Burnt rubber: getting under the hood with motorsports at Queen’s

Leaders from Queen’s Baja, Formula share insight into collegiate auto racing 

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If you know anything about motorsports, it’s probably that they’re expensive—and pretty damn intense.

Coincidentally, the description matches the Queen’s experience to the nail. More coincidentally, Queen’s has two motorsports teams of its own. 

If you don’t know them already—I’m referring to the Queen’s Baja and Formula teams. They design, manufacture, and compete internationally with miniature versions of vehicles built and styled to reflect their namesakes—off-road for Baja, Formula 1 for Formula. 

Amidst the perils of COVID-19, both teams have been prevented from manufacturing—and thus competing with—their vehicles this year. Like most extra-curricular groups at Queen’s, however, they’ve forged on.

“My FREC—who was the team captain last year—talked pretty highly of it during Orientation Week,” Max Kaiser, Sci ’21 and co-captain of Baja, told The Journal. 

 “I was pretty enthusiastic [at the idea of] joining an off-road racing car team. 

Apart from being a race team, Baja also designs and builds their car from the ground up. In fact, the only components which aren’t manufactured by the Baja team are the car’s engine, wheels, and suspension shocks.

Not only that, but Baja is the only competitive division of the Society of Automotive Engineers  which has wheel-to-wheel racing. In divisions like Formula Society of Automotive Engineers, they can only do track runs by themselves.

Originally founded in 1976, the Queen’s Baja team had a relatively small membership base early on. Since, however, it’s grown to become the largest engineering design team at Queen’s, regularly sporting around 50 members on its roster year-to-year.

As its size has increased, its presence in competition has increased in tandem. With 150 international teams regularly entering the competitions Queen’s has frequented over the past 10 years—hosted in places like California, Tennessee, and Oregon—Queen’s has regularly placed in the top 20 for vehicle design and performance. Last year, Queen’s placed a team-record sixth and seventh for the overall design.

At these competitions, the Baja runs a gauntlet of dynamic events which test the car’s manoeuverability, suspension, traction, and acceleration, among other things. The highlight of most competitions, however, is the four-hour endurance race. In this event, the team goes all-out on the track against other teams in hopes of lasting the full four hours.

However, only a small part of Baja is actually spent competing. The vast majority of time spent working on the team is dedicated to designing and manufacturing the vehicle. The entirety of the fall semester is spent designing, the winter semester manufacturing, and only a few weeks in the summer are actually spent competing.

With COVID-19 restricting access to the machine shop, Kaiser said this year’s car won’t be able to be manufactured. That said, the team will still be submitting their designs for the virtual competition this year and hope to take home a top 10 position once again.

As they share the same machine shop as Baja, the Queen’s Formula Team has also been unable to manufacture and participate in its regular docket of international competitions. Two of the team’s leaders, Spencer Kalnicki, Sci ’22, and Caroline Kim, Sci ’22, also spoke with The Journal about Formula at Queen’s and some of the ways it differs from Baja. 

Formed in 1993, and thus much younger, the Formula team nonetheless has much to show for their recent efforts in design and racing. Also a frequent top-tier finisher at international competitions, the Queen’s Formula team was featured on an episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet” in 2019.

Much like their Baja counterparts, the Formula team designs and manufactures their own racing car, which is both technically and visually similar to the real Formula-1, albeit slightly smaller and with less radical top speeds. Even at competitions, the Formula team conducts the same dynamic tests, differing only in the terrain of their respective tracks and Baja’s four-hour endurance bout.

Off the track, however, the Formula team differs from Baja in both the length and mobility of their design phase.

“I think we have a lot more ability to make changes in systems than Baja does. We’re able to design and modify parts in our engine, which is something Baja can’t do.”

Citing the vastly different technical makeup of the vehicle as one of the reasons, Kalnicki noted that some of the requirements for a formula car—such as vastly higher speeds, for instance—require more subsystem integration and take longer to figure out. 

Kalnicki and Kim also touched on some of Queen’s Formula’s resemblances to professional racing leagues like F-1. The biggest thing connecting them? The strictness of design regulations.

“In real Formula-One, a lot of their designs are regulated by the rule handbook,” Kalnicki said. “It’s honestly pretty hard to innovate a design that fits within the rules.”

Despite being somewhat restrictive, Kalnicki said the collegiate regulations for Formula racing teams can also breed innovation and out of the box thinking which is often found in Formula-One.

“At the same time, it’s kind of the same mentality as Formula-1, where you’re looking for a way to try and push those rules,” he said.

Kalnicki mentioned that extra points are allotted to teams who innovate new designs that spawn a new part of the rulebook.

Reflecting on their similar troubles with COVID-19, Queen’s Formula has pivoted by putting more stock into the design for next year’s car. After placing in the top 15 at North America’s virtual design competition last year, it’s clear they know what they’re doing—the real challenge will show when they finally get to burn some rubber again. 

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