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Last year's car will work as the test dummy for possible changes.
Rinaldi Gulinao/the Gauntlet

U of C students take to the track

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A small group gathers around a race car resembling a pint-sized Formula One car. They plug in laptops and high-tech measuring devices, taking the vitals of the 600cc engine as its high-pitched shrieks pierce the Saturday morning silence.

The race car has some of its bodywork taken off, exposing both the intricate web of mild-steel tubing that is its chassis and the complex system of pushrods, bellcranks and adjustable shocks of its suspension. The slick, soft-compound tires that give it grip when going fast around corners still have pebbles from its last track outing in early September.

This is not taking place in a racing shop that specializes in building race cars, but rather in the University of Calgary's mechanical engineering building. The car undergoing testing is the U of C's entry to last year's Formula Society of Automotive Engineers competition. Succeeding it will be the new car whose designs were finalized last weekend. All those working on the project are undergraduate students.

In a worldwide contest meant to gauge the ability of students in designing, fabricating and racing a F1-style, open-cockpit racecars, members of the U of C FSAE team get real world exposure outside of the classroom.

"I think its really important to apply textbook concepts," said driver and chassis/suspension design leader Kenneth Goode. "It's a really good learning experience to apply these ideas on a real piece of metal."

Since they first entered the competition in 1999, the team steadily improved their placement with every new car. The 2008 season saw a top quarter placing-- a vast improvement from their mid-pack standing the year prior. For the 2009 season, they hope to further improve upon that by implementing a few key changes.

FSAE competition rules stipulate that a new car be built each year. Parts may be taken from older entries at the cost of a lower score awarded on the construction aspect of the competition. Despite being detrimental to their standings, time and budget limitations have always forced the team to cannibalize old cars. This year however, they will break from the tradition by building a completely new one.

"It's going to be really good to have an old car for driver training," said Goode. "An excellent driver can make a slow car go fast, but a rookie driver will not be able to make any car fast."

Lead fabricator Michael Beier said the new car would be built from chrome moly, which would make the vehicle lighter and more durable.

"It kind of makes it nice because then everything we're working with are new pieces instead of being from the old car," he said. "But in doing that it means there will be a lot more work."

For team leader Sera Devji, the season's changes also mean the existing car can act as a testbed for trying out new ideas, innovations and other components before they get installed on the new chassis.

"Anything new that's going on the new car, hopefully we would like to test on the old car first so we can ensure its quality and robustness," said Devji.

Interchangeable components, like the powerplant, can be tested on the old car. Engine and drivetrain leader Mena Ghattas is excited with the prospect of not having to wait.

"The reason why we had problems last year was due to the engine," said Ghattas. "We had some engine issues that needed to be resolved through testing. With [the old car] we will be able to resolve those kinds of issues early on."

As work on the upcoming car's design progresses, members toss around new ideas they would like to incorporate into the design. Still, Devji is mindful of not being too focused on the mechanical aspects.

"We want to improve our standings in competition," she said. "Not only that, I want my guys to learn as much as possible. This is the largest design competition in the world and that's the purpose."

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