Formula SAE: The Olympics of Motorsports?

By Tom Martin

May 19, 2010

Back in the day, the Olympics gathered amateur athletes from various nations, big and small. They offered the hope that obscure countries and underdog competitors could shine. Even more, they promised to honor the preparatory effort and the willingness to do one’s best that are signal qualities of the human spirit we can all wish to emulate. They still do much of this, though in some sports professional funding has changed the game, so to speak.

This past weekend, from May 12 to 15, the Society of Automotive Engineers held what could legitimately be called the Olympics of Motorsport—old school version—but is formally known as Formula SAE Michigan. 106 university teams from around the world (including teams from Estonia, India, Austria, Korea and Venezuela) gathered for events designed to showcase theoretical and practical motorsports knowledge.

During the school year, each team designs a complete racing car within a set of complex rules. The cars weigh 300 to 500 pounds and are generally powered by four-cylinder or single-cylinder engines derived from motorcycle designs. The formula involves intake restrictors to limit horsepower; nonetheless, the cars can do 0-60 in the three-second range. The cars are required to have complete suspensions and safety systems. Some cars run launch control, traction control, active differentials and turbos. Aerodynamics packages are of questionable value due to the relatively low speeds of the courses (to maintain high safety levels), but this year saw a resurgence of aero designs. Carbon fiber is also present and accounted for in chassis designs, as well as wheels and other parts. A team could easily have 25 members, and a car could take 20,000 man-hours or more to design, build, and test (the teams make most of the parts themselves).

The teams compete in seven events. Three of these are static: covering cost, marketing (the idea is that the design could be sold as a spec racer), and design. Four dynamic events show off real world performance of both car and team drivers: acceleration, skid pad, autocross, and endurance.  Each event has a point value, and the winner is the team with the most total points.

This year was particularly interesting because of the variety of well-executed designs that made it all the way through the competition (frequently in the past, several interesting cars have failed in the endurance segment). Top points winner this year was Oregon State’s Global Formula Racing, running a single-cylinder engine with no aero. OSU won both the design and the endurance competitions, showing that the judges aren’t completely off their rockers despite frequent claims to the contrary.

Second place went to the University of Michigan. Michigan ran a carbon chassis, a four-cylinder engine, and no aero. They also impressed with what we believe is an FSAE record 3.7-second time in acceleration. Just to put that in context, Michigan probably pulled well over 1 g on their winning run; this time is roughly equivalent to a 2.8-second 0-60 run.

Third place went to the Austrian powerhouse TU Graz (Graz University of Technology). Like Michigan, Graz ran an atmospheric four-cylinder with no aero (or no wings at least).

Limiting the list of “winners” to the standard podium of three is a bit misaligned with what really goes on. The huge preparatory effort from so many people with such different resource levels really requires that kudos go to a longer list of players. Without listing everyone (including the unfortunate Indian team that we saw standing and staring at their apparently dead car in its crate/coffin), we should at least round out the top ten:

4. University of Maryland – skidpad winners (atmo-4, aero, tube frame)

5. Rochester Institute of Technology (atmo-4)

6. University of Texas – Arlington (single, aero, carbon chassis)

7. TU Munich (atmo-4, carbon chassis)

8. University of Michigan – Dearborn

9. Cornell University (turbo-4, carbon chassis)

10. Kookmin University of Korea (atmo-4, aero)

If you happen to be in southeasten Michigan in mid-May, this event is a bit chaotic, but the human spirit in evidence in the pits and on the track is impressive.