Suddenly the competition is upon us. The sixth annual Formula Hybrid International Competition takes place at New Hampshire Motor Speedway starting on Sunday, May 1st through Wednesday, May 4th. Chrysler and Ford have joined General Motors and Toyota as sponsors of this year’s event and new teams are expected from Sweden and Taiwan. The Taiwanese team was prevented from competing last year by customs delays. All of us hope they arrive without problems this year so we can welcome them to the four-day contest.
Texas A&M has competed in Formula Hybrid the past two years following ten years in Formula SAE. Texas A&M’s team advisor is Make McDermott who led the team during its Formula SAE days and serves these days on Formula Hybrid’s rules committee. McDermott earned his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin, and then worked in spacecraft guidance and controls for NASA for four years. He joined Texas A&M’s engineering department in 1973 and has been there to this day.
McDermott won the Carroll Smith Mentor’s Cup in 2005. Smith was a legendary racing engineer and crew chief who worked for Carroll Shelby’s Ford Le Mans teams in the sixties and went on to prepare race-winning cars in many major American motor racing categories. Smith also wrote a series of books about how to go racing, including ‘Prepare to Win,’ ‘Tune to Win,’ ‘Engineer to Win,’ and ‘Drive to Win.’
“He was a great engineer and a great mentor for many students,” McDermott remarked. “I was very honored to win that award.”
McDermott is a big supporter of Formula Hybrid. “The Formula SAE and Formula Hybrid competitions are great educational experiences,” McDermott said. “Doug Fraser has done a great job with Formula Hybrid and I’m very encouraged with the progress of the competition.”
McDermott is impressed with the steady progress made by Formula Hybrid’s rules committee. “It’s a tough deal to start from scratch,” he commented. “They were able to take the Formula SAE rules, which are pretty mature, and take care of the chassis and engine drivetrain, but all the electrical stuff is brand new. They’ve had some teething problems but they’ve been very diligent in addressing those problems and it seems to get better each year. I’m sure it will be better again this year.
“It’s a great technical challenge for the students to figure out that this is a race car,” McDermott added. “It’s not an economy car. What are the requirements on the whole car and in particular on the electrical drivetrain for a race car? It’s an interesting challenge and it’s great for me because I get to play with neat toys and work with neat students and get paid for it.”
McDermott is equally impressed with the level of motivation he sees in his Formula Hybrid students. “The students are so motivated!” he exclaimed. “They do much more work than you could possibly get out of them for any other three-hour course. Some of them keep track of their time and they told me they averaged 36 hours a week through the whole semester for this one three-hour course.”
He also deeply believes the Formula Hybrid competition is an excellent tool in providing his students with a wide swath of real world experience. “It’s a great technical exercise to work through. But not only that, it’s also a great project management study. They’ve got to deal with all the dollars and schedules and people issues that there will be in their professional careers and mastering those will pretty much determine their success in their professional life. It’s a great experience for them to work on that kind of project management here before they are faced with a million dollar project in their working lives out in the industrial world.”
McDermott points out that most Formula Hybrid teams effectively spend more than a million dollars to design, build, develop and race their cars. “It’s really a million dollar project we’re running if you count all the students’ labor at the rate they’re going to be making in any industry they enter. I’ve done the numbers and by counting everybody at 36 hours a week at a reasonable rate it’s about a million and a half dollar project.”
McDermott explained how Texas A&M operates its Formula Hybrid project. “We do it as a senior design class and I teach that section to the design students,” he said. “We have about 120 students that break out into studios to do design projects. A couple of months into the semester after we get to know the students a little we interview them and choose a project manager. He chooses his staff and they run the project. I don’t tell them what they should do or make out the schedule. I make out some of the schedule as far as design reviews but they make the decisions on the car processes.
“We teach the design process but the first thing we do is come up with a needs statement about what the customer needs and what functions this design has to accomplish. We have to make sure that we meet that need in addition to the performance requirements of how well it has to accomplish those functions. Then the students can come up with various concepts followed by some serious design reviews and recommendations. Then we give them some more feedback and they go with their detail design work.
“I’m a real believer in the design process that we go through,” McDermott added. “It’s a real good application for the process of a complicated system. We break it up into about seven subsystems with three or four people working on each subsystem. They’ve all got to talk to each other and interface and learn how to work together and it’s fun too.”
Building and testing the car takes many more hours than some people imagine and the amount of work required can be daunting. “We started building the car on January 2nd,” McDermott said. “The target was to have it finished somewhere between March 20th and 30th. That was the week after Spring Break, so if they were behind they could stay here through Spring Break and work away at it.
“Some of them did and some didn’t. Some of them felt they needed to and some felt they didn’t need to. It’s interesting to see how people react to working on a tight schedule like that.”
The pressure to get the car prepared is just like any other motor racing competition. In the end, practical considerations are the most important. The car must operate cleanly and effectively through all aspects of the contest and reliability is more important than pure speed.
“I tell the students that the schedule is not going to slip,” McDermott noted. “When the flag drops to start the race they’re going to wave the green flag whether A&M is there or not. I also tell them that there’s always more to do on a race team to make your car better but the people who win are the ones who prioritize the best and get the most important things done.”
McDermott has hit on an essential rule of motor racing that’s often hard to learn. “Engineers in particular want to do this and do that and keep trying new things,” McDermott observed. “But at some point you’ve just got to quit that game and say, this is good enough. This works and we’ve got to go out there and compete.”
Will Heiterbeitel is Texas A&M’s crew chief. “He’s our number one suspension guy,” McDermott said. “He’s the most knowledgeable guy we have about suspension design and set-up. Will is also a practical guy who knows how to get things done.”
Another axiom of motor racing is that the driver is always the most important part of the equation and McDermott subscribes unequivocally to this philosophy. “I really believe that the most important piece in the whole project is the nut behind the wheel,” he declares. “We want to get our car built and give our drivers some seat time to get the handling and the balance the way they want it and get familiar with the car so they can get the best out of it. If you’ve got a really good driver he can take an average car and win. But if you’ve got a really good car and a bad driver, you’re going to be an also-ran. Like I say, the driver is the most important part of the whole equation.”
McDermott emphasizes that driver feedback is more important than the ability to drive fast. “Our driver started out racing go-karts when he was real young and he’s raced Late Model stock cars on dirt,” McDermott related. “He’s real good at providing feedback about what the car’s doing and that’s really hard and really important.”
From Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss to Mario Andretti, Ayrton Senna and Rick Mears, providing good technical feedback to a race team’s engineers or crew chief is essential to success in big-time motor racing, whether it’s Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR or long-distance sports car racing. Technical savvy and the ability to describe what the car is doing makes the best drivers in any category of motor sport.
“My son races motorcycles and we get along great,” McDermott remarked. “But we have a hell of a time with him communicating what the bike’s doing so that I can try to figure out what to do to fix it. So I really appreciate the drivers who can do that.
“We’ve got 50,000 students here, so there’s got to be some good drivers among them,” he added. “We do our best to find them. One guy was very, very talented but he was terrible at providing feedback. He’d just drive around the problems but a couple of them have been really good at providing feedback.”
Another part of Formula Hybrid that McDermott finds satisfying is the job recruiting from Formula Hybrid by the automotive industry. “We have a couple of guys this year who have offers from GM and I think they’re going to accept those offers. We have at least one candidate every year, and some years two or three, who go to work in the automobile industry. Every once in a while someone will go to the motorsports business. Brian Welling is a Texas A&M graduate who works for Chip Ganassi’s team. He’s the assistant engineer I believe on Scott Dixon’s Indy car.”
By all accounts Formula Hybrid is alive and kicking. It’s providing great motivation for many engineering students across the United States and around the world and helping supply the automobile industry with some fast-thinking, hands-on young engineers who are dedicated to improving the efficiency and performance in the automobile. In today’s world that is an admirable goal.