Motorsport-centric education is on the rise, and students at the Universities of Wolverhampton and Cranfield are reaping the benefits from their industry links
By James Newbold
It doesn't take a genius to think of a few oft-repeated stereotypes about students.
In the tabloids, they are lambasted for being just as likely to be found in bed until mid-afternoon as swotting up in the library and reluctant to take on any real-world responsibilities, to name but two.
In some cases such generalisations might be true, but try telling that to the group of University of Wolverhampton Motorsport Engineering undergraduates beavering away on an ex-Fortec Dallara F308 Mugen at the opening round of the F3 Cup series for pre-2017 single-seaters earlier this year.
Their main competition may be professional outfit Chris Dittman Racing running a much newer F311-spec machine, but the University of Wolverhampton Racing outfit - 70% of which is made up of enthusiastic first-year students, some working on a racing car for the very first time - came away from the Donington Park season opener with a trio of second places in class.
Over the past decade, higher-education establishments at undergraduate and postgraduate level offering courses specifically dedicated to motorsport have become increasingly common, with some - such as the University of Bolton's programme that allowed student technicians to work on Century Motorsport's Ginetta in British GT - commanding a higher profile than others.
This new wave of courses has had its detractors, especially among the older generation, which only knows 'the school of hard knocks' and views well-educated graduates with suspicion - either for being too raw or too specialised to contribute in a broader sense.
Fortunately, times are changing, and as more motorsport graduates prove themselves it confers legitimacy on the establishments and academics they learned from. While all experience can be beneficial, it can always be bolstered by a well-structured programme that develops a good base of understanding through theoretical and hands-on practice.
"There is a hands-on requirement that's often missing from a classroom environment, so getting that practicality element is critical." David Tucker
With its mix of students straight from A-levels and mature students seeking to retrain, the UWR F3 awning is a hive of activity as final pre-race set-up tweaks and component checks are completed.
But there's more to the F3 programme, set up to complement the university's Formula Student scheme in 2015 by Motorsport Engineering and Automotive Engineering principal lecturer David Tucker, than bolting bits together and following an instructional manual. For starters, there isn't a manual.
Mentored by UWR driver Shane Kelly and senior engineering technician Matt Fenton at the track and back at the workshop - Telford, the birthplace of industry, makes for an appropriate location - students are encouraged to push the boundaries of the F3 Cup's regulations and use the full extent of technologies at their disposal, including CFD modelling and additive layer manufacturing (ALM).
New components are then tested in the windtunnel and the metrology lab to develop skills crucial for industry, but students are also given a chance to fail - after all, it's much easier to make a car slower than make it faster - and then to rectify the problem.
"The first thing I noticed on coming here was that the Institute has an incredible capacity to manufacture, but it didn't have a purpose for manufacturing," explains Tucker.
"I started the race team to give an outlet for all the manufacturing we do and that gives us the ability to go from a conceptual design phase to on-track testing and anywhere in-between.
"It's about providing a roundness to the education, including the technical theory in the classroom environment, the mathematics and the physics to aid with aerodynamics, but equally there is a hands-on requirement that's often missing from a classroom environment, so getting that practicality element is critical."
This philosophy is similar to that held by Cranfield University, a post-graduate-only establishment focused on technology and management that is constantly engaged with industry by necessity, since it cannot rely on undergraduate income.
Topics of study on the Masters in Advanced Motorsport Engineering course - which counts Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles and FIA circuit and rally safety head Stuart Robertson among its first intake in 2000 - are by nature more specialist than those covered on the UG programme at Wolverhampton, but the same need for practicality applies.
Students are given access to the same cutting-edge resources used by OEMs and Formula 1 teams, which include Cranfield's FIA-accredited Impact Centre (below) - one of only two in Europe - for testing composite structures, a four-wheel dynamometer used for simulating vehicles in off-road environments (ORES) complete with an articulated floor to replicate elevation changes, and an autonomous vehicle test track (MUEAVI), among others.
"We're using those assets in the context of delivering our teaching, so students have a practical dimension," explains Cranfield MSc programme director and senior lecturer Clive Temple.
"It's not just the theory, we run sessions where students go down to Shrivenham and have a session on the four-post shaker rig, they use the windtunnels in the context of the aerodynamics teaching and use FLUENT, which is an industry standard, on our high-performance computing network to ape what they do in motorsport."
A lifelong motorsport enthusiast since he watched Jim Clark at work at the 1962 Daily Express Trophy as a young boy, Temple has a keen appreciation for the needs of students today and is backed up by an advisory board, currently chaired by single-seater designer and Cranfield alumnus Adrian Reynard.
F1's Pat Symonds and composites expert Brian O'Rourke - at Williams from 1982 until last year - are also on the board and give semi-regular guest lectures to further underscore the connection to industry.
This year's group design project was to produce a cost-no-object yet feasible design concept for a hybrid F2 sidecar running on LPG
"When we embarked on developing education specifically for motorsport at Master's level, we did that with the knowledge that we were already engaged with a lot of motorsport companies," explains Temple (below), an active historic racer.
"We put the programme together with the view that an individual would have a broader understanding from the modules.
"But then by specialising within the context of the group design project and then going much further with their thesis project, they could develop their understanding of powertrains, for example, but still also have an appreciation of structures, materials and all those considerations."
Cranfield students are given license to choose their own thesis projects, within reason, and encouraged to contribute research to challenges facing the motorsport industry. Some have been working with Liberty's engine group, led by former Cosworth man Nick Hayes, on future F1 powertrain regulations for 2025 and beyond.
They are then assigned into groups for a project that Temple describes as "almost impossible but possible", which is intended to help students develop collaborative habits they can carry into industry. This year's challenge was to produce a cost-no-object yet feasible design concept for a hybrid F2 sidecar running on LPG, opening students' eyes to a world beyond F1.
"We try to help them understand that, while some will be specialising on the powertrain aspects of the group design project and others on vehicle dynamics, they have to communicate regularly," says Temple, "so that their way of thinking is for the good of the team rather than an individual ending up in a cul-de-sac."
That collaboration is also evident in Wolverhampton School of Engineering's advanced manufacturing suite, with Fenton and Innovative Product Development consultant Iain Lyall passing on best practice.
Lyall, himself a Wolverhampton graduate, has been instrumental in positioning the university as a frontline force in ALM that creates parts to short turnarounds for use in the top echelons of motorsport, including F1.
"It trains us as university employees to work within the real world and we can pass that on to the students," Lyall says.
"The students believe in us as academics that we know what we're talking about and they buy into that, which not only helps them to get their degree but it also pitches them at a very high level because they can talk the talk - they've done it."
One of those to benefit is second-year student Dan Bird, the head student engineer on UWR's F3 team, who cast strakes for the underside of the front wing using carbonfibre. As well as channelling air more effectively, they are designed to break away in the event of an impact.
"They're applying what they're learning in the classroom for a project which they're then using on the car, so they're gaining experience in running a car professionally in industry but also backing up the theory that they're learning in the classroom," says Fenton.
"It gives them the experience they need to almost go straight into a job."
Both Wolverhampton and Cranfield are members of the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA), which works in standards and legislation for the manufacturing and technology sector, and fosters links between OEMs and universities that keep academics abreast of the latest developments in manufacturing.
"At the top level of motorsport, there's a constant evolution of the cars and we need the manufacturing technology to keep up with that" Josh Dugdale
"We're thrilled to be working with the MTA because having that one-stop shop, that takes us to see so many other people, regardless of where they are in the supply chain, means we're fully aware of how the wider world is working and where our place can be in it," says Wolverhampton development manager Terry Gibson.
"Motorsport isn't one thing and manufacturing isn't one thing, so we want to give our students the widest opportunity to pick and choose what they want to be involved in. But it's also about giving manufacturers at the SME level the opportunity to pick the brains of academics and hopefully assist with their issues."
This is especially important because manufacturing technology underpins the motorsport and automotive sectors and far beyond, as the MTA's technology manager Josh Dugdale explains: "The manufacturing technology sector is key to every other sector being able to function," he says.
"If you've got a great concept but you can't manufacture it, you're going to be stuck.
"At the top level of motorsport, there's a constant evolution of the cars and we need the manufacturing technology to keep up with that. We're keen to get that message out so students are aware of the latest technology and can learn on the relevant equipment so they've got the skills needed by the industry."
No university establishment can credibly guarantee employment - that will boil down to the individual and how well they come across in an application.
But if students are critical in their appraisal of courses (basing their decision on whether the university has a strong record of working with industry practitioners), proactively seek opportunities to gain more experience and can demonstrate a logical process for solving problems in an interview scenario, they will be well placed for success in the job market.
On Tucker's part, success on track with the UWR F3 team is always welcome validation of his efforts, but that of itself isn't the biggest priority.
"The end goal for us is graduates who can work effectively within a team," he says.
"You have to be flexible, adaptable, reliable, and that's not necessarily something you can teach. But you have to be able to offer experience towards it."
The graduate's tale
Having cut his teeth at GP3 team Status Grand Prix while writing his thesis on lap time simulation, Gustavo Beteli's stock has risen rapidly.
After graduating from his MSc in Motorsport Engineering and Management at Cranfield in 2012, the Sao Paolo native built experience in single-seaters before moving to sportscars, first with JRM and then Aston Martin Racing, becoming its lead engineer in 2017.
He currently runs the #97 GTE Pro Vantage of Alex Lynn and Maxime Martin in the World Endurance Championship, attends all tests - where he looks after all lap time simulations - and supports Aston's GT3 customers.
"I spend over 100 days per year at racetracks - that's what I wanted to do, so I'm not complaining!" he says.
Beteli chose Cranfield for its industry links - "it's not only what you learn, but you need to leave with a job, otherwise there's no point" - and enjoyed the academic nature of the course, which built on his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the Centro Universitario da FEI in Brazil.
A two-hour lecture given by Pat Symonds about tyres was a highlight, but there was a practical dimension to the course too - the 2012 cohort's group design project concerned the development of a hybrid system complete with energy recovery for a Formula Ford.
Within his group, Beteli was assigned to developing an electric motor attached to the turbo, similar to the MGU-K used in F1, although the technology available then was limited.
"It was good fun to try to create something that would fit in a Formula Ford that would be viable as well," Beteli recalls.
"We didn't have to physically purchase the parts, but we had to design something that would package and simulate it because you're increasing performance but also the mass.
"There's not much help in a sense, you just need to do it. It's like when you leave university and get a job, you just need to get on with the work."
This article is from Autosport Engineering - our bi-monthly magazine supplement and regular online series focusing on technology, engineering and innovation