Rice (holding cup) with his Chalmers University winning team.

The winning formula

We went behind the scenes of the Formula Student competition to talk to Jonathan Rice, manager of the winning team, about how his group of students bagged the coveted crown.

No mean feat then that Sweden’s Chalmers University team bagged this year’s coveted crown. But what does it take to come top of such a prestigious event when you’re pitted against such fierce adversaries as three-time winner University of Stuttgart?

What does it take to win?

According to Jonathan Rice, project manager of the winning Chalmers team it’s largely down to professionalism, a rigid work ethic and most importantly unfailing team interaction.

“We have seven different nationalities on the team this year but they have very much adopted the Swedish attitude,” explains Rice. “Swedes work very much on consensus – the greater good is more important than the individual. And that’s how I run my team.”

Taking on the role of manager

Rice originally completed his Masters Mechanical and Manufacturing engineering at Queens University Belfast and took an Erasmus exchange in his final year. He then went on to work as a project engineer for industry giants Jaguar Land Rover at Coventry and Ford in Australia. On his return to Europe he was invited to teach at Chalmers and after two weeks took over the Formula Student team.

“I take the students in the first year of their master’s so up until then they’ve studied quite a lot of science – this competition is their first introduction into how to apply that science in the real world,” Rice says.

One of the first things Rice clocked was that although Chalmers University had been competing in the Formula Student competition for eleven years the highest position it had achieved was fourth place in 2011.

Learning from past mistakes

“Going back and looking at Chalmers’ cars there were lots of very nice features but they didn’t necessarily perform very well,” he explains. “I put this down to there being too many strong minded individuals getting their own way technically.”

Rice was very much involved in choosing the 2012 team and, bringing his industry experience to the table, used a system that judges applicants purely on merit.

“It’s not necessarily about choosing the best engineers – it’s about being able to interact together as a team and being able to work together for almost a year," says Rice. “Unlike many university teams who take a year out my students do this alongside their studies – 25-30 hours a week on top of their normal work. It’s a lifestyle choice to join this project and they have to be able to work together in a fluid unit.”

Mind-mapping

When race preparations begin Rice gets his team to write goal statements.

“We call it mind-mapping,” he says. “We have a four hour session where everyone sits down and thinks what they want out of the project and they go off and write a goal statement – then they come together and write a single goal statement. Our main goal this year was to get 800 points – everything we did was looking to getting those points.”

The team, which actually achieved 850.5 points out of a possible thousand, also set design targets, turning its qualitative goals into a quantative goal –employing three key words: reliability, manufacturability and adjustability.

“A reliable car is one that is well-tested,” says Rice. “We manufacture 85 per cent of the car in our workshop. If it can be made in-house then we do it. When something breaks you can’t always depend on a manufacturer so if we have a major failure it must be analysed, re-manufactured and back on the car within 24 hours. Last year we had seven major failures, this year we had two – and we turned them round extremely quickly.”

Showing students the ropes

Given that Chalmers has 24 new team members every year, none of whom have done design build tests or been in a machine shop before, it’s up to Rice to show them the ropes. Students also have to learn analysis software and how to approach design methodologies – such as how to create a car that can be adjusted incrementally.

“When you are out testing you can’t take 30 minutes to change a set-up – you need to do it in roughly a minute,” Rice explains. “You need to get to know the vehicle and contend with constantly changing conditions without taking the driver out of the car.”

The key to a successful team

Aside from teamwork, Rice believes that going back to basics is the key to a successful team.

“We use a mantra that everything must be driven by data. Lots of young engineers today tend to rely on fancy software but I think it’s important to use basic engineering and trust your judgment.”

Rice’s winning formula clearly has his students driven – to the extent that the team eschewed celebratory hangovers to focus on the next FSAE event to be held in Hockenheimring from July 31 until August 5 2012.

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