In major league motor racing — Formula One, Le Mans sports cars and Indy cars — the top teams spend millions of dollars each year on data gathering and telemetry. Real-time data is transmitted from race venues to team headquarters half a world away. This enables the team’s engineers to work endlessly on improving and developing their cars.
Formula Hybrid teams pursue the same goals but for infinitely less cost. In this way, it’s an excellent lesson in efficiency. Adam Marano is the leader of Dartmouth’s Formula Hybrid data gathering and telemetry team and his team designed and built their system for a fraction of the cost lavished on these items by professional race teams.
“This year we’re making the push to put a lot more sensors on the car than we had last year,” Marano said. “We’re looking at what we need to monitor to know how the car is performing both from speed, efficiency and reliability of all the components. We’re looking at it as a whole to really know what the car is doing, what potential issues might crop up and how we can improve the car.”
Philly Croteau says the team takes great pride in building as many details of its car as possible, telemetry system included. “We developed all the printed circuit boards and fabricated them right here,” Croteau emphasizes. “We’re really proud that we designed, developed and fabricated them right here. A big part of this is you can go out and buy a race car or components. But our goal is to work with our students who are really interested in racing, engineering and design to develop our own systems so it’s our race car. Everything isn’t designed one hundred percent here, but to the greatest extent possible we try to design and develop it so it’s our car.”
Frank Fortin-Houle says building one’s own data system is a no-brainer compared to relying on a commercially available system. “We used to have a system which we bought off the shelf but when it broke we couldn’t fix it,” Fortin-Houle said. “We had to send it back to the company that made it because learning about how it was made would take forever.
“What’s neat about it running your own system is that if something breaks or a part needs changing instead of having to go out and buy a new part we can now go and change the interface and the parameters because it’s our part and we know it from A to Z. So it’s easier for us to tailor it to our needs.
“Now, instead of recording the data on the car, we’re using the telemetry system to record them directly on the computer. That works out really well. A year ago we would not have been able to do that. Now if the telemetry system breaks we can come back to the shop and the guys who wrote the code can hopefully figure it out and we can go back out and run again almost immediately.”
Fortin-Houle is delighted with the progress in data gathering and telemetry. “In the past six months we’ve made a leap forward in working the telemetry system,” Fortin-Houle said. “It’s working fairly well now so we can monitor all the systems while the car is driving. It makes it a lot easier to understand what’s going on. We’re using it right now to monitor the strain gauges and the temperatures, pressures and parameters all around the car so that we can improve the design for the next generation of components.”
Fortin-Houle looks forward to being able to tune and maximize the power sources of Dartmouth’s Formula Hybrid car. “Ultimately we want to use it during competition so we can adjust our engine,” he commented. “We want to monitor it to make sure we’re going to be able to finish the event or know how much fuel we’re going to have left and try to put a little bit more performance back into the engine.
“It also allows us to monitor the driver,” Fortin-Houle added. “We have throttle position and brake pressure so we monitor how early he’s getting on the throttle and how late he’s getting on the brakes. We also monitor when he’s using his boost and the regenerator.
“The first time we monitored regeneration braking in the pedal it was amazing for the driver because we can tell how effective it is and how we might improve the way we use it. Right now it’s linear with the brake pressure but you want to take advantage of the fact that if you’re not braking much with the hydraulic brakes you want to use as much of the regenerator as possible. So the telemetry system is a real nice tool.”
The experience of driving the Formula Hybrid car is a primary draw for many of the young engineers who work on the project. “Driving the car is a key part,” Eric Mann agreed. “We’re trying to bring in new people and get them interested and obviously they are further motivated by having the opportunity to drive. People work on the car and then get to enjoy something they’ve worked on.”
Through the first few years of the project the car’s reliability was so poor that the team was unable to put in many test miles and very few people were able to drive. “With a hybrid with the high voltage and the mechanical systems it’s been tough because you have things that fail a lot more often,” Mann said.
“As a result over the last three years with the hybrid we haven’t driven that much. It was only last spring and this past fall that we got four driving days out of six weeks and we do it every four weekends out of six weeks. So we’ve gotten to where we’re making progress and fewer things are breaking and we get more people to drive the car.”
Deciding who drives the car in competition at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is more difficult than might be imagined. “Over past years,” Mann said, “it’s been like a seniority thing where you put your time in throughout the years and I think that’s generally led to some of the faster drivers. Frank and I are competitive alpine ski racers and we have a very competitive nature which is if we’re going to work this hard on the car let’s put the fastest driver in the car. There’s no reason to have a fast car and take away from it with the driver.”
This year the team is going to select its fastest driver for the contest. “We’re hoping this year to maybe rent Loudon and have everybody have the same experience on an open track to the extent that the competition allows,” Mann said.
Added Fortin-Houle: “The way we want to do it is throughout the spring, as test days go more into time trial days, we will do timing and the faster drivers will get to drive. The bottom line is you want to win.”
Mann says in the extreme there could be different drivers for each event. “There are definitely events that tend towards different types of drivers. You’ve got acceleration, autocross and endurance, and the guy with the heavy foot probably shouldn’t drive in the endurance event. The fastest driver is best for the autocross event. The best way to do it is to have the best driver suited to the particular event.”
Adam Marano adds that some of the team’s development work requires a keen feel from the driver. “As we’ve added quirks to the car we’ve had to have people who are familiar enough and know how to work with these quirks,” Marano noted. “We have a traction control system, for example, and it takes some knowledge of how it works to get the best from it. The driver has to know all these things to get the best from them.”
Some of the participants are very inexperienced drivers and require instruction in many of the basics of the art of driving. “We have some people who have never driven with a clutch for example,” Eric Mann said. “So we talk about how to use the clutch properly as well as the strategies of braking and acceleration and what the line through the corners is.”
Italy’s team placed extreme value on the driver’s speed and employed a professional driver for its car. “Last year Italy was an amazing team,” Fortin-Houle remarked. “They had a great car. They didn’t have the fastest car as far as top speed and acceleration, but they probably had the best handling car and they had by far the best driver. Their driver is on a driving scholarship at their school and you could tell he was a professional driver.
“For us it’s an engineering exercise before it’s a driving exercise. We’re not professional drivers. We enjoy it and try to go as fast as possible but none of us have driven enough to have the skills of a top professional driver.
“When you’re driving the car it’s hard to work on technique because there’s so much going on. When you’re a kid and you’re learning go-karting all you do is brake and accelerate and by the time you go into a Formula car you don’t have to think about braking. You brake at the right time and know when to let go of the brake and how and when to use the throttle.
“But for us, it’s not ingrained in us. We still have to think about braking, shifting, clutching, using the regenerator and boost. We’re doing our best, but we’re not the best drivers.”
Adam Marano interjects that there’s more pride in the design and engineering of the team’s car than in the driving. “It’s not just getting the best time,” Marano said. “That’s good, but we’re also trying to be competitive with the engineering. We’re trying to have the best electronics and engineering of anybody.”
Added Eric Mann: “We’ve had some unfortunate failures in the last couple of years which stopped us from finishing the endurance competition. But we’ve been in the top three in the design contest and we all pride ourselves on having good systems and pushing the limits.”
Fortin-Houle says all the team members take tremendous satisfaction from finding ways to beat the competition by building a more efficient car. “That’s the fun thing about Formula Hybrid,” Frank declared. “We might not have the best drivers but if your car is fast enough and efficient enough you can make up a little bit of that lack of speed by being better at engineering and building a better car because it’s not only based on speed.
“We know that in pure speed it’s going to be really hard to beat Italy, but we know we can design and convince the judges that we’re better engineers and get a better score for design and engineering. If our car is more efficient, their very good driver will have to take it easy to finish. Because the energy allotment is so little he may have to drive five seconds a lap slower than possible. If we’re able to make up five seconds in efficiency, we can beat them and win.”
We may be struggling to break out of winter here in New England but be assured that inside Dartmouth’s Formula Hybrid workshop the competitive juices are flowing.