The University of Bath boasts the UK’s most successful student combustion racing car team, but rather than the drivers taking the glory, it’s the engineers that step onto the podium. Jessica Hope meets the Formula One engineering stars of the future from Team Bath Racing who are competing at Silverstone this summer

Mercedes has dominated this year’s Formula One season, with Lewis Hamilton topping the podium six times at the time of writing (that’s including that controversial win in Canada) and securing eight consecutive wins in the constructors’ standings.

While the drivers may be the leading actors of this Hollywood blockbuster, it’s the mammoth team of mechanics, engineers, software programmers, designers, technicians, managers et al (the list could go on and on and on) who keep the cogs in this highly advanced and costly machine running at full force. Without a powerhouse of a team behind you, as well as an equally powerful car, a driver doesn’t stand a chance of qualifying for pole position.

Behind the scenes at the University of Bath, there’s a group of students who know a thing or two about the importance of team work. Deep in the heart of the Faculty of Engineering and Design you will find a flurry of students hard at work on their final year project. While others have to write dissertations or take exams, the students on the university’s Mechanical Engineering course build a racing car. Yes, that’s right, a racing car. A fully powered, rip-roaring racing car with hydraulics and carbon fibre to boot. And this month their car will be put through its paces at one of the world’s biggest educational motorsport competitions at the home of British racing, the Silverstone Circuit in Towcester.

Formula Student provides undergraduates with the opportunity to put their engineering abilities to the test, as well as gaining valuable business and commercial knowledge of the racing industry. Now in its 21st year, the competition involves more than 700 university teams registered from around the world, with events taking place in more than 12 countries, bringing some of the brightest and most promising engineering teams together to compete for the top prize.

This summer the 25 students that make up Team Bath Racing at the University of Bath will be taking their car to compete at Silverstone as well as other Formula Student competitions in Germany and Austria, with the aim of returning home with more silverware to add to the university’s packed trophy cabinet.

Formula Student will welcome 130 teams from around the world at the Silverstone Circuit in July

Recognised as the UK’s most successful team with 13 individual event wins since its establishment in 2000, Team Bath Racing have got their sights firmly set on topping the podium at Silverstone this month. In order to do that, the car and the team will be tested to their limits in seven events in front of a panel of industry judges. Four of the events will push the car through its paces as it’s accessed on its lateral acceleration using a figure of eight, its straight line acceleration, cornering ability, and the biggest test of them all – endurance.

With 22 nerve-wracking laps of a circuit to complete in 30 minutes, the endurance event can cost teams the largest amount of points if they don’t make it over the line (as well as it being an agonising moment when the car they’ve been working on for so many months breaks down). Unlike in F1 however, the students’ cars never race against one another on the track, which not only reduces the likelihood of crashes and more heartbreak, but also allows each university’s car to have its moment in the limelight.

The other three events are down to the students, where they are tested by leading experts on the design of their car, the finances, and their business presentation skills. This practical assessment gives many of the students vital experience when applying for work placements and jobs with F1 teams and leading companies such as Dyson and Bosch.

In Team Bath Racing’s buildroom at the university, you wouldn’t expect that those busy tinkering away at the car were still students. Communicative, astute and professional beyond their years, you’d assume that these young adults had been working in the racing industry for years. However, when I met them recently, they were in the midst of the final weeks of university before heading into the big world of work. After 18 months of creating their car from scratch – that’s including nine months of finalising the design and six months dedicated to producing the parts – Formula Student marks the end of a long project that will define many of their journeys in education, especially as this feat can make up to 40% of the students’ final marks for their degree.

The team’s car on show at the University of Bath’s Mechanical Engineering Design and Project Exhibition 2019

Building this car really is a solid team effort. Every student involved has a specific area of the car to focus on, and they are then split between the powertrain, chassis, suspension and aerodynamics design groups. The team is guided by the project manager Joe Willey and the business manager Jack Harris. University academics Dr Kevin Robinson and Dr Geraint ‘Speed’ Owen are also on hand if the students require any guidance, but overall every decision in the process is made by the students.

Producing a car from scratch can be time restrictive, so the team welcome first and second year engineering students to help with the construction of parts, which allows them to get hands on experience early on in their degrees. Many of these younger students then catch the bug for racing cars and choose to work on the team for their final year project.

As well as holding the title of the UK’s most decorated team, Team Bath Racing is also making waves in pushing the gender divide. Combustion racing continues to be dominated by men, with the national average of women involved in engineering being just 11%. But at Bath 20% of the team are women and the four sub teams are led by female students, with a number of them having already secured jobs with Formula One teams before graduating.

In order to keep the costs of building such a highly powered car down, the students make many of the parts by hand, allowing them to put the mechanical theory that they’ve learned from lectures into action. They’ve also sourced the engine and other parts from suppliers and online. But the team does rely greatly on sponsorship. As well as cash sponsors, engineering, fuel and manufacturing companies such as BP and Garrett have provided parts such as the new turbocharger, equipping them with the tools they need to continue producing an award-winning car.

Although Formula Student focuses on celebrating engineering prowess, who does the driving? Under competition guidelines they cannot be professional drivers and must be students, so the team at Bath work closely with the university’s karting club to select their drivers, and they use Colerne Airfield for test drives.

While men dominate the sport, Team Racing Bath encourages more women to get involved in mechanical engineering. 20% of the team are female, compared to the national average of 11%. Here aerodynamics lead Karen Law makes parts for the car by hand

While their formal education may be coming to an end soon, the students at Bath regularly take part in outreach work with local schools and events to encourage children and young people’s interest in engineering. In March, the team showcased the university’s car at the Bath Taps Into Science Festival where 2,000 children got to get up close to a racing car and even sit in it, much to their excitement.

The University of Bath also hosts regular school visits throughout the year, so local students of all ages take part in interactive engineering activities. It’s this outreach work which helps spur young people into wanting to learn more about mechanics.

“At some point or another, everyone on our team was inspired from a young age to go into engineering from events such as the ones we hold. So we want to help spark the interest of the next generation of engineers,” says business manager Jack Harris.

As well as producing a successful combustion racing car team, the university is also paving ways in other areas of mechanical engineering. Since 2016 Team Bath Racing Electric has been entering into Formula Student with its fully electric powered car and has become the UK’s top electric team. There’s also significant work being undertaken by final year students producing the greenest and most fuel-efficient vehicles, autonomous cars (which will also be entered into Formula Student at Silverstone), and Team Bath Drones were crowned grand champions of the IMechE UAS Challenge
in 2017.

So what happens when Formula Student is over? While many of the past and present students from Team Bath Racing go into jobs in Formula One and other motorsports after university, the skills that they learn from competing at this competition are essential for careers in other areas such as aerospace, defence, petrochemical, business and more.

After working 24 hour shifts to get the car up to perfection for the University of Bath’s Mechanical Engineering Design and Project Exhibition last month, the students sure do know about hard graft – and their winning record shows that it pays off. Yet despite serious competition from other universities later this month, Team Bath Racing looks to be on the right track to silverware this season.

Formula Student 2019 takes place from 17–21 July at the Silverstone Circuit; teambathracing.com

Main image: Team Bath Racing use Colerne Airfield for test driving