Insight No.38 : Jun 2012 : Shifting to a Higher Gear: Business Insights from PcubedHear Me Roar! Formula Racing Student-StyleFeaturing James Taylor
The car resembles a sleek, slightly modified Formula One entry. But instead of a minimum weight of 640 kilograms with the driver, this one is about 200 kilos without a driver. And instead of reaching speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, this one is throttled back to about 60 MPH. Rather than requiring sponsors to pay tens of millions in cash, provide technical support and equipment to receive branding placement, this team operates on partnership packages costing a few thousand and the goodwill of partners.
So goes the world of Formula Student racing, where next generation of engineers get an intense taste of what it's like to fund, design, build, and race a car.
The goal of the competition is to challenge students from universities worldwide to design and build a single-seat racing car to compete in a range of static and dynamic events. Run by the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the current competition draws about 450 teams and is sponsored by companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, Shell, and Airbus.
The University of Hertfordshire, located about 21 miles from the center of London, has been running its Formula Student racing program since 1998. The program is as an offshoot of its School of Engineering and Technology.
The university team, UH Racing, which Pcubed supports as a Platinum Sponsor, races its latest car each year in two competitions. The first takes place in July at Silverstone, on part of the Grand Prix Motor Racing circuit. The second happens in August at Hockenheimring Baden-Württemberg, a track situated near the town of Hockenheim in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
As team member and Hertfordshire graduate James Taylor puts it, those races are the highlight of the year. "It's fantastic. Everyone is excited, wanting to compete with their car. Your team has spent the whole year designing it and building it and making sure it's as good as you can get it. There's a hundred other teams all with the same hopes. They're all trying to compete and win the competition. At the same time, everyone is really friendly and willing to help each other."
Pcubed has provided two major streams of support: both capital and help and expertise in shaping the team's business presentations, which paid off last year in a big way (more on that shortly).
"I thoroughly enjoyed working with the very talented and driven students who make up the University of Hertfordshire's FS teams," said Pcubed's James Russell, who advises the team. "Playing a small part in helping the next generation of industry-leading engineering project managers prepare for a competition like Formula Student gives all the Pcubed consultants involved a great deal of satisfaction and allows Pcubed to offer those team members who have a penchant for program and project management an opportunity to develop their skills even further in the commercial world. Fingers crossed the teams can bring home success again this year!"
The Evolution of a Racing Fan
When Taylor was originally considering which university to attend, he examined the Formula Student teams as part of his evaluation - how the program was run and how successful the team was. "And I know that was the case for a lot of people on the team," he adds.
Taylor, who has since received a bachelor's degree in automotive engineering and a master's in business, became involved in his third year of university. To get a sense of what it would be like, he and others participated as part of the Formula Student Class 2 competition (PDF). That initial foray focuses on designing and costing a car, but not building it - in other words, the static side of the business. At that level judges evaluate a team's design process, project planning, and business planning. Teams choose representatives to make informal presentations about the engineering design of their vehicle and formal presentations about their business plan.
By his fourth year, for the 2011 race season, Taylor and his cohorts - 30-plus strong - were ready to take their design work and use it to build an actual running car. Now many of the same members are wrapping up another car for the 2012 season.
How the Work Progresses
The team has a workspace on campus large enough to do assembly work and access to the university's machine shop to build most of the components the vehicle will need. The "Lab," as it's called, is a point of pride for Taylor. "A lot of universities have fancy places," he notes. "But one thing I'm quite proud of is that we're competing with universities that have six-figure budgets and facilities that you wouldn't see at some companies. And we're the top UK team at the moment."
To organize the work, a team leader is chosen by the students, and managers are designated for the different parts of the car. For example, the manufacturing manager monitors the progress of every part that needs to be on the car - where it is, whether it's on schedule, what needs to happen to it next. Like many other students, Taylor had to do a senior year project, so he chose the design of an exhaust system, which was also what he worked on for the car. Along with managing the exhaust system work, he handled business management. (He was the one who made the team's 2011 business plan presentation, along with Team Captain Clare Cletheroe.)
Team members meet weekly to discuss progress, new sponsors, and key activities that will affect the latest round of work. As the first competition nears, activity in the lab heats up and students who are done with their exams for the summer start spending more and more time helping assemble the vehicle. As a traffic sign in the Lab states, "Caution: Part-Timers Prohibited."
Choosing drivers, explains Taylor, is a matter of figuring out who has the quickest reflexes. It used to involve vying against each other on a small carting track a couple of hours' drive from the campus. Now it's a matter of running laps on the university's Cruden simulator, which, with its three high-def monitors, realistic race car seating, and loud racing sound effects, resembles a giant arcade game.
As much a social event as a test of driving mettle, the group is divided into four teams with each member driving three laps. The winner is the team with the fastest average lap time. All of this is combined with on track evaluation of potential drivers in last year's car before finally selecting the final drivers.
Once the real car is ready to test, the team will head to Bruntingthorpe proving ground to make final adjustments and give drivers the opportunity to get the feel of the car. If all goes according to plan, UH15, as this year's car is named (last year's was UH14), will be ready to test out after the launch event on June 20.
On the Racetrack
Then the real competition - the dynamic one - begins. At Silverstone and Hockenheim, teams will vie in four categories:
- Acceleration, to measure whose vehicle can go fastest in a straight distance of 75 meters from a standing start on flat ground;
- Skid Pad, to judge the vehicle's maximum cornering capability by having the driver run a figure-eight circuit;
- Sprint, to test the car's maneuverability and handling qualities on a tight course without other cars on the track; and
- Endurance and Fuel Economy, which lasts for 22 kilometers and requires a driver change in the middle.
According to Taylor, that last test is the toughest one. "Over half the cars won't complete it," he says. "When you do the driver change, you have to turn the car off, do the driver change, and then start it again. A lot of cars won't start again."
In the 2011 race year, UH14 was the top UK team for both runs. In Silverstone, it also came in first for the business competition, second for endurance, and third overall. At Hockenheim, it took seventh overall and placed in the top four in business, cost, and design contests.
Above and beyond the bragging rights, however, is the learning that goes on. "It's a massive team project that has to deliver something at the end. You're monitoring costs as you go. You're dealing with sponsors and people outside the university. There's the business side, where you're considering how you would potentially promote the car," says Taylor.
And then there are the networking aspects. "The team is your team of friends. If they're not at the start, they are at the end. You spend a lot of time with them and you get to know them well. And they're going to be people you know when you go out into industry."
But it's the special event that takes place when all the competitions are over at the end of summer that Taylor most looks forward to. The group gets together for a BBQ, and everybody who was involved in the building of the latest race car gets to drive it if they want. "It's only for 10 laps," he notes. "But it's a fantastic feeling to be driving that car knowing that you and your friends have designed and built it. It's quick; it's light; it's a racing car. I'll probably never get the chance to drive a thing like that again."