Sidetracked with Ed Foster

Seats of learning
Now in its 15th year, Formula Student gives aspiring engineers a helping hand – and F1 teams are quick to take notice

Imagine for a moment what Formula 1 would be like with a looser set of regulations. Different solutions to the same problems and contrasting noises from diverse powertrains – it’ll never happen and you might well accuse me of living in a dream world. That’s not quite the case, though, because there is a ‘series’ out there with a wide-open rulebook. It’s called Formula Student.

The inter-university challenge has been going since 1998 and consists of various tests from static judging to a 26-lap endurance race. It’s held at Silverstone, but this is a worldwide event with teams and cars from more than 30 countries including Slovakia, India, Poland and Iceland. Branded as ‘the testing ground for future engineers’, Formula Student, which is run by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, caught the attention of Ross Brawn in its first year and in 2006 he became patron. “Formula Student really shows why engineering is such an exciting, dynamic subject to get involved in,” he said in 2011. “Designing, building and financing a race car from scratch, with almost no limitations to the design or the shape, can instil a creativity in young engineers that will be absolutely crucial to them throughout their careers.”

Recently Motor Sport organised a podcast in conjunction with Formula Student and wrote to a few Formula 1 teams, asking whether they could send an employee to talk about the 2014 F1 rules. Andy Cowell, engineering director of Mercedes-Benz High Performance Powertrains, former Lotus technical director James Allison and Gordon Day, general manager of Williams Hybrid Power, joined us on the night. It was quite a line-up and gives you an idea of how highly Formula Student is regarded within the motor sport industry.

“An F1 team has lots and lots of people applying for jobs and you never struggle to find applicants who have the right academic qualifications,” Formula Student ambassador Allison says.

“It’s almost the case that academic qualifications are no longer a distinguishing characteristic. You’re going to get loads of applicants from good universities with good degrees, so you tend to look and see who is motivated by the sort of things you know will make them successful in Formula 1. Formula Student is a great big flashing light that says they are interested in the things that they should be interested in. There are other things, too – people who go marshalling at racetracks, people who muck about restoring cars or do things outside their university course that show they’re the type of person that prospers in F1.

“There are lots of people doing Formula Student now, but you know anyone who has done it has acquired a whole bunch of skills that will work very well in our environment. It’s not a prerequisite, but it’s a huge tick.”

Cowell, also an ambassador for Formula Student, has seen the influence of the programme in Mercedes HPP. “More than 10 per cent of our staff are now made up of people who have come through our graduate scheme and over half of those have come with some Formula Student experience,” he says.

“I think one thing in life and growing up is academic understanding, so that you can understand the principles, and then there’s the aspect of applying those. Formula Student supplies that hands-on experience while you’re at university.

It’s also a competitive environment where you get that thrill, that elation, when you do it well. When it doesn’t go so well, you also get the experience of having to pick yourself up off the floor, look at what your opponents have done and using that as an improvement opportunity. It’s wonderful to watch the youngsters and their tutors working together as a team and achieving.”

While Cowell and Allison are both ambassadors for the programme, Day actually competed in the American version of Formula Student and agrees that he looks carefully at any job applicant who has done it. “The struggle of pulling together a team of students, the unified goal of getting to a race at the end of a year and competing are different from other aspects of university as I experienced it,” he says. “It’s really what I look back on and remember best about my time at university. I didn’t realise then, but I was developing skills that are most applicable to real world engineering as well.”

Every programme has its downsides, but looking at it from an independent perspective and having spoken to people who have competed in it, it’s hard to find one in Formula Student. Yes, it’s a lot of work to balance alongside your university course, but if that’s causing problems then a life in motor sport is perhaps not right for you. If you’re a budding motor sport engineer then go to and see if you can find any reasons not to do it.

All-electric approach powers swiss to the title

This year’s competition, held at Silverstone from July 4-7, was won in convincing fashion by ETH Zurich. Not only did it win by 69.8 points, but its car was powered solely by electricity. OK, various electric Land Speed Record cars – such as Camille Jenatzy’s La Jamais Contente – were ‘winning’ as far back as 1899, but this must be one of the highest profile events in which a fully electric car has beaten combustion-engined cousins.

Forget any thoughts of the car being in any way like the vast majority of electric road cars on sale today – weighing only 170kg meant that its 107bhp could propel it to 62mph in 3.2 seconds. Dispel also any visions of the team of students being small in number – 48 people were involved in the project and 28 of those flew to the UK to take part in the contest. The chassis department alone comprised 10 students.

It was perhaps this depth of talent that helped it win the 26-lap endurance event. Many of the car’s competitors wilted in the heat and in the second half of the race the team turned the power down and coasted to victory. As well as the endurance event, ETH Zurich also won both the Engineering Design and Overall Dynamics elements of the competition. Along the way it picked up the Jaguar Land Rover Award for Innovation in Propulsion Systems, the AMG High Performance Award for Best High Voltage Powertrain and the Shell Engineering Excellence Award. This heady mixture of success paved the way to becoming overall winner of the 2013 competition. Given such levels of professionalism, it’s no wonder that potential employers keep track of Formula Student.

Green light for new track
Circuit of Wales takes another step closer to reality after local authority gives £250 million project its blessing

Some of you probably haven’t heard of the Circuit of Wales, and that’s fair enough considering it doesn’t yet exist. It might well, however, by 2015/2016.

The Heads of the Valleys Development Company is the business behind the £250m project situated just north of Ebbw Vale, and on July 10 its plans to build a world-class circuit, a low-carbon technology park, an international kart track, a motocross course, industrial units, retail space, hotels and leisure facilities were submitted to the Blaenau Gwent County Borough council. Because it’s such a massive project – it is the “largest capital investment programme in automotive and motor sports infrastructure in the UK in the last 50 years” – the plans were submitted not just to the planning department, but the entire council.

The decision of the meeting was confirmed at 2.10pm and it was good news for motor sport fans: the project has been given the council’s blessing. However, there are environmental concerns and Welsh government inspectors could still step in if they feel the need. If all goes to plan, though, the area will benefit from thousands of jobs (3000 in construction alone, 90 per cent being sourced in the local area) and a huge influx of tourists (750,000 per year, it is claimed). It seems that the vast majority of people are happy and construction is due to start at the end of the year. At the risk of sounding like a doom monger, though, it’s far from a done deal.

You can read about Mallory Park’s recent problems in Simon Arron’s column (pages 137-139), and it will give you some idea of what hurdles a circuit faces even after being open for more than 50 years.

The Circuit of Wales is hoping to host MotoGP, World Superbikes, World Motocross and the World Touring Car Championship – it’s not messing about. But all circuit owners will tell you that money comes from track days and mid-week activities rather than headline meetings that cost a lot to promote. Circuits rely on being granted enough ‘operational days’ to host such events on top of the big races. It also relies on the number of those days not being threatened by local opposition five, 10 or even 57 years down the line.

Don’t get me wrong – I, like every motor sport fan, would love to see another top-class circuit in the UK. But as the former leaseholder of Donington Park found to the venue’s peril, plans are one thing, acting on them quite another. There’s a long way to go before we see a race at the Circuit of Wales.

Age against the machine…
How Motor Sport almost took part in the Henry Surtees Brooklands Team Challenge

The Motor Sport editorial team past it? Surely not, but given what happened a few weeks ago we couldn’t blame you for thinking just that.

A week before we were due to take part in the Henry Surtees Brooklands Team Challenge kart race, one of the staff complained of a bad shoulder. A matter of days later and another opted out due to a torn rib muscle. With 48 hours to go the Motor Sport team consisted of myself and, well, that was it. An invitation to British GT driver Ollie Hancock produced a positive response – and within two hours he had lined up Formula Ford front-runner Harrison Scott and GT racer Adam Christodoulou.

Scott managed to put us on the front row, but, while he was one of the quickest out there, his lap might have been connected with the fact that our engine blew 10 seconds later. Two-strokes have a habit of being at their best just before they disintegrate…

We were issued with another kart for the race, but it became clear as soon as Christodoulou led the pack onto the long back straight that we were in a dud. He might as well have got out and pushed. Half an hour later we were down in 20th. Another kart change put us back on the pace and, thanks to the efforts of everyone bar me, we ended up sixth. Lucky the Motor Sport team was made up of ‘ringers’…

While the closing speeds of professionals created plenty of hair-raising moments among the inexperienced, the event – which started in 2012 – was a great success: £58,000 was raised for the Henry Surtees Foundation and the Brooklands Museum. Next year the Motor Sport editorial team will hopefully be back to full fitness. I say ‘hopefully’, but our three pros did pretty well without them…