Page last updated at 18:41 GMT, Friday, 24 July 2009 19:41 UK

Students' formula for success

By Martin Redfern
BBC Radio Science

Formula Student race

Last weekend, Britain's premier racetrack at Silverstone saw a major motorsport event.

Not the Formula 1 Grand Prix - that was a couple of weeks earlier - but Formula Student, bringing more than 2,000 engineering students together from around the world.

There were 108 teams from 23 countries and they were not just here to race. Just as important was the design and project management of the vehicles which was done from scratch by students.

Chief judge of the event John Hilton, from the event organisers the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, told the BBC: "It's a requirement that its all-new, every year.

"You're not allowed to bring a second-hand car so they really have to make the whole car."


UK government science Minister Lord Drayson, himself a keen racing driver, was there to share the excitement.

He told the BBC: "There's something very special about having to start with a clean sheet of paper and design your own car. It's about competition and that competition drives innovation."

This was nothing like the homemade go-karts with pram wheels and lawnmower engines that school kids sometimes put together.

After you've done all the maths and the study, it's how much you enjoy doing it - that's the reward
Lord Drayson
Science minister

These vehicles were computer-designed to tight tolerances. Many of them feature high-performance alloys and carbon fibre, increasing the strength while reducing weight.

All this does not come cheap. Some teams arrived in purpose-built articulated lorries complete with workshops that would be familiar to Formula 1 engineers.

Most teams had sponsorship from industry or at least their university. Some had more than others; a team from Mumbai in India spent practically all their sponsorship getting the car and the 16 team members to Britain.

But they were simply delighted to be taking part.

This year saw a special category for low-carbon cars. One of the entries, from Imperial College London, was what is believed to be the world's first single seat racing car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

This technology, originally developed for the Apollo moon programme, generates electricity directly from combining hydrogen and oxygen. The only by-product is water.

Lord Drayson
Lord Drayson was reminded of his own engineering days

The hydrogen racing car has a theoretical top speed of 70 miles per hour and is very manoeuvrable, with an electric motor driving each wheel.

But this year it was entered more as a demonstration than as a serious challenge on the racetrack.

Imperial College team member Alana Johnson told the BBC: "Next year we hope to make it higher performance and reduce the weight for racing. We're working with a company to develop it for future fuel cells that will give us more power for racing applications."

The main petrol-powered category was won by the University of Stuttgart with record points for design, speed and endurance.

But, as Lord Drayson commented, it is not only about winning.

"It is about winning, but it's also about competing; it's about being here. I remember when I was an engineer at university doing my final year project: after you've done all the maths and the study, it's how much you enjoy doing it. That's the reward, the joy of putting all that hard work into practice."

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