Engineering students provide fuel for thought

It’s ironic, really.Walking down the pit lane at Silverstone – the host of the British Grand Prix until next year, when it will be put out to pasture in favour of Donington – I come across a whole host of beautifully designed racing cars surrounded by teams of very serious looking engineering students. It’s a case of out with the old and in with the new: the racetrack may be close to stalling, but this particular bunch of innovators are flying off around the next corner.

Formula Student is an annual competition that has been running for 11 years, giving student engineers the chance to design, build and race Formula One-style cars to gain practical experience of the industry. In previous years, participants have gone on to work at the likes of Rolls-Royce, Airbus, Bentley Motors and the Renault F1 team.

It is Europe’s largest student motorsport event, established by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in response to demands from the industry for graduates to have more hands-on skills. New this year is Class 1A. The A stands for “Alternative”, with teams competing to design a vehicle that uses lowcarbon technology. With pressure on the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, it’s something that Pat Symonds, technical director of Renault F1, and a Formula Student ambassador, thinks is crucial.

“The challenge is C0 2 reduction,” he says. “Scientists are good at pointing out problems but not solving them, so they turn to engineers for solutions. Oxford Brookes, Hertfordshire and Coventry are all producing cars that meet these challenges.”

The three teams competing in Class 1A have all found a different answer to reducing their carbon tyreprints. Craig Dawson, a senior lecturer in motorsport design at Oxford Brookes University, and academic leader of the university’s Formula Student team, emphasises the input of his charges in creating a hybrid system. “Every single component in the car, apart from the motor, is student designed,” he tells me. “Next year, Formula One teams will use hybrid systems – it is a technology that will have massive potential.”

Dawson is also keen to stress the effort that has gone into the competition. The students involved work on the cars in their spare time; it does not contribute anything to their final degree. In America, for example, technical colleges have strong links to the motor industry, and it is the industry itself that provides funding for competitions like these. Considering the value that UK employers place on graduates who have been through the Formula Student process, should they – and universities and colleges themselves – not be doingmore to contribute financially to its success?

Stuart Cadman, leader of the Coventry University team, who has just finished an engineering degree in the run up to the competition, recognises the struggle in producing their biofuel car, but is satisfied with the results.

“We’ve turned out a nice car, though aspects are compromised. I’ve learnt so much this year that I’d like to go back and do again.”

Alistair Wardrope is team leader of the University of Hertfordshire, while also lecturing at the university and finishing off his PhD. He and his team have built the world’s first hydrogen racing car. “You could run this car indoors,” he explains. “Unlike a conventional petrol car, there would be no need for extractors.”

It was his team that eventually prevailed in Class 1A. With the right investment, Donington could be playing host to some very exciting – and low-carbon – races in years to come.

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