For 20 years Oxford Brookes Racing (OBR) have been at the head of the game, giving students vital experience to set them on course for a career in Formula One and other motorsport competitions, as well as in the wider automotive industry.
With that industry now moving towards electric powered vehicles, the OBR car presented at this year’s Formula Student UK competition at Silverstone will be electric. And this is enabling the students working on it to develop advanced knowledge and skills for their careers in the hybrid and electric car industry.
In 2019 OBR were the top UK team at Formula Student UK – an annual event that challenges students to design, build and race their own car. The 2020 event was cancelled due to Covid-19 but in 2021, OBR are looking to maintain their ‘best of British’ status, with their highly advanced new electric car design and build.
Staff and student collaboration
OBR enables close working between students and staff, whose latest research is used to develop the racing car. This is not just a benefit to the OBR team, it also tests and validates the research.
“Almost all the key areas of our research are areas that OBR can capitalise on”
Brady Planden, Research Fellow in the High Voltage and Energy Storage research group, works in areas vital to electric-powered cars, “Almost all the key areas of our research are areas that OBR can capitalise on in developing their electric racing car.”
The alignment of teaching, research and extra-curricular projects, such as with OBR, has great advantages for both students and staff. As well as the benefits to the racing team, it has led to a number of students being credited as co-authors on research papers. For researchers, the opportunity to test their work in real-world environments is something that many other institutions simply cannot offer.
And it is not just through electrification that OBR is looking to the future. They are also working on autonomous vehicles, and in the process, attracting not just engineering students to the team but computing students as well.
“our technology is being tested in the real world”
Dr Andrew Bradley, Leader of the Autonomous Driving and Intelligent Transport research group, acknowledges the benefit to his research, “Lots of our research is used by OBR. That’s worth so much to the researchers because it means our technology is being tested in the real world. And in racing, it’s being pushed right to the limits of what it can do – so any faults that need fixing are revealed.”
OBR Artificial Intelligence Project Manager, Izzeddin Teeti, has made the move from studying engineering at undergraduate level to now studying for a PhD in Robotics.
He explains the attraction, “It’s fascinating to build a car, it’s even more fascinating to build a smart car that can drive itself. And it is a growth area, many huge companies are investing, so it is appealing to computing students.”
Covid – a massive challenge
The strong relationship between staff and students was also valuable when Covid struck. Lockdown meant that normal ways of working did not apply anymore and for a motorsport engineering team, used to working together with specialised equipment in enclosed spaces, this meant a huge joint effort to adapt.
Gordana Collier, Head of School of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics gives special recognition to the academic team for the OBR project under Covid restrictions, “This is a massive challenge but academic staff are very aware of the value this project brings to the School and have been beyond supportive to the project in this difficult period. I am truly humbled by their voluntary supervision of OBR extending into evenings and weekends.”
“academic staff… have been beyond supportive”
Alex Garcia, OBR Team Leader, recalls, “Last year, we had to leave the project half-way through because of Covid shutting everything down. But this year we have put in a lot of effort and worked round things. It’s actually been great – the University has contributed a lot to the students being able to carry on with this project.
“Everything is being done in a different way – I can’t think of a single process that is being done in the same way as previous years. Formula Student is a huge challenge anyway, it takes so much out of students and having to obey all the Covid restrictions has added to that challenge. But in all honesty it’s made it even more enjoyable and motivating, and when the car runs at Silverstone it is going to be so satisfying!”
Learning from alumni for future success
It wasn’t just the practicalities of lab work that was affected by Covid but the shared culture of Formula Student – the thing that makes it so special. But Alex had a plan to retain all that’s so good about it.
“it’s incredible to learn from all their knowledge and experience”
“Being part of Formula Student isn’t just about getting a job done,” he explains, “It’s also about being surrounded by people in the industry with all the conversations that can then happen. And that part of it got completely stripped away by the pandemic so to bring that back we created this programme for the Formula Student team called OBR Learning with weekly alumni and special guest talks.
“It’s been massively fulfilling, because they have all gone down the paths that we want to go down – people like Michael Schumacher’s Racing Engineer. So it’s incredible to learn from all their knowledge and experience. When you run a survey at the end of the year and ask students what’s been the most enjoyable thing, 99% say OBR Learning!”
In the immediate future, Oxford Brookes Racing are quietly confident about their prospects for success at Formula Student 2021, held at Silverstone from 21 to 25 July. But more importantly they are pushing the boundaries of what electric racing cars and autonomous vehicles can achieve and equipping the next generation of Brookes motorsport engineers for a lifetime of success in the sport they love.