Oxford Brookes in pole position for F1 success

July 13, 2007

While British motorsport fans were focused on Lewis Hamilton's progress in the British Grand Prix last week, one university engineer was paying particular attention to the nuts and bolts end of the event, writes Chloe Stothart.

Denise Morrey, dean of the School of Technology at Oxford Brookes, has just formally launched the university's new motorsport engineering centre, home to researchers who are helping Formula One cars to achieve pole position. Its engineering graduates work with some of the world's top drivers.

The lab, which recently had its official opening, is the first motorsports engineering centre with a dedicated building housed at a UK university. The South East England Regional Development Agency gave £1.3 million towards the building and £800,000 for equipment.

The facilities include a rig that allows researchers to see what happens to cars when different road conditions are simulated through contact points under the wheels. There are also sealed rooms where engines can be wired up to sensors and data collected. From the mezzanine above the lab floor, you can look down on a collection of cars that students take apart in order to explore their inner workings.

The university got involved more than a decade ago after heeding complaints from the industry that it could not get suitable graduates.

Denise Morrey, dean of the school of technology, said that the industry had complained that it was getting thousands of job applications from graduates without suitable qualifications, and even engineering graduates were having to spend two years in the business before they became "useful".

"We told them we could solve that," said Dr Morrey.

With input from motorsports companies the university put together a BEng motorsport degree, and the first students arrived in 1997. It now also has courses in automotive engineering, motorsport technology and engine design. In the past decade, Brookes students have dominated the annual Formula Student competition, where groups design and build single-seat cars and race them at Silverstone.

Graduates include three race engineers - the most sought-after jobs in the industry because they work directly with the driver to improve the car - and countless others who have other jobs with Formula One teams. Formula One champion Fernando Alonso recently sponsored 12 Spanish masters degree students to attend the university. Six PhD students are being sponsored by industry.

Research in the department includes a Honda F1-funded project looking at how components can be fitted into smaller spaces, another for clutch and brake maker AP Racing on the design and performance of clutches, and one for Renault F1 on ways to improve prototype components made for wind-tunnel testing.

And while it is part of an industry that stands accused of having poor environmental credentials, the department is doing its share for green research.

Much of this centres on ways to make cars cleaner and greener. For example, car parts can be difficult to break down as they are made from so many different components, so the centre's researchers are looking into ways of making components from a single plastic material. There is also a project under way to investigate the use of vegetable oils to power fishing trawlers and other work on alternative fuels. The department is also collaborating with colleagues in health research at Brookes to look at how the effects of vehicle emissions on respiratory conditions could be reduced by, for example, moving exhaust tail pipes.

"It may not seem related to motorsport, but the underlying technology fits into how we design a better engine," said Dr Morrey.

He is particularly proud of the department's record in attracting engineers from industry.

The prospect of working with students, and perhaps more importantly of helping to determine their research projects, helps to draw industry figures into academia, said Dr Morrey.

"They all love working with students. It is about the personal interaction, and you do not get that in industry. In an Esso research facility, for example, you might be testing the same engine day in, day out."

The ex-industry staff also bring in essential practical knowledge. For example, there is nothing in the standard textbooks on engines of the power and size produced by some Formula One manufacturers such as Cosworth.

And for the life-long academics, the practical nature of motorsport engineering is its lure.

"These are exciting things to be involved in. It is not just finishing a report or computer program but it ends in building a car that wins a race. The excitement rubs off, and you cannot help but get influenced," said Dr Morrey.

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