Formula Student

Contest is helping more young people to gain a foothold in motor sport

Formula Student is fast becoming one of the ways to get engineering experience in motor sport. Nowadays, it doesn't matter to top teams — especially those in Formula 1 — whether you've gained perfect grades throughout your education if you haven't shown that you can work in the industry and have hands-on experience.

Not long ago Kevin Lee of Meynard Competition Technologies told me: "When I was looking at CVs from people who wanted to work in F1, if they hadn't shown that motor racing was everything to them and they had the appropriate experience, they usually got put to the bottom of the pile."

Formula Student is Europe's largest educational motor sport event, with Ross Brawn as patron and ex-Renault engine division technical director John Hilton as chairman. The competition, which involves designing and building a car from scratch, is an element of degree courses at universities across Europe and aims to "develop job-ready graduates".

There are three different classes that teams can enter: '1' is based around a 600cc petrol engine; '2' is a design exercise for the following year's car; and '1A' is a new low-carbon category that includes green fuels and technologies. It's not just speed that the cars are scored on, with judges taking a close look at fuel economy, design, sustainability, business presentation and various performance parameters such as acceleration, handling on a skidpan, autocross and an endurance test — a timed 22km run. Class 1A focuses even more closely on sustainability and the car's carbon footprint.

"I actually wrote the first set of rules for the class," says Hilton. "It's a really good thing for students to get involved in and it's good for us as well because we need to stay relevant to what's going on in the outside world. We have to make sure we give them a competition that teaches them skills they’re going to need when they’ve finished university. It’s great to be able to provide them with a limb of the competition where they can stretch into areas that aren’t that well covered, even in mainstream road car manufacturing.”

There are now 130 teams across 20 countries that take part in the various Formula Student competitions and, as in the real world, all have very different budgets. However, a big budget from a university doesn’t necessarily spell success. “We’ve had teams with as little as five people and a £500 budget, up to teams of over 50 people who’ve had budgets of up to €150,000,” says Hilton.

“The best thing about this competition is that the ones who spend the most money don’t always win. In fact, they quite often don’t. Last year in class 1A Zurich University (which admitted to the €150,000 budget) were beaten by Hertfordshire which spent £7200.”

I asked Hilton how much of a help a programme like this is to job-seeking students once they've finished their degrees. “I have to say we get so many people through Formula Student now that it’s more often the case that they've done the competition than not,” he says. “Having experience is a crucial part of gaining the practical skills. It would be harsh to suggest that they’re completely missing from university courses, but it’s one of the things universities find it difficult to fit in and that they struggle to find the facilities for.”

It would be wrong to suggest that Formula Student is the only way to get the appropriate experience to forge a career in motor sport. “Work experience is a great route and I regularly recommend it to people,” says Hilton. “If you walked up to a small team in F3 and said, ‘I’ll come along and do some proper engineering for you, some data analysis, work out what’s happening with the car and try and make it go faster… and I’ll be free’, they’d bite your arm off, especially if you pay your own travel expenses. These are bright young people who can make a significant contribution, so work experience is definitely a viable alternative, or better still, an addition to Formula Student.”

The British element of this year’s competition will be held at Silverstone on July 15-18 and teams are now sorting the final parts on their cars. I found Chris Jones, a new member of the Hertfordshire University team that won class 1A last year, in the middle of trying to sort the batteries they are using to power this year’s 1A car. “The batteries are the tricky bit,” he says. “Just getting them to work all at the same time is pretty difficult as there are 240 individual cells, and if one of them isn't working then it won’t go very fast at all.”

Hertfordshire is entering classes 1 and 1A this year, but the team is cautious about repeating last year’s success. “The problem is that there are a lot more people doing electric cars this year and many of them have a much larger budget than us,” says Chris. “It’ll be a lot more competitive so we’ll have to wait and see.

“Last year the electrics in our car hadn't really been developed and it was very much a first attempt. We learnt a lot of things from that and this year everything apart from the front end is different. We've also packaged the batteries differently to get a lower centre of gravity.”

Hilton has high hopes for the Hertfordshire team: “I have to be careful mentioning anyone in particular, especially Herts as I went there, a long time ago… But they’ll be looking for a top 10 place in the overall competition. I had the impression that last year’s car hadn’t been running for that long, so with more preparation time I’ll be hoping to see some reasonable improvement in performance.”

It’s clear from the number of people who compete – and the quality of those involved – that Formula Student is a great way to get into motor sport. Not only that, it’s an economical way for universities to run final-year projects – a member of Coventry University said it managed to run 17 different projects around just one car. It’s also refreshing to see innovation being encouraged and not outlawed as soon as it appears – perhaps the only element that doesn’t reflect life in the real world…