The race is on

May 11, 2007

It's "crunch time" for the Kettering Formula Racing Team. With a prototype engine and a lot of changes from last year's competition vehicle, the team is making every minute count prior to the competition May 16 to 20.

The competition starts May 16, the new engine was delivered May 9 and the team is operating on little-to-no sleep. But they are optimistic. Kettering's student Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Formula Racing Team is gearing up for the Formula SAE Competition, May 16 to 20, at the Ford Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich.

The Formula SAE Competition is for SAE student members to conceive, design, fabricate, and compete with small formula-style racing cars. The restrictions on the car frame and engine are limited so that the knowledge, creativity, and imagination of the students are challenged.

New for the Kettering team this year is the prototype engine designed and produced by Mahle GMBH of Germany. For starters, the engine is a three-cylinder engine, unlike the four-cylinder Honda engine used in last year's vehicle. Kettering is the only North American team using this prototype engine and transaxle. Six teams in Europe are using them.

"It actually makes more torque and the same amount of horsepower," said junior Quinn Griesdale, of Victoria, British Columbia. He describes its speed levels as "fast, fast and faster."

The prototype engine also came with a transaxle, another change from last year. Mahle GMBH in Germany designed and produced the prototype engine and Mahle Powertrain in Novi, Mich., is providing sponsorship and tech support to the Kettering Formula team.

"The old motor, with six speeds ("we only used two or three") had an integral transmission," said Griesdale. "This set-up is closer to that used in open-wheel race cars." Mahle donated both the engine and transaxle. Representatives from the German branch of the company will come to the U.S. to watch their engine perform in the competition.

The Mahle engine is mounted longitudinally, representing a 90 degree rotation from the Honda engine. Griesdale said the gyroscopic effect of the pistons firing at a right angle to the driver instead of toward the driver may have some effect on the vehicle's performance. "We're operating with a lot of unknowns right now," he said.

Because the Mahle engine is 34 pounds heavier than the Honda engine, the team has been trying to reduce weight throughout the vehicle. "We worked extremely hard to keep weight off," said Griesdale. "Compared to last year, we have reduced weight in every aspect of this vehicle, while maintaining durability.

"We make virtually everything in the shop ourselves," said Griesdale of the custom designed and fabricated vehicle, excluding the engine, transaxle and tires.

In response to a trend in the Formula racing circuit to make tracks smaller the Kettering team made their vehicle shorter and narrower. Smaller tracks keep speed levels down, but challenge teams to maintain maneuverability and performance.

"With the same horsepower and grip levels, smaller tracks make the car trickier to drive," said Griesdale. The longer the car the less likely it is to spin out, he explained, longer cars offer more stability. However, shorter cars are more nimble.

The narrower body has also presented some "packaging" challenges in trying to get all the necessary parts in the vehicle. "We still managed to make improvements in driver comfort and we made it easier for the driver to get in and out of the car," Griesdale said.

Despite being a little short-handed when it came to team members and not getting confirmation on the engine until October, which delayed design by three months, the team was optimistic six days before the competition.

The student SAE office, just upstairs from the Kettering Motorsports garage in the Mott Engineering and Science Center, has a couch that comes in handy when students spend upwards of 48 hours working in the garage and keeping up a healthy class schedule.

"We're a little sleep deprived," said junior Reed Pelly, of Pittsburg, "but it's (being involved in the Formula team) helpful when you apply for a co-op position or a permanent job after college. It shows you have experience in the whole process, from designing to building to testing a vehicle," he said.

For Griesdale, it's a means toward an end. He wants to work in the racing industry after graduating. He even quit his professional co-op position to take a lower-paying co-op position on campus to work on the car during his non-academic term.

Sleep and co-op jobs aren't the only thing team members sacrifice. Will Carter, a sophomore from San Francisco, has been riding a bike to campus for weeks because his car broke down and he won't put time in to fixing it, opting instead to work on the Formula car. With a second vehicle two-hours drive away, no one is willing to sacrifice two team members for more than four hours to go get Carter's second vehicle. He'll just have to keep peddling until after the competition.

For more information on the SAE Formula student competition visit http:http://students.sae.org/competitions/formulaseries/

Written by Dawn Hibbard
(810) 762-9865
dhibbard@kettering.edu