Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The University of Hertfordshire embody the spirit of the Formula Student competition at the UK event at Silverstone.

Arriving at an unusually sun drenched Silverstone and being met by the sight of a sea of engineering students, industriously working to prepare their entrant for the Endurance event epitomised the principle of the Formula Student competition.   A platform to provide students with the practical skills needed to operate successfully in the workplace; a competition where, though Faculty Advisors are there to oversee, the entries are piloted by the students.  This event at Silverstone provides a stage for the showcase of their entries and completes the life cycle of their projects. There to meet Howard Ash from the University of Hertfordshire, Faculty Advisor of the most successful UK Formula Student team, I was treated to a valuable insight into the kinaesthetic, 'learn by doing' philosophy embodied by the competition, and in particular, UH Racing. 

The UH Racing team.

Minimum design requirements have to be conformed to, but largely the teams have free reign giving the students an avenue for creativity.  Creativity is a powerful learning tool providing scope for experimenting with new ideas, evaluating performance and adapting practice, therefore developing their skills.  Due to the liberty given around design, the cars vary greatly.  Freedom of choice means cars are entered powered by various fuel types, a variety of suspension and brake structures, while some dabble with aero packages.

Pushing the boundaries is inevitable in a competition like this.  Electric concept entrants are becoming  more powerful resulting in an advantage in this year’s competition.  Although there is freedom around design, rules are in place to keep things fair between all teams, providing another dimension to the student's learning.  Appetite for victory can result in teams taking risks in having their power right on the limit, meaning if they edge slightly over there is no room for correction; something that was seen at this year's event with a team's electric car being disqualified from the competition during scrutineering, for being slightly too powerful.   Harsh lessons are often the best as students learn that the statics are important and it is better to be safely within the regulations and continue in the competition, than push too hard for success in the dynamic events.  A good balance between preparations for both types of events is essential to be successful, as the effort put into powering the car for the dynamics is redundant if you can't get through scrutineering. 

The University of Hertfordshire's contender, the UH16, is powered by a 599cc Yamaha R6 motorcycle engine and a student designed and built multi point fuel injection system.  It features a pull and push rod actuated sprung suspension and their aero package creates valuable downforce.  UH Racing build on successes from previous entries, but in keeping with the ideology of the competition, also draw upon the skills of the new students taking part, as the design of the car is defined by the perimeters of their aptitude for different elements in the process, for example, machining, as explained by Howard Ash,

“We are at the mercy of the team, in terms of what machining skills they've got. We are able to get them up to speed, we have a number of technicians in the machine shop who are able to supervise, allowing the students to do as much machining as we can.” “Year on year we try to build on previous cars, by going through competition, having feedback from the judges about things that need improving.” 

2013's contender, the UH16

With the intended purpose of the competition being to arm students with practical skills required for a career in addition to theory knowledge, Formula Student provides them with opportunities to learn team work, working to deadlines, raising finances, and budgeting in order to create a cost effective, sustainable car.  Gaining sponsors and partners is integral to success in the event and UH Racing have a plethora of them, the highest number this year to date.   Students learn marketing skills as they are required to contact a huge range of companies to sell the product.  Student placements are highly valued and profitable in the quest to gain sponsorship and partners, and they are expected to use these opportunities to network and make links with companies, which can then be maintained and used to their advantage.  Recognising the relevance of this part of the project in equipping the team with career skills, UH Racing put a lot of thought into the static events and showed particular prowess in the cost event coming third overall.  Howard Ash described their approach to this element of the competition,

“We make sure we have a project that is sustainable, we don't have to spend a fortune.  We look not only at the raw cost of the car, but also their understanding of how to go about producing a car and the effect of costs.”

Sponsors and partners gained are represented in the team's pit set up.

Students also gain valuable experience in reading and analysing data in order to modify designs and components to extract more performance out of the car.  Tyre behaviour is one element crucial to this and in keeping with the rest of the car design; teams have freedom over tyre choice, meaning wise decisions need to be made. Howard Ash related the University of Hertfordshire's method in making these choices,

“We can buy into a tyre test consortium from the US which tests a whole bunch of different tyres.  Every now and again they do a round of testing and we get all the facts and figures about the tyres.  We can make an informed choice about what we want to run and it really helps you simulate the performance of the car.” 

Sunday is the day of the Endurance event, the most difficult of the dynamic events and the best test of reliability.  The event is twenty two kilometres long, a distance shared by two drivers who swap halfway through.  There is a high attrition rate at this event with the main test of reliability coming at the driver change due to high temperature of the car.  Howard Ash drew upon his own experience as a student in the competition when revealing how it feels to see the product of a lot of hard work running on track at Silverstone,

“It's mostly worry!  It's very satisfying obviously; it's always good seeing the car driven to the limit. So from that point of view you want to see the car driven well and you want the best guy in the car driving it.” “In endurance you just want them to finish.”

The UH16 on track.

Sadly, this wasn't to be for the UH Racing team as an electrical problem scuppered their run and they were unable to finish the event.  The passion the team have for their craft was tangible as the driver of the UH16 delayed climbing out of the car in an almost flat refusal to accept the situation.  Although a DNF in this event was a disappointing end for the team, they showed what strong competitors they are by winning three awards: The Mercedes AMG sponsored Best Powertrain Installation of an Internal Combustion Engine Award, UK and Ireland Measurement and Control Award and the award for the Most Effective Communications Strategy, which carries a valuable prize of a half day full scale wind tunnel testing, and a series of Aerobytes articles published in Racecar Engineering.

UH Racing has produced a car within the confines and the same vein of the original intention of Formula Student.  A competition started by four lecturers in the USA to provide students with the opportunity to learn and practice real workplace skills.  Since then it has grown globally and now includes five hundred teams. As with any competition, as it grows, it slightly changes with desire to win meaning boundaries are pushed regarding student involvement, resulting in some cars not looking like their own work.  The clue is in the name of the competition and in the time I spent talking to Howard Ash, it become clear that UH Racing is competing in the intended spirit with the following comment made by the Faculty Advisor encapsulating this,

“As a team I like to think we stick with the philosophy of the competition.” 

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