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Last month the MIT Motorsports Formula SAE team competed and placed 8th in the Formula SAE West competition. Over the past two years the team has been designing and building a Formula 1 style race car. Our hard work has paid off, as MIT placed higher than ever, taking 8th place out of 80 registered teams.

Although the competition is primarily based on design, the car must also pass a comprehensive technical inspection and complete dynamic events that measure acceleration, handling, and endurance. Scoring well in all events is crucial to make it into the top ten, and this year our team did just that! Watching the car successfully pass inspection, complete all dynamic events, and place second in fuel efficiency was an extremely rewarding achievement.

I had only been part of the team three weeks by the start of competition. During those weeks I learned a great deal from other members about the discipline and collaboration that goes into race car design. For example, some students design the suspension, while others tune the engine with the custom-built engine control unit.

The car was designed entirely by the students on the team using SolidWorks and then manufactured in a machine shop in building N51. The car is powered by a Honda motorcycle engine and has features such as a fully adjustable suspension, pneumatic shifting, and custom carbon fiber intake. Each team member specializes in a different discipline based on his or her interests. I helped build and paint the carbon fiber nose cone, giving the car its Formula 1 style look.

Attending the competition also introduced me to the FSAE community outside MIT and extended this concept of teamwork to include the other participating schools. Although each team is concerned with its own car’s performance, teams are willing to help others by sharing spare parts, tools, and even design concepts. Our car quickly made it through the technical inspection, where the officials checked over the car to make sure it was rule and safety compliant.

We then gave presentations to justify the design of the car, verify the tabulated cost of construction, and present a potential business model for small-scale production of our design. We put our car through a skidpad to measure the maximum lateral G-force and a straight-line acceleration run to measure the acceleration. Our car can sustain 1.1 Gs laterally and can accelerate from 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds, which is comparable to an Enzo Ferrari that accelerates to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds and can sustain 1 G in cornering. However, the Enzo Ferrari costs almost a million dollars, whereas our car costs $14,055.

In the final two days of the competition, teams race their cars against one another. We raced a few laps on a 1 kilometer track to qualify for the endurance race, a 22 kilometer race split between two drivers. The endurance race is designed to measure the fuel consumption and efficiency of the competing vehicles. This year our car used only 3 kilograms of ethanol during the entire race, enough to take second place behind a team that used a one-cylinder lawnmower engine to power its vehicle. Five members of our team drove in the competition, but everyone got a turn to drive the car afterward. Weighing only 450 pounds and having 70 horsepower, I found the car to be unbelievably fast and very fun to drive!

Performing well at this competition is both exciting and encouraging! MIT Motorsports has already begun designing next year’s car and looks forward to place even higher in 2011.