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Monash University > Publications > Monash Magazine > Archive > Spring/Summer 2003

Racecar engineers living their dreams

An auto workshop within the Mechanical Engineering department at Monash University is home to a student-built racing car capable of accelerating from zero to 100 km/h in less than four seconds. MICHELE MARTIN reports on a project that is giving students hands-on experience in automotive engineering.

Creating a racing car from scratch is not an easy task. But it is proving a fantastic learning experience for a team of about 30 students at Monash University's Clayton campus.

The fourth-year mechanical engineering students have designed and built a new formula-style racing car to compete in a national event for student members of the Society of Automotive Engineers Australasia (SAE-A).

Student team leaders Mr Alistair McVean (on rear wing) and Mr Scott Wordley.

Known as Formula SAE-A, the event brings together teams from universities across the country. But it isn't a Grand Prix-style race to see which car makes it first across the finish line.

Rather, the winner is the team whose car scores the highest combined points across eight events that test the car's all-round performance in acceleration, cornering, drivability, endurance, fuel economy, design, cost and presentation.

Formula SAE-A is based on the premise that each team has been engaged by a car manufacturer to build a car for the non-professional weekend autocross racer. The car must have high performance acceleration, braking and handling, combined with low cost, ease of maintenance, reliability, good looks, comfort and use parts that are readily available.

Work on this year's Monash car began in January and finished in September. It is capable of going from zero to 100 km/h in less than four seconds, has a top speed of 160 km/h and is set to make a strong showing at the event in Tailem Bend, South Australia from 4 to 7 December.

Last year, Monash finished 11th in a field of 18 university teams. This year, the team hopes to finish much higher up, thanks to a new design featuring a weight loss of 40 kg, width reduction to improve manoeuvrability, and bigger front and rear 'wings' to provide more 'downforce' and tyre grip.

Student team leaders Mr Scott Wordley and Mr Alistair McVean say the hardest part of the project is learning how to manage other team members and encourage them to perform to the high levels required on time and within budget.

"You're not paying people and you can't fire them so you have to work out how to get the best out of them through motivation - different people respond to different methods," says Mr Wordley.

The sort of people and communication skills required to manage the team are also important in other aspects of the project, including developing and maintaining sponsor relationships and liaising with suppliers.

"A typical day not only includes coming in and supervising construction and maybe designing something, but also sorting out funding matters, seeing sponsors and speaking to suppliers," says Mr McVean, who likens the exercise to running a small racing car business.

Their supervisor, Associate Professor Bruce Kuhnell, says team membership is voluntary, with members able to obtain design subject credits for working on the car.

He thinks involvement in Formula SAE-A teaches students vital industry-related people and team skills, as well as providing practical experience in automotive engineering.

"They are getting a head start in terms of industry-ready skills - the sort of things that can't really be taught in lectures," Dr Kuhnell says.

"The automotive industry regards the type of experience being gained by Monash Formula SAE-A team members as equivalent to about one year in industry."

Support for the project comes from Monash's Department of Mechanical Engineering, which provides up to $10,000 a year and workshop space, along with industry sponsors (headed by software distributor PLM-A), who provide financial assistance, materials, parts and design software.

"We're indebted to PLM-A, who provide $15,000 cash and several million dollars worth of academic licences for mechanical engineering software for student use," Dr Kuhnell says.

Building of the car in the Monash Formula SAE-A workshop went on seven days a week, from 9 am until as late as 1 am on occasions, representing a major commitment on the part of team members.

But according to Mr McVean, it was a labour of love. "It's a great experience which just gets better," he says. "Most of us want to work in the automotive industry, and some actually want to build racing cars for a living."

A vital part of the whole project was regular weekend practice for potential team drivers, who zoomed around a local racing track in last year's Monash car.

"The best part of all is when you go from zero to 100 km/h in less than four seconds, faster than any car on the road, faster than most people will ever drive," says Mr Wordley.

Team leader Mr Angelo Pachioli in the Monash Formula SAE-A workshop.

Action: For more information visit the project website.