The road to winning the Formula Hybrid competition

Guest post by Devin Fitzsimmons

SAE International touts its Formula Hybrid competition as the most complex competition of their Collegiate Design Series, which comprises seven additional competitions including Formula SAE, Formula SAE Electric, the AutoDrive Challenge, SAE Supermileage, and Baja SAE.

More than the others, the Formula Hybrid competition demands engineering skill sets across multiple disciplines – mechanical, electrical, and software. Beyond that, in order to effectively establish a team, you also need students focused on finance, business, trades, public relations, and graphic design. It’s not easy!

In fact, most teams don’t reach the point of producing cars that pass the meticulous mechanical and electric inspections needed to even enter the dynamic events portion of the competition. Formula Hybrid is as much about effective design and project management as it is racing.

Photo by Kathryn Lapierre

Working on our car

After winning the Formula Hybrid competition in 2016, the University of Victoria’s Formula Hybrid Team retained its innovative approach of using ultra-capacitors instead of batteries, consistently making our car the lightest in its category.

Our 2019 season’s car now has double the electrical current output, a more efficient powertrain, reduced weight, and an enhanced software control scheme – so we’re confident it’s now also the fastest.

We spent the summer of 2018 testing, which largely meant parking lot testing it on Sundays until something broke, fixing it through the week, rinse, and repeat.

Despite multiple rebuilds of the engine’s top-end, an electric motor rebuild, an exploded motor controller, and repairing a handful of bent control arms, we anticipated that for the 2019 season we were on target to have the most thoroughly-tested and well-designed car on the track. The Phoenix logo on the front nose cone of our vehicle was chosen in anticipation that this would be our team’s return to #1 position after a couple development years for the team.

Fun fact: the logo also harkens back to our workshop’s history; Q-hut was once the original UVic Phoenix Theatre.

The competition

The competition itself is gruelling. New Hampshire in April is anywhere from 25° C and sunny to near-zero and raining, and this year it was the latter. It’s approximately 5000 km and three time zones away, and the most resilient team members made the long journey by truck-and-trailer and camped in the center of the NASCAR track where the competition is held.

Teams work through the rigorous technical inspection days until the organisers lock them out of the paddocks at midnight, after which they try to get some rest before the events start again at 6 a.m. the following day. On two occasions, members of our team almost slept in past mandatory meetings or presentations. Luckily, half of the team stayed at an AirBnB and travelled by plane, so they were well-rested enough to wake up the others on time – if just with minutes to spare. Just pull up the loud diesel truck next to their tents and lean on the horn.

On one pivotal day, however, one of our top competitors wasn’t so lucky. Their drivers missed a mandatory safety meeting at 8:00 am. By rules they could no longer compete in that day’s events, and perhaps risked being disqualified. Without hesitation, we advocated for them within the spirit of the rules and to the best of our abilities, including offering one of our drivers to compete in their vehicle on their behalf.

It was a simple mistake that we could have made ourselves, and we couldn’t bare to see a year’s worth of their dedication and sacrifice lost to missing one alarm. We empathized so much with their journey that it was genuinely a struggle for some of our team to look at one another without getting teary-eyed at the thought of losing that way. Ultimately, the competition organisers declined our offer. They allowed that team to complete that day’s acceleration and autocross events, but not to accumulate any of the valuable points.

We ended up scoring 1st place in the static Engineering Design event, but fell short when it came to demonstrating our car’s potential on the track. Vibration from the 5000-km ride in the trailer took a toll on some of our newer electronic components – something you unfortunately don’t find out until you’re at the starting line of your first dynamic event. Without enough time to fully troubleshoot, we managed to achieve some acceptable acceleration and autocross times in order to at least get on the board and collect points. We knew we were still in a good position, so we pressed on.

Photo by UVic Hybrid

While our electrical team worked their magic on the car that evening, the remainder of the team toured the paddocks to meet other teams from around the world and offer something that the only Canadian team could: ketchup chips.

Acceptance of this Canadian favourite aside, this icebreaker led to forming alliances and friendships with other universities, regardless of competition standing. We discussed battery management with Tufts and R.V. College, helped Dartmouth troubleshoot engine problems, and ensured Amrita, a team from India with only electrical engineering student members, passed the mechanical inspection for the first time in their team’s history.

For us, this was the best part of the whole experience, and one that we will never forget. The sportsmanship at the Formula Hybrid competition is outstanding, and ultimately everybody was there to learn, share their knowledge, and show pride in what they had achieved over the previous year. We reconnected with students who used to be junior members on their team and who were now the team’s leaders, and we made new friends that we look forward to seeing again next year.

Photo by Bruce Fraser

In the end, we ended up winning the competition by one lap of the final endurance event – that is, we only needed to complete a single lap out of a possible 44 in order to secure first place. Our car shut down due to an unknown electrical fault after completing just one and a half laps, but that was enough. After our return to Victoria the car mysteriously seems to be running better than ever, so for now we can only speculate about the cause.

Photo by Kathryn Lapierre

For the UVic Formula Hybrid team, the results just mean more testing and validation this summer! It is hands-down the most exciting way to learn, and the best time of year to join the club. It’s our opportunity to have fun while improving reliability, training new members, and to start planning for next year’s design.

Look for us in UVic’s Parking Lot #1 on Sunday afternoons, or pop into visit us any time you see the large door open at Q-hut, just north of CARSA. Keep up with us on our Facebook and Instagram, and check out all of the photos from the competition on the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth’s Flickr page. Feel free to reach out by email to inquire about meeting times.

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