A warm June wind blows through the pine trees on the Ehra-Lessien test grounds near Wolfsburg. The air above the hot asphalt shimmers, and small electric cars zoom between cones. One car is being pushed back to the pit by its team. Not far away another is whizzing by without a driver – one of the autonomous vehicles out on the grounds today.
Lukas Mittelviefhaus stands in one of the pits. He is 24 years old, in his 7th semester of a mechanical engineering program, and has a problem. Or rather two of them. Mittelviefhaus is a member of the Ecurie Aix team from RWTH Aachen University, a team which urgently needs to attend to both of its race cars. The high-voltage battery management system isn’t working in the 210-kilo car called the “Driverless.” And the 187-kilo e-car known as the “Electric” refuses to start.
A year of planning, constructing, tinkering
Mittelviefhaus and his 80 teammates are fortunate that today is only a test drive and not the actual race. The real thing will take place August 5 through 11. That is when thousands of students from more than 20 countries will gather at the Hockenheimring for the Formula Student Germany (FSG), an event held every year. The 118 teams will compete in categories for cars with combustion engines, for cars with electric drives, and as of 2017 for cars without drivers. The event brings together the next generation’s most talented engineers.
For Lukas Mittelviefhaus it is obviously very important that everything goes well at the Formula Student. He and his fellow team members have spent a year planning, constructing and tinkering, and they want their efforts to pay off. Which is why Ecurie Aix and five other teams were happy to accept Volkswagen’s offer to put their cars through a series of tough trials on the company’s iconic test grounds. An acid test for the real race.
Mittelviefhaus joined the team two years ago. He is in charge of its fiber-reinforced composite parts – and also a driver. His teammates are now rummaging through the technical systems for the source of the trouble. “When a mechanical part breaks down, you can quickly figure out what’s the matter,” he says. “But if the electrical system displays an error, you generally have to spend more time searching.”
Professional approach in a casual atmosphere
In the Ecurie Aix team’s pit, screw guns are humming and keyboards are clicking. While some members remove panels from the race car, others check programs for the vehicle control unit on their laptops. The control unit transmits driving data during the race in real time. “We want to calibrate the sensors on the Driverless today, and keep working on the Electric’s transmission to slowly build up its performance,” says Tim Schulte, a mechanical engineering student who is the technical director for the Electric.
While the team works away, a member of the HorsePower team from Leibniz University in Hanover appears in the pit. “Can we can borrow a drill?” he asks during a brief moment of silence. “Sure,” says Schulte, and adds, “How’s it going with you guys?” “It’s OK,” comes the answer. “You won’t find cut-throat competitive types around here,” says Schulte. “It’s mutual support more than anything else. It’s not about who has the fastest car.”
The winner will be decided by the final overall evaluation of acceleration and efficiency tests on circuits and obstacle courses. In addition to these dynamic disciplines, the young engineers are also required to demonstrate their expertise in non-moving categories. They have to explain how they’ve designed their cars, and which materials they’ve used, and also present their business plans. If they want to win, they need to earn points everywhere.
Volkswagen provides financial and technical support
This international competition enriches the studies of the young engineers by giving them intensive experience in design and production as well as in the business side of making cars. Volkswagen, which has been a partner of Formula Student Germany for many years now, provides some of the university teams with not only financial but also technical support. In addition to Ecurie Aix and HorsePower, the Bremergy team from Bremen University, the Lions Racing team from Braunschweig Technical University, the DUT Racing team from Delft Technical University, and the e-gnition team from Hamburg Technical University are all here in Ehra-Lessien.
The Volkswagen Group benefits from the connections it builds with team members by forging personal contacts and transferring knowledge at an early stage in their careers. It also gives the company a chance to recruit talented young people directly.
Right in the middle of the action is Volkswagen driver Benjamin Leuchter, the only German starter in the FIA World Touring Car Cup. Leuchter – age 31, height 165 centimeters, weight 60 kilos – sits in the egn19-ev, one of the race cars from the e-gnition team, and listens to instructions before starting. “You have to sit further back,” calls out one of the team members. “But then I can only accelerate, and not brake,” responds Leuchter. “That would be a problem,” says one of the students. “But it’d be a great start,” jokes another.
Problems are part of it all
The egn19-dv heads out onto the course without any driver at all. Steering, accelerating, braking – the car does everything on its own. It has two more laser sensors than it did last year, and its navigation and sign recognition systems have been enhanced.
“Right now we’re just happy that both cars are driving,” says Finn Heydebreck. “That’s not a given at this point in time.” Heydebreck (20) is in charge of the internal structure for the aerodynamics group. The team is using only two thirds of the torque and three quarters of the power right now. “Today our main goal is to test the new motors,” he says. Ehra-Lessien offers a lot of space. “Our own test course is much smaller,” remarks fellow teammate Sarah Klass, the member of the electronics team in charge of high-voltage components. “We can run comprehensive tests under realistic conditions here.”
Mittelviefhaus is back in his race car around noon. A few problems still remain. The pedal box is calibrated incorrectly, so the car heads back to the pit. Even Leuchter is impressed by the professionalism with which the teams solve their problems. “It also gives me the chance to expand my technical horizons,” he says. Schulte is pleased that the driver paid a visit. “We can learn a lot from a professional race car driver, including things like how to coordinate the action outside the car.”
The Ecurie Aix team has found the problem – a defect in the signal system caused by extremely thin insulation that only started interrupting the signal when the car was lowered from the platform. No one had noticed it when the car was jacked up in the pit. So, in the afternoon Mittelviefhaus can finally start driving. The race car stands on the track. The “ready to drive” announcement comes at 2:55. Lukas lets the electric motor fly.