Fast and Furiosa: Student engineers off to the races at Michigan International Speedway

Having spent the last eight months designing and building their own racecar, an interdisciplinary team of Brown undergraduates is about to put their 115-mph racer to the test.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a red brick workshop just off the Brown’s College Hill campus, the steel skeleton of what looks like a miniature Formula One racecar sits motionless on a pair of metal sawhorses.

It won’t stay motionless for long.

In just a few weeks, after a team of Brown students adds some finishing touches, that car will zip down the track at the Michigan International Speedway in a race against 119 other student teams as part of a global design competition called Formula SAE. The competition, sponsored by the trade group SAE International, puts students’ cars through their paces to see which team can build the fastest, most agile and best-designed car.

And along the way, students get the kind of hands-on design and engineering experience that is hard to get in a classroom environment alone.

When complete, the Brown racer, dubbed Furiosa, is expected to top out at 115 miles per hour and go from zero to 60 in 3.2 seconds. That acceleration is about the same as a Ferrari Berlinetta, a 12-cylinder supercar that sells for well over $300,000. Furiosa is being built for just fraction of that — around $25,000 — which the students raise from sponsors and with support from the School of Engineering. And unlike Ferrari, which employs a small army of professional engineers and designers, the Brown team comprises just 35 eager undergrads. Most are engineering students but others from biology, computer science and physics pitch in as well as a few design students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

“What we love about this project is that it’s completely student-run, student-designed, student-built and student-driven,” said Christine Herrmann, a senior engineering concentrator and the team’s co-captain. “We build nearly everything on the car with the exception of the tires and the engine — and we do a lot of rebuilding on the engine.”

The team is currently nearing the end of the building phase, and they hope to have the car running and ready for testing this week. The competition runs from May 11 to 14 at the speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan.

“We’re at an exciting time of the year,” Herrmann said. “We’re at the point when we’re putting everything onto the car and seeing all of our hard work come together, quite literally.”

Design and build

The team has spent the better part of the school year designing their car and building most of its components essentially from scratch.

They started by designing the car’s steel chassis, which they welded together themselves. The team recently got it back from a company they hired to apply a protective powder coating. The coating is fire-engine red, “because everybody knows red makes things go faster,” Herrmann said.

With the chassis complete, the team has worked for the past few weeks to install the engine and attach myriad parts and components — including a carbon-fiber body, intake and exhaust systems, suspension and steering, fluid reservoirs, and the complex wiring that connects various electrical systems. The students manufactured many of the parts themselves, both at their off-campus workshop on India Street in Providence and at the Brown Design Workshop in the School of Engineering.

Each of the systems presents complex manufacturing challenges, Herrmann says, but it’s the suspension that often presents the most difficulty.

“It’s a lot of highly complex parts,” she said. “Because you’re dealing with all four wheels, you often have to make four iterations of every part. You have to go through the process in the right order and make sure you don’t mess anything up.”

The car has to meet basic standards detailed in the competition’s 180-page rulebook, but there’s plenty of room for creativity.

“We’re working within a set of constraints, but there are definitely a lot of design choices we can make,” said Graham Keeth, a senior engineering student and team co-captain. “For example, a shorter car turns better, so that’s what you want.”

The team’s design also takes into account the fact that they’ll be the ones driving it — and they’re very much not professional racecar drivers. That influences how they tune the engine, for example. Professional drivers know how to hold the car at a certain number of RPMs all the way around the track, so racecars are designed to maximize power in a narrow RPM range.

“But we know that our drivers aren’t that experienced,” Herrmann said. “So we design for a slightly lower max power, but more power over a broader range of RPMs.”

They’ve also taken care to accommodate drivers of different sizes. The team members — all of whom will get a chance to drive the car — range from about 5 feet 2 inches tall to 6 feet 2 inches. So the students designed a pedal box that can be adjusted from inside the cockpit. They’ve also designed a seat that keeps drivers of all shapes and sizes exactly where they should be behind the wheel.

“We’ve done a number of design things to make the driver more comfortable and more confident in car,” Herrmann said. “We have one of the best seats of all the teams at competition. We partnered with RISD students, who took scans of all the members of the team and made a model seat. Everyone who has sat in it thinks it’s so comfortable. People fall asleep if they’re not actually driving.”

The competition

Formula SAE takes the shape of a mock design and performance presentation for a manufacturer seeking to market a car to nonprofessional weekend autocross drivers. There are a series of static events — a design report, cost report and a business presentation — during which the students explain and defend their design in front of a panel of auto industry executives.

With that part of the competition in mind, the Brown team members have made it a priority to gather data to back their decisions. The team put Philip Mathieu, a junior physics student, in charge of data collection.

“From the start of the design cycle, we said that when you present the design to the team, you have to say how you’re going to back this up with data,” Mathieu said. “And we’re thinking about what sensors we’re going to add to the car to make sure we’re collecting the data as soon as we start driving so we have some results to present at competition.”

Those data will also make for a better car during the competition’s dynamic events — where the rubber meets the road. Those events include a straight-line acceleration test, a skid pad test to measure how well the cars turn, and a short autocross race to measure speed and maneuverability.

The competition’s marquee event is an endurance race that evaluates the cars as total package. The race is 22 kilometers around a one-kilometer loop, with a driver change in the middle. The course is complex and designed to fully test speed, handling, reliability and fuel economy.

The Brown team will compete against much larger teams from much larger schools. Still, they’re hoping for a strong showing.

“We’re aiming for the top third of the competition,” Keeth said, “which we think is pretty achievable.”

A long history

This marks the 20th year in which Brown will field a team in Formula SAE. Past teams have placed as high as sixth. Designs from earlier years have informed each iteration of the car, the students say, and they stay in close contact with past team members.

“We have a really good relationship with our alumni,” Herrmann said “We ask them questions about how to design things, build things and put them on the car. We also keep up with what they’re doing in their lives. We reach out for advice about looking for jobs or internships or what it’s like to live in this city or work for that company.”

And therein lies the real point of the competition — to build skills that will help the students succeed after the race is done.

“It gives us a hands-on experience in engineering that we might not otherwise have,” Keeth said. “We get experience with design, manufacturing and organizing a complex, long-term project. It uses a lot of skills we learn in class, but also forces us to learn a lot of things that are hard to get in class.”

Those skills are already paying off for Herrmann and Keeth, both of whom already have jobs lined up for after graduation in May. Herrmann will head to Colorado to work for the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Keeth will go to work for Analog Devices, a Boston-based maker for circuits and semiconductor products.

But thoughts of their long-term futures will take a back seat when the competition gets underway. Once the flag drops, their singular focus will be getting Furiosa down the track as fast as they possible can.