Formula SAE

For a number of years I was involved with the Formula SAE programme. I was a corner captain for the autocross event four or five years in a row, I was a Guest Speaker at the Canadian SAE Christmas dinner, held at the University of Windsor, and I built some shocks (to their specs - no cheating!) for a couple of Michigan-based teams.

Formula SAE is a fascinating mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Sublime, because some teams manage to create works of art (like the team that built their own bespoke V8 engine completely from scratch). Ridiculous, because most teams build junk, and then drive it poorly.

Given that this whole book is heavily inspired by Carroll Smith, and given that Carroll was an enthusiastic supporter of the FSAE programme, it seems appropriate that I should pass on some words of wisdom with a view to perhaps assisting future FSAE teams. I am a poor, poor second to having Carroll around, but I do have some direct experience and insights to share.

  1. Get A Ringer Driver Imagine, if you will, if the FSAE competition was to build a surface-to-air missile capable of shooting down a standardized target drone. The tasks facing the team are to build the actual vehicle, ensure that it can fly within a performance envelope capable of intercepting the drone, and build a guidance system capable of acquiring the target and steering the vehicle to the point of impact.
  2. Of those tasks, the guidance system is by far the most difficult task. Anybody can build a rocket that will fly, it is controlling it that is the tough part. Check out John Carmack's Rocket Team for direct evidence.

    In the FSAE environment, the guidance system is your driver, and unless your driver has actual racing driving experience, it does not matter how good your car is from a technical perspective. Time and time again I saw teams with decent cars but whose drivers were clearly driving the car in anger for the first time at the final event. And not just at the autocross event, where one might be able to make the argument that certain schools may lack proximity to local autocross events in order to practice. I saw this at the acceleration event as well, where certainly the team could have taken the car to an empty parking lot and practiced launches!

    When another team has J. T. Maclintoc driving for them, and you have a n00b driving for you... well this is not going to end well.

    This has become even more true in recent years. When I first started assisting at the FSAE event, the autocross was incredibly narrow, tight, and slow. One year I pre-ran the course in an electric golf cart with no brakes, and turned in a time that would have placed me around tenth. Since then, real live professional autocrossers have gotten involved with course design, and the quality of the courses is approaching that of an SCCA National Tour course - meaning fast sections with turns and elements representative of what you'd see on a real course.

    So if your driver doesn't know that a Chicago Box is really a 2-cone slalom that normally can be taken with a lift-slide to rotate the car followed by a throttle input to plant the rear end and shoot out of it, rather than a 130 degree turn with a brake-turn-gas sequence, you will be slow. So job #1 is to find out if one of the National SCCA competitors from your area is a student at your school, and if you find one - draft him/her to drive.

    If you don't have access to a regular autocross participant, then it behooves you to create one. Take a car from a previous year (or build two!) identify a couple of potential drivers, and then send them racing. Make it competitive; tell them the fastest driver gets the spot and assess and debrief every single run - in front of each other. Put egos on the line - it drives development.

    And make your drivers practice, practice, practice. Send them to the dragstrip in their own cars. Make them play Gran Turismo until their eyes bleed. Send them karting (there are some very good indoor and outdoor kart facilities in North America, but even Jim Bob's Kiddie Karts is better than nothing. A snow-covered parking lot is an opportunity to practice car control in a skidpad type scenario. Go nuts! But practice

  3. Obey the Rule of Thirds: 1/3 Design, 1/3 Build, 1/3 Test. When you start your annual programme, do a quick time appreciation and divide the time between "now" and "Pontiac" into thirds. The first third is Design time, the second third is Build time, and the third third is Test time. If the design is kept reasonably conservative, it is even possible (especially with access to tools like Solidworks) to compress the Design and Build phases and open up more time for Testing
  4. But whatever you do, do not cheat yourself of the test time! Time spent testing is never, ever wasted. By far the most problems I saw with teams at the event were issues that had not been discovered because the car's build phase was completed the day of the event.

    And testing may not need the entire build to be completed. One team had to drop out of competition because the brakes were not capable of locking the wheels - a simple mismatch between the pedal piston diameter and the caliper piston diameter caused the pedal to run out of travel before full clamping force was built up. This is a common problem even in real race teams, and is one of the reasons why Tilston and AP make a variety of interchangeable master cylinders with different piston sizes. The team had not discovered it because the brakes were bolted to the car the day of. When I asked the team Brake Guy why he had not tested the brakes prior to showing up, he replied that the car had not been ready to accept the brakes. I then asked him why he hadn't fabbed up a simple test stand that would allow testing independent of the car, and got crickets in response....

    You want all the bugs worked out of the car well in advance of the event. You want the drivers to be familiar with the handling of the car in both optimum and sub-optimum conditions (test in the rain too!). That means you absolutely must have the car done in time to test.

  5. Beware the Good Idea Fairy. We all know that when you cram a bunch of young supra-geniuses onto a team that everybody has a good idea. These good ideas will constantly percolate out, and the natural result is a constant stream of running changes that prevent the car from every being done. Impose a Good Idea Cut Off Date, and enforce it - let the good idea go on next year's car instead.

  6. Standardized Parts Are Your Friend. Unless you have a really compelling reason to go bespoke, you are usually better off buying parts off the shelf than designing and building your own. And if you DO buy off the shelf, don't modify it!
  7. Going back to our mismatched brake master cylinder piston size example, when the team discovered the mismatch, I told them there was a race shop just down the road that sold the same model number master cylinder as they were using, so they were in luck - and then they told me they had machined entirely new mounts into the OTS part so the standard part would not fit. Doh!

    Make your bespoke parts fit the standardized stuff, not the other way around.

  8. Keep It Simple, Stupid. As a world-famous engineer once said, "the more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain". Have a good look at a Formula Ford, especially something like a mid-1990s Raynard. That's a race car designed to be both fast and dead-nuts reliable, and it is done largely through simplicity. Sometimes complexity pays dividends, but only after exhaustive testing has proven it out - and where a simpler, backup plan is available should the complex option run over-time or over-budget.
  9. Iterative Trumps Revolutionary 99% of the Time. Don't constantly reinvent the wheel. Keep exhaustive notes on all aspects of the team's performance, and the last act of the season should be the handover of the notes and a briefing of the next year's team. The rules may preclude carrying over last year's car, but there's nothing stopping you from incorporating successful design elements from previous attempts. And last year's car makes a great practice trainer and benchmark for progress.

Other FSAE tips are located throughout the book wherever they occurred to me. Look for them in this FSAE callout box!