9. Formula Hybrid’s evolving value

Texas A&M completes a test run at the 5th annual Formula Hybrid International Competition

Texas A&M’s winning team taught everyone a lesson in preparation, planning and hard work at last week’s 5th annual Formula Hybrid International Competition. Texas A&M arrived at New Hampshire Motor Speedway better prepared than any of their rivals and were the only team able to complete all phases of the competition.

Rated only seventh by the design judges and third in their marketing presentation, Texas A&M were the only team to complete both parts of the acceleration test, won the timed autocross event and finished a close second in the concluding endurance test. Dr. Make McDermott’s team accumulated 871.24 points, soundly beating Brigham Young University (712.04 points) and Sweden’s Lund University (691.6). UC Davis finished a competitive fourth (680.49 pts), trailed by Dartmouth (381.62) and McGill (325.24) in fifth and sixth.

Dartmouth was presented with the Chrysler award for design innovation for developing an accumulator comprised strictly of ultracapacitors, while Hal Flescher presented the IEEE engineering achievement award to Lund University. Flescher is a long-time SCCA racer who is a member of Formula Hybrid’s design judging panel. He explained his reasons for presenting the IEEE award to Lund.

“The first criteria for me is that the team is multi-disciplinary,” Flescher said at the awards presentation. “I’m looking for interesting and insightful solutions to the problems of building a hybrid vehicle race car. As a person who builds and drives race cars I’d like to see something that the British would call a proper race car. What’s a proper race car? It’s something that’s easily upgradable and easily adjustable with a number of adjustments that can make the car faster and faster.

Dartmouth Formula Racing talks with officials during the design presentation

“The next criteria for me is the car showing some potential on the track. I can’t give an award to a car that shows up and is a good model for everybody but doesn’t show some potential on the track.

“And the last criteria is real personal for me. I look for a car that I would really like to get in and drive and start making adjustments to see if I can make it better. I’m looking for a car I want to drive.

“The winning team had a very good mix of engineering disciplines and a clean design with good design implementation for both the hybrid vehicle and for a race car. It’s a proper race car with lots of adjustability so that you can make things work and it uses good technology and made me say, ‘I’d really like to drive that car.’”

Flescher also suggested that most of the teams take a closer look at dealing more effectively with the dreaded bump steer. “Something many of the teams ought to look at for next year is bump steer,” Flescher noted. “You need to look at your rear suspensions in particular because a lot of the suspensions are very pretty but they have inherent bump steer. For a driver that’s really uncomfortable because you never know what the car is going to do next.”

Formula Hybrid’s chief electrical technical inspector Rob Wills was next to briefly address the assembled teams at the awards presentation. “I think the interest in hybrid vehicles closely follows gas prices with a little bit of a lag,” Wills remarked. “My guess is that if gasoline hits five dollars a gallon over the next year I think we’re going to see a lot more entries and we’ll see a lot more people following what you’re doing. Your schools are going to be much more energized. They will know that you are at the leading edge and as engineers you’re going to be very sought after.”

Steve Daum, the SAE’s Collegiate Programs Manager for SAE International, also addressed the crowd. “On behalf of the rules committees for all the SAE competitions we do our absolute best to write rules that are completely clear and easily understandable by all of you,” Daum said. “But it’s clear by the difficulties some teams had in technical inspection this year that we have some rules that are probably ambiguous.

“If we have ambiguous rules I ask you and specifically the faculty advisors — because many of the students will not be here a couple of months from now — to please send us an email saying our teams had a hard time understanding what you meant in this or that specific rule. That will help us a lot and hopefully help the teams a lot to be prepared to go through technical inspection more easily next year. We need your help in this regard.”

Lund University, LU Racing from Sweden, works on their car before inspection

Daum confirmed that the SAE is developing a battery electric class for Formula SAE, most likely starting in 2013. “SAE is planning to add a battery electric class to the Formula SAE competition,” Daum said. “All of the details have not been worked out but tentatively this will begin with the 2013 competition at our event, which will be held at the SCCA national autocross site in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our California event will shut down after this year and will started up as a new competition in Lincoln, Nebraska in June of 2012.

“At this point we don’t think having a battery electric class is practical for next year. Who knows what will happen, but we’re planning to put it together for 2013 and any information you give us about the rules for Formula Hybrid will also apply to the SAE competition. We want to make sure the rules that evolve for the battery electric class for Formula SAE will be compatible with the rules for Formula Hybrid. Ideally, we will have worldwide rules that will be effective for all the competitions — the Italian, German, English and Australian electric rules. Our goal is to have one unified worldwide set of rules for that class of vehicle.”

After the awards presentation I talked with chief mechanical technical inspector and veteran Formula SAE and SCCA technical inspector Michael Royce. I asked Royce what he thought was good or bad about this year’s Formula Hybrid competition

“I think in terms of organization we were better prepared at both mechanical and electrical tech inspection than we were last year,” Royce said. “We had some serious hold-ups last year but this year we never had a line at mechanical tech inspection. We never had anybody waiting and I heard that was the case with electrical inspection too.”

It rained steadily for much of the final day of this year’s competition which made it hard on everyone involved. “Obviously the weather wasn’t the best,” Royce remarked. “But a surprising number of cars did receive rain certification. Rain did help in terms of endurance durability because the chassis were not stressed as much. Typically, at a Formula SAE event we might get thirty-five or forty percent finishers but here we had only two cars that didn’t finish the autocross and a similar number in the endurance test.”

But Royce was displeased with the number of teams who were not prepared to pass technical inspection because they had not thoroughly and carefully read the rules.

“What was not so good was numerous teams had not read the rules,” Royce frowned. “There are rule changes from year to year. It may be just a sentence here or there. Even Texas A&M missed an important rules change and had to weld some extra tubes into the chassis on Sunday night before they could go racing. Another couple of teams did not pick up that the driver’s suit requirements had changed for this year and had to go down to Massachusetts and spend a couple of hundred bucks on Nomex underwear. There were several instances where the teams had not read the rules.

The BYU Formula Racing team goes through design presentations

“The rules on the mechanical side were written 25 years ago and have evolved,” he added. “They’ve matured and been clarified but you can still recognize their parentage. So that’s the thing that disappointed me because many of the cars were not ready on Sunday because they had not read the rules and underestimated the technical challenge.”

Rob Wills added his assessment at the lack of preparation by a number of the teams. “I would say probably seventy percent of the technical challenges were more than they expected,” Wills observed. “The lack of rules knowledge came into it and certainly took time to resolve those issues. But I think more than half the cars were just not along in their project plans from our viewpoint. The definition of a basket case is when you bring all the pieces of the car to an event in a basket and tried to put them together before you run. It’s well-known that doesn’t work.”

The following rules clarification for next year has been posted by Formula Hybrid:

In response to the difficulties many teams had getting through mechanical and electrical tech inspections this year, Formula Hybrid will be adding a new requirement for 2012:

  • All teams must perform their own (unofficial) inspections and submit the completed mechanical and electrical inspection forms a minimum of two weeks before the competition.
  • This must be done using the same tech forms used by the inspectors, which can be downloaded from the Formula Hybrid website.
  • Teams may perform these inspections themselves, however it is highly recommended that they be done by experts who are not normally associated with the teams.
  • These forms will be reviewed by the tech inspectors (time permitting) who will notify the teams if they find discrepancies that might require attention.
  • Teams that do not submit the required sheets by the deadline will be put at the ends of the queues for tech inspection upon arrival at the competition.

In closing I have to add that as a judge sitting on the presentation panel we were disappointed with many of the sales jobs put forward. Most teams lacked serious research data, particularly when it came to assessing production costs and potential profits and also regarding real world details about how they planned to market their product.

Some said they were so preoccupied with designing and building their cars that they hadn’t devoted the time required to their marketing presentations and it showed. As we said to quite a few of them, you can have the greatest concept in the world and first-class execution, but if you can’t sell your idea you’ll be forced to sit on the sidelines.

Beyond these criticisms, it was great to see such a wide variety of solutions presented by the teams competing in this year’s Formula Hybrid competition. Every entry was distinctly unique with each team pursuing their own design objectives and philosophies. It was also good to see the high degree of motivation and enthusiasm from the competitors and their commitment to unrelenting hard work.

A panoramic shot of the entrants of the 5th annual Formula Hybrid International Competition. This year's event brought together 34 teams and 500 students from five countries. Photo by Kathryn LoConte Lapierre.

“You had GM, Ford and Chrysler here wanting to sign people up,” Michael Royce remarked. “The word is getting around that the people from Formula SAE and Formula Hybrid are the people they want to hire. There are things that the profs cannot teach in the classroom. Working on these projects gives the students about a two to three year flying start and it’s stuff that the companies don’t have to pay for.”

There’s no better recommendation for the growing value of the Formula Hybrid International Competition.

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