Formula SAE: What a Few Car College Gear Heads Can Do In Their Free Time

Formula SAE:  What a Few Car College Gear Heads Can Do In Their Free Time

by David Zipf


A good percentage of MotoIQ's staff and readership is comprised of Mechanical Engineers.  That title isn't given to just anyone, you have to work through a (minimum) of four years of hard college work full of long lectures, late nights, and a hermit-like social life.  So what does a car geek do when he's tired of working the books and nerdulator?  He (or she) finds the campus Formula SAE team and wrenches of course!

UD's 2010 SAE Car

Last year's car from the University of Delaware.  This is a backup car and is used for driver training.  A number of parts were stripped from this car to get the 2011 car running.

So what is Formula SAE?  SAE stands for the Society of Automotive Engineers.  Every year they host a number of design challenges for colleges around the world.  Formula SAE is a competition where schools design and build formula style race cars for a pretend new spec autocross series.  The engines are limited to 600cc (since the students do the driving) but the rules are fairly open.  Every team comes up with unique designs and they certainly push the rules every year.  The technology on some team's cars is cutting edge; traction control, launch control, extensive use of composites, and wind tunnel tested aerodynamics are par for winning at competition.  Every year each team must build a new chassis, forcing innovation.  This keeps teams busy all year long, designing, fabricating, testing and tuning.  In May and June, competitions are held in Detroit Michigan and Auto Club Speedway in California.  Judging is performed by engineers from Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and other major car companies.  Because the process of designing, testing, and validation is identical to real world projects, Formula SAE participation is a big boost to any Engineer's resume.

UD's 2008 SAE car
University of Delaware's 2008 Formula SAE car.  The wheels from this car are still in use on the current 2011 machine.

Because every school is so different, every car has a different story.  Some teams are very large, and some are very small.  Some teams have hundreds of members spending lots of time and school money doing what they love.  Other teams only have a few dozen members.  A few very small teams have less than ten members total!  But the hard work is appreciated by all who compete and no matter who finishes first, getting a car built and ready for competition is an accomplishment in itself.  Amazingly, we can find time to work on this car, while studying for notoriously hard Engineering classes, working real jobs, and of course indulging in all the other aspects of college life.  Having access to the resources of an entire Engineering department gives the team a treasure trove of useful items including access to a full machine shop, CAD software, quality testing equipment, and most importantly a healthy budget from the school.  The faculty is also an important resource, often helping the team when it encounters a difficult problem.

The University of Delaware has been a part of FSAE since 1995 and currently has about two dozen dedicated members.  This year the team started with a clean sheet design.  Most teams only update their design every year, shedding weight and adding power, or improving reliability: simple evolution, not revolution.  This cuts down fabrication time since things like dampers, controls arms, uprights, etc. can be reused from year to year.  UD's design was a good four years old and the benefits of designing a completely new frame heavily outweighed the time lost making new parts.  This was also the first year the school gave credit to the senior members (in fact for many of the team, this car was their Senior project, required to get a degree in Engineering) which brought in many new members with new ideas.

UD's 2011 SAE Car

Here is UD's 2011 car in its first iteration.  The car did run, though most of the ancillary systems were far from complete.  The entire team put in a Herculean effort to get the car to this state, some members spending all night in the shop getting things working.

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