Thayer School’s international competition races to its five-year milestone.
By Gordon Kirby
Photographs by Kathryn LoConte Lapierre and Douglas Fraser
Thayer School’s Formula Hybrid International Competition reached its five-year milestone this spring at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The competition attracted 34 teams from universities and colleges from around the world, a substantial leap from the five entries in the inaugural 2007 Formula Hybrid competition. Within days of the May 1–4 competition, Formula Hybrid reached another kind of milestone as well: gaining widespread recognition by headlining “Emerging Tech Day” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
This year’s Formula Hybrid competition was won convincingly by the team from Texas A&M University. Arriving at the track better prepared than any of their rivals, Texas A&M was the only team able to complete all phases of the competition. Their car, Medusa, won the acceleration contest, finished second in the endurance event, and achieved the top overall score of 871.2 points. Second place was taken by Brigham Young University’s Blue Fury. The team won the presentation and endurance segments and totaled 712 points. Third overall with 691.6 points and winner of the design segment of the contest was Sweden’s Lund University.
Dartmouth finished fifth overall but placed second in the design contest—and won Chrysler’s Best Hybrid System Engineering Award for developing an accumulator consisting strictly of ultracapacitors.
“We put a lot of effort into the design,” says Frank Fortin-Houle ’10 Th’11, Dartmouth Formula Racing co-captain and primary driver. “We did some out-of-the-ordinary things with final belt drive, a fuel injected engine, and the whole electric side with only capacitors. A lot of the things added to the complexity of the car. But we’re engineers and we tried to push for as much as we could.”
The Formula Hybrid competition is organized by Douglas Fraser, a research engineer who has taught in Thayer instructional labs for 30 years and used to advise the Dartmouth Formula Racing team. Fraser’s key colleague in bringing Formula Hybrid to life is Wynne Washburn. Fraser oversees the technical aspects of the competition, while Washburn handles administration, funding, promotion, and marketing.
According to Washburn, Formula Hybrid is increasingly gaining attention from the automotive industry. “We’re starting to see more and more companies and corporations coming to us who are curious about what the competition is all about and how they can get involved,” she says. This year Formula Hybrid attracted 33 sponsors—including Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Toyota—more than double the competition’s original 14 backers.
Formula Hybrid was conceived back in 2004 when the Dartmouth Formula Racing team built a hybrid racecar and tried to enter it in a Formula SAE competition. The Society of Automotive Engineers banned the car because it didn’t conform to competition rules. Fraser convinced Thayer School to start a separate Formula Hybrid competition.
SAE quickly endorsed the idea. “The SAE has been very supportive right from the beginning,” says Fraser. “They sent us the source for the Formula SAE rules, which we went through and modified heavily.”
Fraser convened an organizing conference at Thayer in 2006 to hammer out the parameters of the competition with members of Formula SAE and representatives from the electrical engineering world, most notably the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
“There are many different hybrid configurations,” Fraser notes. “The Formula Hybrid rules require that the vehicle has an internal combustion engine and an electric motor system as opposed to hydraulic accumulators, flywheels, and fuel cells. The only devices that are approved for electric accumulators are batteries or capacitors and they have very different characteristics that can be used to advantage in different ways.”
A significant change from the SAE rules was reducing Formula Hybrid’s maximum engine size from the SAE’s 600 cc to 250 cc. There’s no minimum or maximum weight for Formula Hybrid. The cars must have four wheels and a minimum wheelbase of 60 inches. “We have deliberately set up a minimum of rules because we want the students to be as creative as they can be,” Fraser says.
The four-part competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., takes place over four days—up from the original three because of the increased number of competitors. The competition opens with the teams making formal presentations and sales pitches to a panel of judges who act as if they were venture capitalists. This initial presentation is worth 100 points in the competition’s potential total of 1,000 points and is followed by an engineering and design analysis valued at 200 points. On-track competition consists of a pair of acceleration runs over 75 meters, an autocross on a twisting, challenging course, and a concluding 22-kilometer endurance test. The two acceleration runs carry 75 points apiece. The autocross is worth 150 points and the endurance event carries 400 points.
The acceleration runs must be completed in no more than 10 seconds, and one of the two acceleration runs has to be completed with electric-only power. If the car can’t make it, the team doesn’t qualify for the rest of the competition. The concluding endurance event must be completed as quickly as possible without using more than 20 megajoules of energy, the equivalent of 2.3 liters of gasoline (taking into consideration internal combustion engine efficiency).
All the teams start the event with the same amount of energy on board. Their accumulator systems are filled to capacity. They are then given just enough liquid fuel to round out the 20-megajoule limit.
Formula Hybrid has established itself as an ideal recruiting ground for the auto industry to find skilled and motivated young electrical and hybrid engineers, according to Michael Royce, a veteran Chrysler engineer and Formula Hybrid’s chief mechanical tech inspector. Royce, who chaired the Formula SAE rules committee for nine years, and his wife, Suzanne, chief tech inspector at the United States Grand Prix Formula One races and Indy’s motorcycle Moto GP, are among the judges who hold Formula Hybrid students to high standards.
“The motivation and the reason we get involved is we believe it is one of the finest educational programs there is for young engineers,” Royce says. “What these young men and women are really learning is not so much hybrid systems or how suspensions work or that sort of thing. What the industry is really interested in are the softer skills that they cannot teach in the classroom—team building, team organization, project management, planning, and budgeting.”
Royce adds that the skill of learning to work together with people who have different ideas or opinions is a key element in Formula Hybrid. “Conflict resolution is one of the important lessons,” he observes. “Anybody involved in motor sports has an ego and when you get two people who’ve got different ideas on the design direction or have a packaging conflict, somebody has to have a way of resolving that. To compete effectively the teams need to have worked out those processes. From equipment manufacturers and tier-one suppliers on down within the auto industry, those things and people are what the industry wants to employ.”
“You had GM, Ford and Chrysler here wanting to sign people up,” adds Royce. “The word is getting around that the people from Formula SAE and Formula Hybrid are the people they want to hire. Working on these projects gives the students about a two- to three-year flying start, and it’s stuff that the companies don’t have to pay for.”
Texas A&M advisor Make McDermott is an equally big supporter of Formula Hybrid. “It’s a great technical exercise and also a great project management study,” he says. “The students have got to deal with all the dollars and schedules and people issues that they will face in their professional careers. Mastering those things will pretty much determine their success in their professional lives.”
The pressure to get the car prepared is just like any other motor racing competition. “I tell the students that the schedule is not going to slip. When the race starts, they’re going to wave the green flag whether our team is there or not,” says McDermott. “Engineers in particular want to keep trying new things, but at some point you’ve just got to quit that game and say, this is good enough. This works, and we’ve got to go out there and compete.”
In this race, winning isn’t everything.
“We were a bit frustrated about the outcome because we worked so hard on it through a whole year,” says Dartmouth’s Fortin-Houle. “But when you step back and think about what the purpose of this is, we learned a lot. Winning would have been nice, but I think learning to manage the process that we went through—the resources, the money, the people, the time, and making sure the components are designed and made—all that was really important.”
Formula Hybrid is a great motivator for many engineering students across the United States and around the world. The competition helps supply the automobile industry with fast-thinking, hands-on young engineers dedicated to improving the efficiency and performance in the automobile. In today’s world, that’s an admirable goal.
—Gordon Kirby is the United States editor of Motor Sport magazine and author of many auto racing books, including A Driving Passion, the award-winning biography of Mario Andretti.
TRACK RECORD: Dartmouth Formula Racing
Creating a hybrid racecar is harder than it looks
Highlight: Won first place for design
Heartbreak: Unable to complete endurance run because of electrical problems
Highlight: Set course records for electric-only and unlimited acceleration runs
Heartbreak: Unable to complete endurance run because of electrical problems and oil leak
Highlights: Hybrid drivetrain debuted independent rear-wheel drive and an electronic differential; won IEEE Future of Engineering Award for technical sophistication
Heartbreak: Unable to finish autocross and endurance
Highlights: Parallel drivetrain; carbon-fiber steering wheel with driver display and paddles to control regeneration and boost
Heartbreak: Sixth-place finish overall
Car: No. 6
Highlight: Won Chrysler’s Best Hybrid System Engineering Award
Heartbreak: Completed only 21 of 40 laps in endurance run before track closed
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