It’s an unseasonably warm September Saturday—perhaps the last real t-shirt-and-shorts kind of Saturday we’ll get this year. The sun is unobscured by the few wisps of cloud wafting lazily above Springett parking lot, which is mostly empty but for a small group of engineering students gathered at one end. There is just enough of a breeze to keep the heat comfortably at bay. It’s a beautiful day for a drive.
The car sits waiting as some of the students set up a makeshift track with battered orange pylons. Out here, compared to the pickup trucks and sports cars, the car doesn’t seem very big. At a glance, it could be mistaken for a large go-kart—though if you sat in a go-kart to race against this machine, it would be moving at 100 km/h before you figured out which pedal was the gas.
This is no go-kart. It’s a Formula racecar. It goes from zero to 100 kilometres an hour in just 3.4 seconds, and it was designed and built by the students of Western’s Formula racing team to compete against other cars designed, built and driven by students from universities around the world.
Today, Miguel Achtymichuk will drive the car for the first time. The second-year mechanical engineering student is the team’s brakes manager, and was a member of the team for his entire first year at Western.
When the engine fires, it doesn’t roar so much as it rumbles and sputters. With two team members standing at the ready at either end of the track with fire extinguishers, Achtymichuk drives over to the track and begins his first lap.
He starts off slowly, to get a feel for the car’s unique handling. He takes each lap a bit faster than the one before, and though he hits the odd pylon, you can soon tell by the sound of the engine that he’s growing comfortable with the car. By the sixth lap, the car is howling down the straightaway and careening around hairpin turns—now the engine is roaring.
This car is loud, and this car is fast. By the 12th lap, Springett feels less like a parking lot and more like a speedway, and by the 15th lap, the car is going around the track so fast that the other students barely have time to replace the knocked-over pylons before it’s back around again.
The car will have at least six drivers today, many of them first-timers. When the weather is favourable, the team does this about once a week. Every committed member of the team gets a chance to drive the car, and eventually may even get to race it in competition.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever driven before,” says Adam Bezzina, technical lead and chief driver for the Western team. “It accelerates so fast, brakes so fast, you can corner a lot faster—the corners that we take at 60 kilometres an hour. An average car couldn’t even make that corner because the turn radius is larger.”
“Obviously we don’t have anywhere near the technology that a Formula-1 car does, nor do we approach the speeds that they hit. But the driving is difficult nonetheless, and it takes a lot of practice.”
Each year, the team builds a new car to compete in Formula SAE events, organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers International. The SAE sets the rules and standards for the cars, and organizes competitions that host teams from around the world. The biggest event happens each May in Michigan, and this year it hosted 120 teams. Western has sent a car every year since 1996.
These cars aren’t cheap—Bezzina estimates Western’s cost between $50,000 and $60,000. While Western provides part of that, the majority is paid for by sponsors in the automotive and engineering industries.
The team’s business arm, comprised mostly of non-engineering students, organizes the sponsors. Some provide cash, while others provide free or discounted parts, or perform some of the more complex machining and laser cutting that the team doesn’t have the resources to do themselves. However, the whole car is assembled by the students on the team.
“The whole goal of this, and the reason the SAE puts it on, is to prepare engineers for the automotive industry when they graduate,” Bezzina says. Many former team members credit the team with helping them get a job, and some even go on to work for sponsor companies.
The majority of the team—which is open to all students, not just engineers—has no previous experience with cars. Older team members teach the younger ones, and the rest comes from books, Shaun Salisbury, the team’s faculty advisor, says.
“They’re obviously very committed. They do all their work after hours, so it’s weekends, after school and in the summer that they work on it,” he says.
Teams must build a new car every year to compete in SAE events. While some of the better-funded teams in Europe are able to save their car from each year and put them all on display, Western must dismantle each year’s car for parts to build the next.
Formula racing is much more popular in Europe, accounting for some much more lucrative sponsorships common with European universities.“Some of the European teams have $50,000 moulds just for their carbon fiber rims,” Andrew Kisielewski, a former team member, explains.
The European teams may have the money and the renown, but that doesn’t change the experience for Western’s engineers. The team’s more involved members will often put in 30 to 40 hours a week on the car, on top of their heavy course loads. These students probably won’t go on to win the Grand Prix, and they might not get the most lucrative sponsorships for their car, but that’s not the point.
“That’s the epitome of our team—no one hears about us,” Nathan Leifer, the team’s fuel systems manager, says.
“It’s not a glamourous, fantasy thing. We’re not the Mustangs—well, we consider ourselves Mustangs—but we do it because we love it.”