Racecar Engineering invited Craig Porley, an experienced Race Engineer to this year’s Formula Student UK competition. Porley, who has worked full-time at Red Bull Racing as well as BTCC for the last 12 year, is an experienced race engineer. He has never attended before. Here is his take on the competition, and the parts that surprised him.
I found myself in a fairly unique position at Silverstone for this year’s Formula Student (FS) competition, in that I had never been before. Not particularly unique you may say. A 40-year-old with 20 years of experience in motorsport, but who has never attended Formula Student, is more unusual. I have been lucky to work with some world class designers and engineers in my career, and I can’t name many of a similar age that weren’t heavily involved in FS at university. I was eager to witness the competition and see if it lived up to my expectations.
Back in the Day
This year’s Formula Student UK event saw The 25th anniversary of the competition, so I can’t use the excuse it wasn’t running whilst I was at university. In the early years, universities would often limit participation to only final-year students. The sprawling teams of 100+ people with full management hierarchies and vast budgets didn’t exist. I spent the first two years of my engineering program waiting for me to get involved. We would look enviously at the final year students in the Autolab with that head up shoulders back confident swagger, that came with being ‘in the team’. It was like a first step in the ladder of professional motorsport. My placement year followed.
I was fortunate enough to be hired by a team of GT and LMP car drivers and spend the entire year travelling the world. The year was a true dream. For me, a placement year brought about a much-needed sense of focus. My final year had a whole new meaning. It was now about getting back into motorsport, keeping things in perspective and getting my head down. Formula Student, even though I wanted to, was no longer an option. With the chance to continue working with the team in my final year, and a project that they had set up, Formula Student wasn’t a sensible choice. The first year was a different story.
Fast forward to 2023, a warm summer Wednesday afternoon and I’m sat in my car in the paddock carpark at Silverstone with the windows down, listening to the excited babbling of students signing on and setting up. The excitement was palpable and almost annoying for an older race engineer. The experience was refreshing and even a bit intoxicating. It was a nostalgic look back at those exhilarating times, when everything was new and exciting. There were so many things to come in a career that is just beginning. The experience was a reminder to me to enjoy the present and not forget my past.
Formula Student is a great product.
Not having competed in FS hasn’t meant a lack of exposure to it from afar. During my ten years of race engineering, where my data engineers were typically students, I had many FS discussions while driving to the racetracks. I can’t name any of these students who haven’t gone on to work as race winning race engineers, designers in F1, or started successful engineering businesses. What percentage of their success can be attributed to Formula Student? It was their involvement in Formula Student that gave them the chance to work as data engineers in motorsport while still in school. The technical skills gained through FS are not the only reason why FS is so popular. It is also a way to separate the dreamers and those who are willing to put in long hours.
What do you think about the competition?
So did I enjoy my first FS competition? Absolutely. How many of the perceptions I had were correct? Only a few of my perceptions have been proven to be correct! The extraordinary level of engineering and design on display was the only thing that I could say proved to be true. It was also true in terms of mechanical design, such as chassis and suspensions, as well as in terms of design and installation of electronics in EV and hybrid vehicles. After six years in F1, it was clear that there were some F1 designers from the future.
I was also sucked in by the drama of the endurance race. I wasn’t expecting to particularly enjoy seeing cars go round a tight and twisty course, marked out by cones, not exceeding speeds of 60mph. Yet I was drawn into the battle of Oxford Brookes Racing vs MoRe Modena Racing, for the ‘winner takes it all’ showdown in the enduro. Strathclyde University also had me cheering them on every time that they started again after technical issues. I enjoyed watching the cars despite my reservations about the course. The cars were all different, with their own characteristics of handling, whether good or bad. But the top entries showed some amazing slow-speed turn-in handling on the tight hairpins. It was a much more enjoyable experience to watch the enduro than many recent F1 races.
Formula Student surprises
What perceptions about me were distorted? The first was my perception of the EV category. I was expecting a lot of ‘off-the-shelf’ components bolted into cars, cobbled together to get them running. My ignorance of the EV category probably influenced this opinion. There were a number of custom built motor control units and batteries as well as some amazing motor installations.
The ‘mechanical’ engineering aspect of the competition is also not lost through going EV. I was wrong to think that electrical engineers and software programmers would surround an EV. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this. But as a mechanical designer, I felt uninformed about being kicked out of a contest with mechanical engineering roots. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The number of electrical engineers, programmers and installers was of course higher. However, in a mechanical sense the design and installation of an E Motor is no different than an engine. The challenge is perhaps even greater from a mechanical perspective, since the success of an E-motor depends on multiple motors and each one needs a specially designed gearbox. It was interesting to see the strong integration of mechanical and electric departments when speaking with EV entries. The respect between the two departments was evident, and this was largely because each understood that a wide range of engineering capabilities were required to make the EVs not only run, but be competitive. Strong interdepartmental communication to achieve a common goal – isn’t that the same target as working in industry – motorsport or otherwise?
I think the biggest and longest-lasting impression I had of FS team members was a feeling of arrogance. The camaraderie amongst universities was impressive. As professional motorsport is highly competitive, I expected a similar policy of closed doors between teams. The people I observed were eager and proud to share all the details about their car with anyone interested. Jaded old race engineering, proud parents or other students from different teams. This support was best exemplified when I watched a group of universities meet. One person gave a crash course on how he’d made the Brake system Plausibility device (BSPD), safety system, work. He also helped diagnose other issues based his own experiences. I got the feeling that everyone was aware of how difficult it is to bring a car through the scrutineering process and to the competition.
I was also impressed by the spirit of support among the teams. There was an obvious sense of pride in what the teams had accomplished, both individually and collectively. More people than I expected expressed admiration for the other members of the team. When asked what the biggest difference was from last year, Warwick University explained how they changed the culture and social network of the team. I had meant the car itself, but the car wouldn’t exist without the team of people and a strong and supportive work ethic.
It is difficult to determine if the competition is what encourages students to work hard and have a strong team spirit or if it is simply a vehicle to enhance and encourage the qualities that are already present in them. This is not an important question. It is important that the competition gives promising future engineers a chance for them to challenge themselves academically, socially, and mentally. It is unlikely these young adults had been pushed in such a way, and for so long in a group environment, before they started working at Formula Student. This is also unlikely to be the case if they’ve worked closely in other engineering disciplines. Of course, there are those that drop out along the way for various reasons, it doesn’t mean these aren’t promising engineers with bright futures. It used to frustrate me when I would hear some of my younger colleagues tell me it wasn’t uncommon to not make the first round of selection for graduate jobs if FS wasn’t on the CV. I guess it was due to the fact I didn’t have it on mine, and I felt like my career has turned out largely as I wanted. But, and it’s a big but, I get it now.
I understand the sense of pride, sometimes verging on arrogance of some people I’ve worked alongside when they talk about their FS team, sometimes from 10 to 15 years in the past. Now I can see the pride in their eyes. I suppose in some ways, this pride was mistaken for arrogance. However, I must also question if the jealousy is an old buried resentment of not being able to compete myself. I won’t be joining those who instantly dismiss a graduate CV if FS isn’t present, however there will now have to be clear evidence of something that replicates the engineering and communication skills built from participation in the competition.
I came away from the competition having spent more days there than a typical race weekend in professional motorsport, however I certainly wasn’t longing to get away. I left with a better understanding of the competition and a newfound admiration for the young engineers who worked so hard to build a car. I am looking forward to FSUK in 2024 to see if teams deliver on their promises for the next year.
Formula Student’s 25th anniversary is also something I now understand.Th The UK is celebrating its anniversary, and growth continues on a worldwide scale. The number and variety of competitions continue to grow in various countries. The EV, hybrid, and AI cars are keeping the competition relevant within the automotive industry. Formula Student Africa was announced for this year. One new FS fan will certainly be heading out to their first competition.
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