The student race car competition dates back to the 1980s. At the time, American car manufacturers weren’t satisfied with the fact that university graduates had no experience at all, so they initiated the Formula SAE competition. Named Formula Student, it made it to Europe 17 years later. Today, the races take place on other continents as well, with over 800 teams participating.
The aim of the Formula Student competition is to design and manufacture a fully functional, one-seater race car that is safe enough to actually race. And the winner is the team with the most points gained not only in dynamic disciplines on the track but also in static disciplines, such as presenting the car’s design, analysing financial costs, and introducing the car to a fictitious potential investor.
The TU Brno Racing team was established in 2010 at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Brno University of Technology. Its founders and students found inspiration during their Erasmus exchange studies in Denmark where student race cars had been successful for some time, and since then it has manufactured ten combustible-engine Dragon cars. Its Dragon 10, called Dragon X by the team, is now getting ready for its first race in summer of 2021 (the 2020 races were postponed to next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
The members of TU Brno Racing are patriots at heart, as the team’s name and logo suggest. TU stands for Technical University, and the logo as well as the name are dominated by a dragon – a symbol of the city of Brno. And 74 represents the height of the university’s A1 building in metres, as this is the home of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering where the idea to join the student formula races was born.
From development to racing, in just 12 months
Formula Student is open to students of bachelor as well as master studies and they have to leave the team after graduation. The students spent basically all their leisure time working on the project, and yet they remain in the team for up to several years.
“Not everybody is able or willing to work all weekend and long nights for the entire season, in their own leisure time, and it’s nearly impossible to work on the project, study, and get a job. However, the students often make use of the experience gained in their future jobs,” explains Matěj Ecler, a former team leader.
Within a mere 12 months, the students have to design, manufacture, and test the car and participate in the races. “At the beginning of September, the team sums up the previous season and defines new goals. At the beginning of the new semester – toward the end of September – recruitment begins, and once the team is complete, we spend the rest of the year working on the design. We do the calculating and look for partners. From January to April, the car is being manufactured, and it’s presented in the spring. It’s then tested and prepared for static disciplines, and in June we present our design, business plan, and cost-benefit study. In July and August, races are held in Europe and all over the world,” says Ecler, describing their activities during the whole year.
There are three categories at Formula Student: combustible race cars, electric race cars, and autonomous cars. TU Brno Racing has been manufacturing combustible race cars from the very beginning, but it’s already started working on a prototype of the Dragon e1 to participate in the electric car category. “We’re interested in the driverless category as well, so in the future we’d like to rebuild our first electric car into an autonomous car for next season. However, the control systems are rather complex, so we need to expand to other faculties as well (Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Faculty of Information Technology) to find students interested in the competition,” explains Ecler.
Passing on experience, ambitions, and a long-term plan
To complicate matters, every year one third of the team’s 35 members have to leave and are then replaced by new ones. Despite this, TU Brno Racing keeps improving and is currently ranked ninth in the whole world. How come?
“We’ve come up with a sophisticated transfer of knowledge; at the end of the season, each team member writes down the procedures for the design and manufacturing of the set they were responsible for. Also, an experienced person who has been on the team for several years and a new member of the team work on each part together, so that the new member can later take over,” explains Ecler. This isn’t the only thing that keeps pushing the team forward, though.
“We also put emphasis on points gained. In the main competition, we can gain up to one third of all the points. It’s a 22-km endurance race, a sort of reliability test. Once the car finishes the race, it gets checked to see if any component is loose and that kind of thing. For example, a simple leak is enough to get disqualified. Often, only half of the cars finish the race,” adds Ecler, saying that TU Brno Racing is among only a few teams to have finished ten races in a row.
Experienced experts from the university help with the design as well. And it’s the cooperation with private companies that's absolutely essential for Student Formula. As partners, they supply components, materials as well as precious experience. “If a company provides some kind of new technology, we have to visit it to consult. At the university, on the other hand, there are experts from all the disciplines we need,” says Ecler.
Priceless hands-on experience
Eventually, the companies benefit from the competition as well. In addition to good promotion, they find graduates with some proper experience in manufacturing real products. “Student Formula produces experts not only in automotive but also in manufacturing as well as calculation simulations, management, and so on. And we are supported not only by automotive companies,” adds Ecler.
Often, the students use the designing of complex components or sets in their final theses, and benefit from the participation in the competition when looking for a job. In addition, they make friends and network with experts all over the world.
“Being a member of the team has taught me a lot, mainly about project management, i.e. to define goals and lead a team. Of course, what we design and how many kilometres the formula can handle is important as well, but it all follows the only goal – to achieve the best result at the competitions taking place in the summer. The team has to be just as prepared for every single part of the competition. If we focus too much on one of them, we’ll lose points in some other. In short, our efforts have to make sense as a whole,” says Matěj Ecler, a former team leader at TU Brno Racing.