UF’s Formula SAE team zoomed to the second best result in its 31-year history at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Out of 100 teams representing universities from six countries, Gator Motorsports finished third place overall. The team’s only higher finish was second place in 2015.
For FSAE competitions, students spend a year designing and building their own vehicle, which is then judged on a variety of factors including design, efficiency, endurance, and acceleration. In the latter category, UF earned first place.
Going into this year’s competition, the team had been aiming at least for its first top-10 finish since 2016, and always viewed the top 5 as within reach. This was despite a shortened preparation time and various mechanical setbacks, such as broken parts and certain things not performing as expected.
“There’s always gonna be difficulties getting this thing working because, you know, it’s a very complex machine built by a bunch of college students, so there’s always gonna be rough patches,” said team president Mitchell Thoeni.
The adjustments made to their vehicle this year included switching to a carbon-fiber chassis instead of a steel-tube frame, which entailed redesigning the entire vehicle, and also achieving the “never easy” feat of reducing the car’s weight by 23 pounds (465 to 442 lbs).
“It sounds cheesy, but it is just about how well we worked together as a team, because if we have a really good car and a team that is always at odds with each other, things can go much more poorly,” Thoeni said. “Especially going into competition, we knew that no matter what happened, we’d still be a family. We spent long hours together and late nights and early mornings.
“We’re very proud to represent the State of Florida and the University of Florida in such an amazing worldwide event. We’re super proud of the team and everybody who’s helped us get to this point.”
Gator Motorsports’s faculty advisor, Dr. Sean Niemi, heavily emphasized the team’s enthusiasm as a reason for its success.
“The most exciting thing about it is how passionate they are,” Niemi said. “They went for it, they didn’t back down at all, they were gung-ho.”
He went on to say that “they went the extra mile every step of the way” and that “their passion for it is infectious.”
This competition, which was held May 18-21, was the first FSAE Michigan event to be fully in-person since 2019. Though this made the event much more intense, it also added another layer of excitement and motivation. Having full in-person access to their workshop after a year and a half of COVID-related restrictions also made for easier communication during the design phase and more hands on deck for the manufacturing. Niemi cited the leadership of Thoeni and captain Conor Bowman, as well as the entire team’s unwavering determination, as essential to their ability to deftly adapt to changing circumstances.
“Conor’s leadership, Mitchell’s leadership, all the team leads, all of the system leads, from the captain and chief engineers down to the system designers, they all really stepped up to the plate and they were passionate about it and they wanted it,” he said. “All this success is their success, they’re the ones who put in the effort and did this, they’re the ones who earned it. If none of my comments go in the article, it will still be a great article because it’s about them.”
Gator Motorsports is now speeding toward a major change on the horizon, as they plan to leave internal combustion (IC) in the rearview mirror in favor of electric vehicles (EV). The FSAE competitions are trending away from IC as the popularity of EV continues to grow, and the team hopes to change lanes in order to maintain its place at the cutting edge of automotive engineering.
“The integration of the whole thing is a lot more intricate than a lot of people might realize,” Bowman said, acknowledging that the transition will take “a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work,” but that the “novelty of something new” is exciting.
In addition to the obvious challenges of making such a drastic change, a few specific hurdles will involve motor control, management of lithium-ion battery cells (which could cause a safety hazard if they aren’t cooled effectively), and keeping the vehicle’s weight relatively low as the EV equipment inevitably makes it heavier.
“The team can be strong enough to achieve whatever it wants to do, and next year that’s switching to EV,” Bowman said.
Among the advantages of EV is not having to worry about gears, shift points, and other bits of race-day strategy. The EV will also be much faster and have better acceleration, a point that was not lost on the team that took the top spot in that category in May.
The team’s massive accomplishment at FSAE Michigan will also improve its chances of securing support from sponsors and the university, which could be a key to a successful transition. “This sets a really high expectation for how well we can do an EV, because that’s a huge design change,” Thoeni said. “We’re very excited to have done this well this year and bring IC out with a bang.”
Marketing & Communications Student Assistant
UF Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
June 27, 2022