It’s ten o’clock on a dreary Thursday morning and I find myself in a low light corridor deep within the bowels of Brunel University. Pictures of Formula One Supremes such as Ross Brawn and Frank Williams posing with former Brunel students decorate the walls and the smell of oil and engines is rife. For all the showboating and showing off in Formula One, its grassroots seem very humble.
I’m here to meet Gareth Gwilliams, Brunel’s Team Principle, and his team of engineers and volunteers who are building this year’s car, the BR-16. Gareth is a Masters student studying Motorsport Engineering and has been part of the Brunel team for five years. In that time he has gone from being the team’s machinist, to helping design the car and then to being the man in charge of Brunel’s fortunes this year, and he is eager to make Brunel the top UK university team as his lasting legacy.
Formula Student is Europe’s most established educational motorsport competition, ran by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Universities from across the globe are challenged to build a single-seat racing car to compete in a number of tasks, which tests the students’ understanding and knowledge of the vehicle they’ve made. The event is the teething ground of future Formula One engineers and mechanics, making competition fierce.
So its here, in a building that would be completely ambiguous was it not for the ‘Brunel Motorsport’ letters sprawled above its windows, that the path to Formula One glory starts. But how do you engineering students from Brunel take those first steps? Gareth explains.
“There’s two parts to the team – there’s the academic side of the team that is the people who are doing primary projects on it and then there’s the rest of the team.
“They aren’t necessarily doing final year projects but help us build the car and quite often we try to make it so that people start off with that second group and then do projects later in their degree.
“Its honestly quite fun getting to make the bits although it seems like monkey work at the time, but when you end up doing some of the management stuff later you often think ‘oh gosh I wish I could go make something’ instead of sitting in a meeting.
“Most people on the team are completing their dissertations, all of which links in with what the team are aiming to achieve with their car that year.
“Unlike the rest of the projects for a dissertation, we select the students and not the supervisors.
“We actually decide the project title and write up a list of projects which fit in with the car we are trying to build.
“The research and design projects are in the direction that we feel the car should be moving towards that particular year and the hope is some of those components will drive designs that may end up on the vehicle.”
Driving designs is one thing, but getting to the point where Brunel have a raceable car is a different matter entirely.
After building the car from specifications laid out by Formula Student (“This is the formula they provide and its what we follow,” I was helpfully told by engine calibrator Fabian Huber, a third year Motorsport Engineer) rigorous testing is carried out over the course of a month to weed out any parts that don’t work. This year has been even more hectic for the Brunel Racing team after realising they had fallen behind in the development race last March.
“The time from the official start of the project to the race weekend is nine months, but we actually started designing this car last March,” Gareth explained outside the workshop.
“We had out first team meeting then (in March) because we realised the team had probably fallen behind the development race in this competition.
“We’ve had to do some pretty big things to catch up as there was a couple of things, particularly involving the suspension tyres, that required an awful lot of work before much else could be done.
“It had to be done first because everything after it was completely reliant on it and that’s work that we haven’t really done for a few years so people had to relearn that stuff – the knowledge had been lost within the team on those things.”
“This year we are aiming to have a months worth of testing, so that means we will be hoping to have the car finished by early June.
“That months worth of testing will hopefully allow us to find out which parts work and which ones don’t, because inevitably stuff does break - that’s why we go testing and from there we try to tune the performance of the vehicle.”
Testing a car, amongst all the technical aspects, requires a driver, and finding one at a university the size of Brunel is not as easy as you may think. There are strict criteria that need to be fulfilled in order for some to race for Brunel, set by both Formula Student and Brunel Racing, as Gareth explained.
“Every year driver selection is slightly different. You never know one of these years we may work out how to do it properly.
“If you are a driver on this team you are expected to come down and help build the car. We aren’t looking for an arrive-and-drive driver. If you want to do that, go and pay your way into a British GT team or something.
“Every member of the team has to be registered with the Mechanical Engineering Society, so we are kind of limited to engineering students in the most part there. They also have to be a student at the university.
“The other thing is that they have to not be termed as a professional driver for the UK events, which is annoying because last year we had David Pittard in the team who is a very successful GT racer at the moment.
“He genuinely was a student at this university, was in our team and was on the motorsport engineering course but unfortunately because he’s driven for a team that employs people he wasn’t eligible for the competition.
“We will tend to look at new drivers in go-karts first, the moral of the story being don’t put an unknown quantity in a vehicle that belongs to you, test them out in someone else’s car which is much better. Then we put them in the car because we only have one car and they’re very expensive to build. We can’t afford to wreck them.
“The final test is if they quick in one of our cars, because its fine being quick in a go-kart and its fine being quick in club racing but that all doesn’t matter.
“If they aren’t quick in one of our cars it doesn’t matter. We’re scoring on our car going round a track and if they aren’t quick in our car going round one of those tracks then they shouldn’t be in the car.”
Last year, Brunel’s BR-XV finished 11th in the UK competition held at Silverstone and was the second fastest non-electric engine in the competition, only 0.02 seconds behind TU Stuttgart of Germany. But Gareth wants to take the team to the pinnacle and gain top UK University team.
“We want to be the top UK team. That’s quite ambitious.” He says as a smile appears out of the corner of his mouth. “As well as top UK team we want to make sure we have a top 10 finish this year too.
“The main protagonists in the hat are Oxford-Brookes, who did very well last year and I suspect they will have a very quick car again this year.
“The last couple of years the University of Hertfordshire have been right up there, doing really well and have been the top UK team for a few years running. They dropped back a little bit the last season or so and had a bad year last time out in terms of their engine choice.
“Then you’ve got Bath and they are the biggest budget team in the UK, we believe. They have a hell of a lot of good industry partners and are able to build really advanced cars that are very light as well. Their cars are the quickest in the UK right but they very rarely finish.
“It’s a bit of a saying in our team that ‘you’d hate to be the year that Bath finally finished’ because we knew if they did they would probably win.”
That competitiveness that Gareth wants from his car starts with his engineers, and its up to them to make sure that they get every bit of performance from the BR-16 they can.
Fabian Huber, 24, is the team’s engine calibrator, and it rests on this young engineer’s shoulders to make sure the engine is giving everything that its got.
“I’m here to produce power,” he told me sitting in front of an engine he’s testing from a motorbike on a computer system, “I make it more efficient and try to make it as competitive as possible.
“Its tough to do because everyone’s projects affect the engine calibration. If someone is doing a project on the exhaust system, they need to see what changes they’ve made will make to the engine.
“All these little things need to come together in order to ensure we have a fast and competitive car this year.
“To see the car out on track and know I’ve contributed to it is something special.”
If things go right for the team, this unknown quantity from Brunel could soon be its shining light.
If Brunel Racing and Formula Student is something that appeals to you, the team are currently looking for website designers, photographers and video makers to help with their marketing process. If this sounds of interest to you, then drop a line to Team Principle Gareth Gwilliam at email@example.com.