Motor racing's all part of the course for engineering student Andy Venkitaraman


Driving a high-performance car around the Silverstone race track might be many a teenage boy's dream, but it wouldn't normally be associated with pursuing an educational path when that teenager reaches his early twenties. But for Andy Venkitaraman, a postgraduate student at Coventry University, racing fast cars is at the heart of the dissertation project he's now in the middle of, at the end of his year on an MSc in automotive engineering.

A team of engineering students at Coventry took part in a nationwide competition called Formula Student, in which university teams designed and built their own racing cars and then raced them against each other at Silverstone last weekend.

Venkitaraman's role was to research and perfect the design and manufacturing process for a key part of the Coventry car's structure, an experience that he now has to document in his dissertation, due for submission in November.

He came to the UK last autumn from India, having finished a BEng in automotive engineering at Mumbai University the previous year and taken a working gap year in Mumbai in a related field.

"After my first degree, I needed a break and wanted to learn something more practical, so I managed to get a job with a company advising other firms on heavy vehicle safety," he recalls. This experience confirmed his desire to stay in the automotive field, but also to widen his experience and academic qualifications.

"I particularly wanted to get involved in motor sports, and Coventry is one of the biggest names in this area," he explains, although he also considered similar programmes at Aachen in Germany and Cranfield University in Bedfordshire.

The course content revolves chiefly around materials science and vehicle dynamics, taking in computer aided design and the study of noise and vibration. There's also a solid chunk of project management, closely linked to the car business. It's something that Venkitaraman hadn't really encountered at university in India.

There are no examinations: assessment is based solely on work submitted for assignments and projects, one of which was to design a low-carbon, four-wheel drive vehicle for rural use. This concentration on a student's own work came as a slight shock initially.

"Back home it was exams all the time," he says. "It's totally different here at Coventry, but the system has brought out the best in me."

He also had to get to grips with the level of independent writing that's expected of students. "Doing some courses I have had sleepless nights trying to work things out for myself, which is a new thing for me. And plagiarism is a big issue here. You really need to read, understand, and rephrase things yourself."

There are about 70 others on the course, and the range of nationalities represented is a testament to Coventry University's reputation in this field.

"There are lots of Asians, along with Africans, some Chinese and a few Europeans," he explains, "but only about three-quarters of us have done our first degrees in the UK."

He confesses to being slightly disappointed at the ratio of theoretical work to practical exercises.

"To be honest [the course] has been more out of books than I thought, and I haven't been as exposed to the practical side as I'd have wanted. I mainly want to built engines and do modifications. But that's being partly addressed by the [racing car] project."

And after November? "I definitely want to work in the UK or internationally before returning to India."