn’t Formula One, Three, E or any of the other formulas that make up professional motorsport. The engineers themselves aren’t professionals either, but university students.

The event is Formula Student, an annual competition organised by the IMechE and held at Silverstone to see which of the world’s universities can produce the fastest, most reliable and efficient racing car.

The amateur nature of Formula Student which runs from July 20-23, doesn’t mean it’s not approached professionally. Just as much blood, sweat and tears go into it as into any professional competition.

The University of Southampton, the team that last year had the cooling issue described, spent more than 20 hours a week over 18 months working on their car, on top of studying full time for engineering degrees. 

“We’re pretty much never not working,” says Chris Sheffer, a second-year engineering student and head of aerodynamics for Stag IV, the university’s 2017 contender. “You’re either doing Formula Student or uni work. There’s not much time for anything else.”
Southampton is an up-and-coming team. It has only been racing for four years, unlike some other universities which have more than a decade of experience in the contest.

Southampton students also work part time on the project, unlike other teams who get to work on it as part of their degrees. The Stag car, in its various iterations, has never completed the main race at Silverstone, so this year the team is concentrating on reliability and testing. 

“Every year you’re desperate for more performance,” says Sheffer, “but this year we’ve restrained ourselves and said, OK, we want to finish so, instead of racing ahead with any new, cool aero solutions, we’ll test and make sure the car actually works.” 

In this spirit, Sheffer and co have brought all manufacturing deadlines forward three to four weeks to allow more time for testing ahead of the Silverstone event in July. They have used laser notching to fit the tubular steel components of the chassis together more accurately.

The team has also had a unique opportunity to do a full-car test in Southampton University’s prestigious wind tunnel, which has helped to iron out some of the cooling issues from last year’s car (not enough air was getting into the radiator).

These are just two areas that should improve reliability, a focus that Sheffer hopes will build the foundations for a challenge to the competition’s big hitters, like last year’s Silverstone winner, the University of Stuttgart, or the top UK team, the University of Bath.

The University of Bath’s Formula Student team has participated in the UK event since 2001 and is one of the best-funded teams in Britain. It came fourth at Silverstone in 2016 – the highest-placed UK team – and won the Czech event in the same year, becoming the first UK team to win a Formula Student contest anywhere in the world. 

Experience has shown the Bath team that clarity and focus are key factors in Formula Student success. “It’s very easy for a group of students to get lost in what they’re doing,” says last year’s project manager, Noel Moorhouse.

“You can get very excited about the prospect of building a race car and lose focus on what the top-level goal is and just go off on tangents. We were quite good at keeping focus on what we wanted to do, which was to win.” 

This goal-oriented focus is crucial in keeping a team of 60-75 students pulling in the same direction. Just as in F1, Team Bath is organised into departments covering the major design areas such as aerodynamics, suspension, powertrain, chassis and electronics.

This is topped by a core team made up of the heads of each department as well as other crucial roles such as finance, marketing and business leads, all headed by a project manager. 

But organisation isn’t all that’s required. Success involves the kind of work ethic that F1 engineers would also be familiar with – 12-hour days, 80-hour weeks. “We used to live in the workshop,” as Moorhouse says.

The hard work paid off for Bath, first at Silverstone and then later in the summer when they won the Czech event. Silverstone was stressful, according to Moorhouse, because of the pressure to win that they had put on their own shoulders. In contrast, the atmosphere between the teams was one of comradeship and sharing – an area where the comparison to F1 perhaps breaks down. 

For Moorhouse, the win in the Czech Republic was the real highlight of the summer and put all the hard work into perspective. His teammate James Wilson, who manufactured parts for last year’s Bath car, says: “It’s so different to being in another sports team where you win a match that you’ve prepared for for a week, to preparing for 18 months. It’s a completely different commitment level and build-up. To be successful in that, it’s pretty elating. It’s quite difficult to describe really.” That’s a sentiment that F1 engineers would no doubt relate to.

Wilson is now project manager for Team Bath’s 2017 car. His task is to improve on last year’s model and fulfil the team’s long-running objective of winning at Silverstone. Doing that has involved taking forward the good things while ironing out some of last year’s hitches. So the team has packed more anti-vibration material into the radiator and chassis to avoid radiator leaks, and used more budget on higher-end electronics (a simple sensor failure probably cost the team a podium finish at Silverstone last year). 

The team is also switching the chassis from a carbon spaceframe hybrid to a full-carbon monocoque structure. “It should give us better stiffness for a similar weight,” says Wilson. “And that will help to get a suspension that works really well.” All of which gives Wilson confidence that his team will produce a better car than last year’s. Whether they have a better car than all the other teams will have to wait until the four days of testing at Silverstone in July. 

Formula Student isn’t just a simple race. The event consists of four days of static and dynamic tests. The first two days cover design, cost and business events. In the design event, teams present their proposals and are grilled for an hour by a panel of industry experts. The costing event checks that every element of the process has been rigorously and correctly budgeted, and the business event is a Dragons’ Den-style presentation to a panel of pretend investors. 

After rigorous safety and compliance checks, the cars are finally allowed on track and the dynamic tests begin, including acceleration and skid-pad tests, a hot lap of the autocross track, and the endurance test. This is the part that most closely resembles a traditional race, with staggered starts and overtaking allowed. Comprising 22 laps of a one-kilometre track, this is where the cars are really put on their mettle. After 11 laps the cars must enter the pits, have their engines switched off and sit in hot soak for three minutes before being restarted, changing drivers and heading out for the final 11 laps. Many of the cars don’t survive the break.

The endurance race is the dramatic finale to the competition, but the static events are equally invaluable to students looking to carve out careers in motor racing or other top-end engineering roles. Costing is one exercise that participants find particularly rigorous. “Literally every single nut and bolt on the car has to be costed,” says Southampton’s Chris Sheffer. “So you can’t over-engineer things. You can’t just go and buy the best materials. For every single thing you have to think, I’m going to have to justify that design decision.” 

Sheffer and his colleagues found the competition a great opportunity for acquiring skills, whether it was making promotional videos, running social media and marketing campaigns, or creating livery designs in Photoshop. “That ability to go and learn a new skill and get a job done is going to be very applicable to actually doing a job in the real world,” says Sheffer. 

Perhaps that is why so many of Sheffer’s predecessors have found careers in the automotive industry, particularly in F1. Southampton’s last head of suspension went to Mercedes AMG Petronas, and six members of this year’s team already have roles lined up with F1 teams, including Force India and Toro Rosso.

“At an interview you don’t have to give them an answer that you read in a textbook,” Sheffer explains. “You can say, I found this problem when I was working in aerodynamics on a Formula Student car. That’s what puts you ahead of other people.”

Whatever their long-term motivations, all the engineers share the short-term dream of winning at Silverstone on 23 July.This year’s event will provide UK teams with a better chance than ever to be the first British team to win. Thanks to some rule changes, many of the big-hitting German teams won’t be competing in the UK competition.

The Silverstone dates also clash with four other Formula Student events in Europe. All of which makes it “highly likely that we will have a British winner this year,” according to Formula Student project leader, Lucy Killington. 

The University of Bath will be competing hard, as will teams from Liverpool, Hertfordshire, Leeds and Oxford Brookes. Whether they will find themselves on the podium or languishing in the pits with an overheated engine, one thing is sure – it will be an unforgettable few days. 

“You go to Silverstone to race,” says Sheffer. “You get a paddock pass and get 
to walk around the pits in Silverstone, and you’re doing it with your own car which you designed and built. It’s pretty much everything everyone here has ever dreamt of.”
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