The Shell Eco Marathon is a week-long competition hosted this year in London as part of the ‘make the future live’ event.
We arrived at on a summer’s Monday morning to the blistering heat wave encompassing central London. The competition itself was a collection of white tarpaulin tents each team having their own tent paddock, banner and the occasional mascot (ours was a life size cardboard cut-out Taylor Swift!).
Wandering round we could see everything from bubble cars for the ‘Urban Concept’ race to the crazy streamlined cars reassuringly much like ours for the ‘Prototype’ race. Everyone was super friendly and enthusiastic to help each other out loaning tools and sharing knowledge, as well as looking at how different teams had approached the design briefs and manufacturing. It was reassuring to learn that everyone had experienced similar problems in building their cars to us, and many were kind enough to offer solutions we hadn’t thought of to solve these problems.
Arriving at the event we had three “minor” aims as a team:
1. Get the engine to run
However elementary and basic this step may seem for an automotive racing competition we didn’t even know if the engine worked at this point in time. Perhaps this showed us up a little! After spending a year working on our own engine from scratch and despite our best efforts, the engine we’d designed may not be working in time for competition or even fit without completely redesigning our drivetrain. So, to stand any chance of racing we decided to use our back up stock engine the Thursday before leaving for the race. We managed to get the engine working for the first time on the Sunday before we left for comp – a truly euphoric moment!
2. Pass Scrutineering
Scrutineering is a 12-stage safety and technical inspection in order to check that the car is safe to race and be allowed out onto the track. This includes tests based on design specifications and regulations such as the car dimensions, the weight of the driver and car, as well as being able to exit the car in less than 10 seconds in case of an emergency. There are also more practical tests, for example does the engine work, do the electronics work (our greatest two worries!), as well as the seatbelt and breaks. It took us two attempts to pass both the safety and technical inspection but we did it! As a team we saw this as a major success; we got though by the skin of our teeth on Friday night ready for the first race Saturday afternoon.
3. Get a time on the track.
After passing the technical inspection there was only a few tweaks needed to be made before getting onto the track! All we had left to do was plug in the lambda sensor, map the engine and make the driver’s seat more comfortable.
This all sounded doable on the Friday night, especially as we were still on a our high from passing technical inspection. But as these things go, disaster struck at the last second.
Our engine was ghosting us, meaning we had no idea what rpm it was running at or how rich it was running. This meant it was impossible to map or use the lambda sensor. To make matters worse we only had finite starting of the engine as our starter motor gear and clutch were not meshing together as much as we’d like, causing the teeth to wear at a considerable rate. As we kept desperately trying to map the engine the starter system was getting increasingly dangerous to the point of spot welding. This was not good. A matter of seconds later the gear fell off the transmission: another major blow. The finale was when our whole electronics system blew up in smoke (Arduinos produce a nice emerald plume!).
Our Saturday had not been the best of days. Team morale was low; we’d lost all hope. Above all, it was unsafe to let our driver in the car as so much of it was unpredictable, dangerous and temperamental. However, in the ‘Countdown’ to our final day there was one silver lining: Rachel Riley paid a personal visit to our paddock!
In the end, as a result of the hat-trick of bad luck, we didn’t quite manage to get a time on track but we did pass the technical and safety inspection.
This was only our second competition though and it now leaves the team in a really good position for next year. We’ve learnt loads and will now be able to dedicate our time on the drivetrain and powertrain and get the car up and running well before competition.