Getting the fastest education on four wheels

Tyler Ouellet and Jordan Dil have put hundreds of hours into one particular extracurricular activity on campus this past year. There’s no pay, they get greasy and, at times, don’t get home until after midnight.

And they wouldn’t change a thing.

The fourth-year Engineering students are part of what has now become a 25-year tradition in the building of the Western Engineering Formula Racing Team. With more than 30 volunteers, primarily from Engineering, the students volunteer their time and talents to conceive, design and build a formula-style racecar.

“We just love doing it, and the experience you gain here is something employers really look for. It is so valuable to us,” said Ouellet, technical director on this year’s team. “You really appreciate how reliable cars are once you built your own from scratch. It’s like a drug almost. It’s very addictive.”

Each year, the students make significant design changes to the car in hopes of improving speed and overall performance. For example, changes to the chassis can be endless, Ouellet said.

“We set goals and specifications and worked toward that,” said Ouellet, who has been a team member his entire four years at Western. “First off, we want to win the competitions. We build the car to specifications, how light, what sort of engine. It’s a constant need to want to make it better. There’s always an infinite amount of fine tuning.”

So how do you know when you’re done?

“That’s the toughest thing to do,” added Ouellet, who drives the car in competition. “As engineers, we’re always challenging ourselves to create the best things, but at some point you need to move on to the next project. In the past, our team has finished the car days before the competition and half the battle is being able to test and tune the car.”

Currently, the car is in test mode as the team prepares for a pair of competitions next month. They’ll be heading to the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., on May 9, followed by the Barrie Molson Centre in Barrie on May 25. The Western team will go head-to-head with more than 125 teams from around the world.

It is there, where the team’s hard work, skills and talents find themselves under the judges’ spotlight. Do they have enough horsepower to propel a vehicle weighing close to 450 pounds? Will the driver be able to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in around 3.5 seconds? What sort of gravitational force acceleration will the driver experience while cornering?

“The feedback is great,” said Ouellet, noting the judges have worked the Formula One circuit and developed for companies such as Nissan, Ford and GM. “We’re doing our best and of course will make mistakes, but they can look at your car and know what’s right and wrong. Plus, afterwards, you have access to all the judges.”

For Dil, this year’s managing director, the experience of working with classmates – pretty much around the clock – on a project everyone is committed to makes for “an awesome experience.”

“You’re working as if you part of a real business team making a real product,” Dil said. “You have to design the product to work, budget the project to make it cost as little as possible and manage a large group of people, who are all volunteers. You have to realize they are students and have schoolwork as well. It’s a challenge of getting it done on time and getting it done right.”

While the university provides some assistance, the students depend on the generosity of corporate sponsors and members of the community for the majority of the project’s $50,000 funding.

With Western’s highest finish in competition being fifth place (2010), Ouellet says this year’s goal is to finish in the Top 10.

“You’re always working for that fast car, but a lot of the fun is that you built this car as a team,” said Ouellet, who’ll spend these next few weeks with the team fine-tuning the car. “And, when you get to drive it for the first time, that is one of the greatest feelings to experience. It’s something you all did together.”