Allow me first of all to introduce myself. I am the United States editor of Motor Sport magazine, the world’s oldest motor racing periodical founded in 1924. I’ve covered automobile racing across the United States and around the world for forty years and I’m delighted to have accepted Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering‘s invitation to write a bi-weekly blog about the Formula Hybrid competition.

As most of you know, the Formula Hybrid competition takes place every year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway over two days in early May. An offshoot of the very successful Formula SAE inter-university contest Formula Hybrid is for hybrids only, which are not allowed in Formula SAE.

Formula Hybrid was conceived one day in 2004 by some of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering students who worked on Dartmouth’s Formula SAE car. They were brainstorming with Doug Fraser, an instructor and research engineer who at the time was the faculty advisor for Dartmouth’s Formula SAE team. Doug is now director of the Formula Hybrid competition.

Fraser has been at Thayer for twenty-nine years. He started his career at Autodynamics in Marblehead, Massachusetts, building race engines for a series of winning cars in SCCA Formula Vee and Formula Ford races. Later Fraser started his own engine building company before he was hired by Dartmouth as a research engineer doing microprocessor applications in electronics.

An experienced racer and accomplished photographer, Fraser worked with Dartmouth’s Formula SAE team for many years before helping create Formula Hybrid and also produces all of the Thayer School’s in-house photography. Fraser remembers the day back in 2004 that laid the foundation for Formula Hybrid.

“We were sitting around brainstorming one day,” Doug recalls. “We were talking about how the Formula SAE rules require an inlet restrictor and it dawned on us that if we added an energy accumulator to the system and ran the engine up against the restrictor plate all the time, even when we didn’t need the engine power propelling the car, we could collect the excess energy and apply it to accelerating the car when we got into a straight line.”

Fraser and his students realized that they could take advantage of the inlet restrictor rule and what might have been a loophole in the rules to build a much higher performance vehicle. “If you’re up against a restrictor plate when you’re going down the straight at high speed you have no excess power coming from the engine,” Doug notes. “But as soon as you put on the brakes and the engine drops to idle you’re wasting the ability to create more power and save the excess energy.”

Some testing of the idea followed. “We put together a paper study and did some modeling that looked really promising,” Doug recalls. “So we built a test bench and mounted an electric motor, a gasoline engine, a generator, a torque meter, a dyno absorption unit and a lot of control electronics, and started playing with it. We were able to convince ourselves that this was a really interesting way to go and could definitely give us an unfair advantage in the competition.”

Fraser’s team started converting an old Formula SAE car to hybrid drive, but then the Formula SAE rules committee announced that it wouldn’t permit hybrids and energy accumulators. “We talked and they allowed us to bring our hybrid to the Formula SAE competitions in 2005 and we did a demonstration run. They didn’t allow us to enter it in the competition but they let us drive it and show people what it could do.”

Although Formula SAE banned hybrids they’ve been extremely helpful to Formula Hybrid. “The SAE has been very supportive right from the beginning,” Fraser says. “They sent us the source for the Formula SAE rules which we went through, tweaked a lot of details and modified it heavily. Originally, the Formula Hybrid rules were published as an addendum to the Formula SAE rules.” With Fraser’s prodding the Thayer School decided in 2006 that it would start a separate Formula Hybrid competition. The trustees of Dartmouth College trademarked the Formula Hybrid name and logo and a conference was organized at Thayer School. Included was the chairman of the Formula SAE rules committee, other members of the Formula SAE organizing group, some faculty advisors from Formula SAE teams, plus some representatives from the electrical engineering world, most notably the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).

“We sat around a table for a couple of days and talked about how we would formulate this thing,” Fraser relates. “Then we put on a demonstration event in one of the parking lots at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.”

The only team to accept Dartmouth’s invitation to build an experimental Formula Hybrid car for the initial demonstration show at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2006 was Montreal’s McGill University, a leading Formula SAE competitor. “Unfortunately,” Fraser recalls, “They got held up in customs and arrived at NHMS half an hour before the mandatory 5 pm shut-down time. But they managed to drive their car a little bit so we actually had two entries in the first Formula Hybrid demonstration event.”

The first real Formula Hybrid competition took place in 2007 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway which has established itself as the home of the event. “The New Hampshire Speedway has been great,” Doug remarks. “They donate the track for four days and do a great job promoting the event.”

Nine entries were received for the first formal event in 2007. Six appeared, two cars from Dartmouth, and one each from Florida’s Embry Riddle, the Florida Institute of Technology, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and McGill and Yale universities. McGill won the inaugural contest with Embry Riddle finishing second, Yale third and Dartmouth fourth.

Since then the number of competitors has grown steadily. There were sixteen entries with twelve cars showing up in 2008 followed by thirty entries and twenty-two arrivals in ’09. Thirty entries were made again this past year with twenty-six appearing. Some international teams already have established themselves in Formula Hybrid, including MADI State Technical University from Russia, the Politechnico di Torino from Italy and China’s National Chiao Tung University as well as the University of Manitoba.

“In 2009 and 2010 we had the same number of entries in part because we doubled the entry fee,” Fraser said. “We had to because the bottom fell out of the economy and a lot of sponsors and potential sponsors dried up. But things are slowly picking up again.”

The annual, four-part competition at New Hampshire Motor Speedway takes place over two days. It opens with the teams making a formal presentation of their car and theories to a board of engineers who ask probing questions to test the students’ knowledge. This is followed by an engineering and design analysis. The initial presentation is worth 100 points in the competition’s total of 1,000 points and the engineering and design segment is valued at 200 points.

“The presentation event is a coat and tie event done inside in a classroom setting,” Fraser comments. “The student team tries to convince a review board of the marketability of their vehicle and of the sustainability and recyclability of the materials.”

The design and engineering portion of the contest carries considerable prestige. “This is arguably the most important event of the competition,” Fraser stresses. “There’s preliminary judging and then final judging. Winning the design competition is considered extremely valuable because there’s little luck involved. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. There’s no subjectivity or good or bad luck. But there’s always an element of luck involved in winning the dynamic events.”

Whenever possible the design judges are engineers from automotive companies who are working on hybrid systems and fully immersed in hybrids. The teams present their vehicles and will be surrounded by a group of engineers who thoroughly quiz the students’ understanding of their work with very specific questions.

“This works really well in two ways,” Doug said. “First, it’s really good for the students to interact with these guys. It’s not unusual to see one of the judges handing a student his business card and say, ‘Give me a call.’ That’s the cool aspect for us and it works out well for the sponsors and judges and for the students and for us here at Thayer too. An example is that even though we have had a relatively small number of engineers who go through the Formula Hybrid program there are now three Formula Hybrid alums working at General Motor’s electric vehicle division.”

The design and engineering contest is followed by the on-track competition which consists of a pair of acceleration runs over 75 meters, an autocross, and a concluding 22 kilometer endurance test. The two acceleration runs carry 75 points apiece. The autocross is worth 150 points and the concluding endurance event is the big one, worth 400 points toward a maximum potential total of 1,000 points.

The acceleration runs must be completed in no more than ten seconds and one of the two acceleration runs has to be completed with electric-only power. If the car can’t make it, the team doesn’t qualify for the rest of the competition.

“A Formula Ford would qualify as a Formula Hybrid car if you were to run it any distance just on the starter motor,” Fraser notes. “So one of the acceleration runs is designed to prevent people from making a vehicle built to that kind of extreme.”

The deciding endurance autocross event must be completed as quickly as possible without using more than 20 megajoules (the equivalent of 2.3 liters of gasoline). “One of the main things that sets Formula Hybrid apart is the energy allocation,” Fraser observed. “They’re allocated 20 megajoules of energy to complete the 22 kilometer endurance event. If they run out they’re out of the competition. A lot of teams run electric only for the autocross. If they’re a series hybrid their final drive is all-electric but in many cases the electric motor is the more powerful of the two than the internal combustion engine.”

All the teams start the event with the same amount of energy on board with their accumulator systems filled to capacity by plugging into one of New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s garage wall outlets. They are then given just enough liquid fuel to round out the 20 megajoule limit. “Some accumulator systems, particularly batteries, have a very high energy density,” Fraser remarked. “They’re capable of storing a lot of energy and the accumulator can get pretty close to 20 megajoules. As an extreme example, if a team were to arrive with an accumulator which is rated at a capacity of 20 megajoules they would not get any gasoline.”

Thus is the basis of the Formula Hybrid competition. In my next blog in two weeks I’ll continue this look at Formula Hybrid’s rules and regulations, including its emphasis on safety. I’ll also take a look at the competition’s growth and seemingly steady road to longterm success.

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