Formula SAE is a student design competition organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE, also known as SAE International). The competition was started back in 1978 and was originally called SAE Mini Indy.
Pictured to the right are the 2007 design finalist cars: from the left, University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, TU Graz, University of Wisconsin - Madison, and Kansas. Absent is Pennsylvania State University.
The concept behind Formula SAE is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a student design team to develop a small Formula-style race car. The prototype race car is to be evaluated for its potential as a production item. The target marketing group for the race car is the non-professional weekend autocross racer. Each student team designs, builds and tests a prototype based on a series of rules, whose purpose is both ensuring on-track safety (the cars are driven by the students themselves) and promoting clever problem solving.
The prototype race car is judged in a number of different events. The points schedule for most Formula SAE events is:
In addition to these events, various sponsors of the competition provide awards for superior design accomplishments. For example, best use of E-85 ethanol fuel, innovative use of electronics, recyclability, crash worthiness, analytical approach to design, and overall dynamic performance are some of the awards available. At the beginning of the competition, the vehicle is checked for rule compliance during the Technical Inspection. Its braking ability, rollover stability and noise levels are checked before the vehicle is allowed to compete in the dynamic events (Skidpad, Autocross, Acceleration, and Endurance).
Formula SAE encompasses all aspects of a business including research, design, manufacturing, testing, developing, marketing, management, and fund raising. Formula SAE takes students out of the class room and puts them in the real world.
Formula SAE has relatively few performance restrictions. The team must be made up entirely of active college students (including drivers) which places obvious restrictions on available work hours, skill sets, experience, and presents unique challenges that professional race teams do not face with a paid, skilled staff. This restriction means that the rest of the regulations can be much less restrictive than most professional series.
Students are allowed to receive advice and criticism from professional engineers or faculty, but all of the car design must be done by the students themselves. Students are also solely responsible for fundraising, though most successful teams are based on curricular programs and have university-sponsored budgets. Additionally, the points system is organized so that multiple strategies can lead to success. This leads to a great variety among cars, which is a rarity in the world of motorsports.
The engine must be a four-stroke, Otto-cycle piston engine with a displacement no greater than 610cc. An air restrictor of circular cross-section must be fitted downstream of the throttle and upstream of any compressor, no greater than 20mm for gasoline engines or 19mm for E85-fueled engines. The restrictor keeps power levels below 100 hp in the vast majority of FSAE cars. Most commonly, production four-cylinder 600cc sport bike motors are used due to their availability and displacement, however many teams have also used smaller V-twin and single-cylinder engines. Though it is permitted, very rarely do teams build an engine from scratch, such as Western Washington University's 554cc V8 entry in 2001.
The suspension is unrestricted save for safety regulations. Most teams opt for four-wheel independent suspension, almost universally double-wishbone. Active suspension is legal.
There are no regulations or requirements on aerodynamics. Most teams do not build aerodynamic packages as the speeds involved in FSAE competition rarely exceed 70 mph (110 km/h), and design judging tends to frown upon aerodynamic parts that do not have definite test data, usually in the form of wind tunnel testing or at least computational fluid dynamics analysis. Therefore most cars that do utilize aerodynamic downforce tend to develop their entire car around the aerodynamic package, including massive wings and undertrays.
There is no weight restriction. The weight of the average competitive Formula SAE car usually weighs less than 500 lb (230 kg) in race trim. However, the lack of weight regulation combined with the somewhat fixed power ceiling encourages teams to adopt innovative weight-saving strategies, such as the use of composite materials, elaborate and expensive machining projects. In 2009 the fuel economy portion of the endurance event was assigned 100 of the 400 endurance points, up from 50. This rules change has marked a trend in engine downsizing in an attempt to save weight and increase fuel economy. Several top-running teams have switched from high-powered four-cylinder cars to smaller, one- or two-cylinder engines which, though they usually make much less power, allow weight savings of 75 lb (34 kg) or more, and also provide much better fuel economy. If a lightweight single-cylinder car can keep a reasonable pace in the endurance race, it can often make up the points lost in overall time to the heavier, high-powered cars by an exceptional fuel economy score.
Example: At the 2009 Formula SAE West endurance event, third-place finishers Rochester Institute of Technology completed the endurance course in 22 minutes, 45 seconds with their four-cylinder car, while fourth-place finishers Oregon State University finished in 22 minutes, 47 seconds with their single-cylinder car; this gave RIT 290.6 of 300 points for the race portion of the event and OSU 289.2 points. However, OSU used the least fuel of any car (.671 US gal (2.54 l), or 20.3 mpg-US (0.116 l/km) over the entire endurance race) and received the full 100 points for fuel economy, while RIT used 1.163 US gal (4.40 l) (11.75 mpg-US (0.2002 l/km)) and was thus only awarded 23.9 of the available points. RIT went on to win the overall competition by only 8.9 points over OSU, having scored slightly better in all of the other dynamic events.
The majority of the regulations pertain to safety. Cars must have two steel roll hoops of designated thickness and alloy, regardless of the composition of the rest of the chassis. There must be an impact attenuator in the nose, and impact testing data on this attenuator must be submitted prior to competing. Cars must also have two hydraulic brake circuits, full five-point racing harnesses, and must meet geometric templates for driver location in the cockpit for all drivers competing. Tilt-tests ensure that no fluids will spill from the car under heavy cornering, and there must be no line-of-sight between the driver and fuel, coolant, or oil lines.
In 1979 the only SAE Mini-Indy was held at the University of Houston. Conceived by Dr. Kurt M. Marshek, the competition was inspired by a how-to article that appeared in Popular Mechanics magazine, for a small, "Indy-style" vehicle made out of wood, and powered by a five horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine. Using the Mini Baja competitions as a guide, engineering students had to design and build small, "Indy-style" vehicles using the same stock engine used in the Popular Mechanics article. Thirteen schools entered and eleven competed, The University of Texas at El Paso won the overall competition.
Although Dr. William Shapton (who had recently left the University of Cincinnati to join Michigan Technological University) broached the idea of hosting a similar competition in 1980, no one stepped up to organize another Mini-Indy.
Three students at the University of Texas at Austin saw the potential and proposed a new mini-Indy with new rules. The new rules kept restriction to a minimum, any four-stroke engine with a 25.4 mm intake restriction. A new name was sought to differentiate the new event from mini-Indy. Students were to design a racing car which couldn't cost over a set amount as evidenced by receipts.
The University of Texas at Austin hosted the competition through 1984. In 1985, the competition was hosted by The University of Texas at Arlington. There, Dr. Robert Woods, with guidance from the SAE student activities committee, changed the concept of the competition from one where students built a pure racing car, to one that mirrored the SAE Mini-Baja competitions, where they were to design and build a vehicle for limited series production.
General Motors hosted the competition in 1991, Ford Motor Co. in 1992, and Chrysler Corp. in 1993. After the 1992 competition, the three formed a consortium to run Formula SAE.
At the end of the 2008 competition, the consortium, based on economic pressure, ceased to exist. The event is now funded by SAE through company sponsorships and donations along with the teams' enrollment fees.