Iowa State’s Formula SAE team looks for engine answers as it prepares to race

6-26-12 Update:

Finally. Just in time for the two racing events at the Formula SAE contest in Lincoln, Neb., for student-designed and student-built race cars, Iowa State’s team was able to fire up its mini open-wheel racer. “The car was still a little unfinished,” said Derek Roberg, a senior from Manchester who’s studying mechanical engineering and is the team’s technical director. But, the team had finally fired the engine and the car was on track. The team finished in the middle of the pack after the contest’s shorter autocross race. The team ran well through the first half of the longer endurance race. Then, during a driver change, judges noticed a small oil puddle under the car. And that was it for the team. “The car drove great,” Roberg said. “We just needed a little more time, I guess.”

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Iowa State's Formula SAE Team hopes for a good run this week in Lincoln, Neb. Pictured are, top row, left to right: Kevin Riley, Alex Schultz, Graham Sawyer, Greg Bott, Dallas Van Wyk, Derek Peters and Johanna Knaeble. Bottom row, left to right, are Derek Roberg, Jue Wang, Quincy Milloy, Stephen Krug and Adam Witthauer. Larger photo. Photo by Cyclone Racing.

AMES, Iowa – The stress level is finally dropping in the Cyclone Racing shop on the Iowa State University campus.

Formula SAE’s June 20-23 competition in Lincoln, Neb., is just days away. And the Yamaha YFZ450 engine in the back of the student-designed and student-built mini open-wheel racer is finally close to powering some last-minute tests.

Derek Roberg, a senior from Manchester who’s studying mechanical engineering and is the team’s technical director, and other team members have been hustling to figure out why their engine won’t fire. Is it something with engine timing? Is there a problem with the power-restricting air intake? Is the air filter interfering with the carburetor? Is it the wiring? Or is it something else?

It certainly has been a mystery. The first time the team fired up the engine, it started right up and the team was able to do some quick tests. But it suddenly went rough and the team has been searching for answers since.

The search included a trip to Barrie, Ontario, Canada, for the May 24-27 Formula North 2012 competition. It wasn’t an official competition sanctioned by SAE International, formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers. But the competition followed the SAE rules and the team looked at it as a good practice session.

Unfortunately, the engine problems kept the team off the track. But the team was able to go through the engineering design, cost and marketing presentations.

The team is hoping for a much better showing at the Formula SAE contest at the Lincoln Airpark. And Roberg said there are reasons for optimism:

  • A lightweight machine. The car’s aluminum body panels have been bonded to the chassis tubes, making them structural elements of the chassis and allowing some of the steel tubing to be eliminated. The team is also running smaller wheels and tires. All that has the car’s total weight down to about 375 pounds, as light of a car as the team has ever built.
  • A new, compact design. Moving the driver back for better weight distribution means the engine compartment is very tight and compact. The changes should help balance the car and make it quicker around tight, technical corners.

“This is a radically different car from anything we’ve ever done,” Roberg said. “The whole car is more compact.”

Some of those ideas – smaller wheels, bonded body panels – may be built into next year’s car. But the engine compartment is so tight it can be difficult to do engine work. So that’s an idea that may be tweaked next year.

But the priority of the day (and night) around the shop has been getting the engine fired and running. Once that happens, the team wants to get out to campus parking lots for some test runs.

“We hope to be testing for at least a day before we leave,” Roberg said. If that happens, “I think this will be a fast car. It’s a very light car.”

Team members are anxious for those tests, said Kevin Riley, a senior from Cedar Rapids who’s studying mechanical engineering.

“We have assumptions,” said Riley, sounding very much like an engineer, “but no data. We need to look at test data and think of more improvements.”

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The student-engineers of Iowa State's Formula SAE Team are working hard to identify and solve their race car's engine problems. Larger photo. Photo by Mike Krapfl.