Home » I Visited An Australian Formula SAE Team Before Finally Arriving In The Small Town Where I’ll Be Fixing A Dilapidated Chrysler Valiant Ute

I Visited An Australian Formula SAE Team Before Finally Arriving In The Small Town Where I’ll Be Fixing A Dilapidated Chrysler Valiant Ute

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I’m in a McDonalds in Dubbo, New South Wales in Australia because the Wi-Fi in the tiny rural town where I’m staying is about as fast as an old Mercedes 240D wagon. I’m behind in getting you all an update because the last few days have combined to form the most epic vortex of concentrated Australian car culture I could possibly have imagined. I’ve driven a Hemi-Six powered Charger, stared at Barra engines in a Kangaroo-filled paddock, rode in a V8 Holden GTS, received a tour of a custom-built ute “tray” (which means “bed”) — I can go on, but I’ve got work to do. I have fewer than four weeks to fix a ridiculously dilapidated 1969 Chrysler Valiant ute and then drive it to Australia’s most unhinged car show, the Deni Ute Muster. I’ll show you the condition of my ute soon; for now, I’ll talk about where I traveled after landing in Sydney, the place where I wrote my last update, the upside-down “ʅɐɯɹoN ʎʅʇɔǝⅎɹǝԀ ɯǝǝS sƃuᴉɥꓕ pu∀ ɐᴉʅɐɹʇsn∀ uI pǝʌᴉɹɹ∀ ǝʌ╻I” article that so many of you loved.

After doing a few touristy things like walking to the Opera House and taking a ferry to scenic Manly Beach across the bay, I headed to the University of Technology Sydney, or UTS, as a reader named Imraan had invited me there to see the Formula SAE team’s operations. Actually, what really happened is that I received a message from the sketchiest Instagram profile in history inviting me to hang out, and I — being the fool that I am — accepted. Seriously, look at this Instagram profile:

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The probability of this “imraanye” character being an axe murderer was greater than 20 percent, but I risked it. And I’m glad I did.

Hanging Out With Enginerds

No matter which corner of the planet you’re visiting, if you love cars, you’ll almost certainly get along with local Formula SAE team members. They’re nerdy, they’ll tell you all about carbon fiber suspension members, they’ll chat on and on about hub motors, they’ll tell you all about their battery’s cooling system, and they’ll probably talk your ears off about the cars they’ve owned. Though I’ve been out of the engineering game for seven years now, there’s a kinship I feel among engineers, and it spans cultures.

Check out the crew below; it’s made up of sharp, passionate people who spend hundreds of hours a month in the basement cutting metal, crimping wires, riveting panels, adjusting suspension geometry, dialing in electric motor controller operation, and running FEA strength analyses — sometimes just for fun (I’m not kidding about that; the team told me that one member ran an FEA sim on the spacer used for that red kill-switch button you see on the roll hoop — they simulated the load of someone whacking that red switch. Everyone laughed at how absurd that was).

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If you’re not familiar with Formula SAE, it’s the premier racing competition between universities around the world. It’s an opportunity for engineering (and other) students to flex not just their wrenching skills, but also their program management prowess and their ability to leverage engineering theory to optimize the vehicle just enough to beat out the competition. Formula SAE involves studying the rulebook forwards and backwards; it’s about reading textbooks and chatting with professors about ways to maximize a vehicle’s performance; it’s about hours spent in the computer lab designing the car in Solidworks; it’s about late nights wrenching; it’s about cheap pizza, soda, and the smell of hot metal in the air from all the cutting, grinding, drilling, bending, and welding going on pretty much all the time; it’s about balancing all the high-intensity geekiness with extreme silliness that sometimes involve blowing shit up. It’s about late-nights in the trenches, troubleshooting and praying.

It’s an amazing competition that forges many of the greatest automotive engineers in the world.

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Though the rules put restrictions on the vehicles’ overall designs (geometry constraints, safety requirements, etc. keep many of the cars looking similar), there are lots of ways to build a Formula SAE car. UTS’s team is planning to use carbon fiber in the future, but for now, the team’s car’s body is a monocoque made of aluminum honeycomb.

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It’s pretty thick stuff, but the material is largely air. The material is made of a highly porous aluminum hexagonal honeycomb matrix with sheets of aluminum bonded to each side. It’s surprisingly stiff for its weight.

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These images from Australian materials company Polycore Composites provide a close look at how the material looks inside:

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Image: Polycore Composites
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Image: Polycore Composites

At the rear of UTS’s racecar sits a compact electric motor with a sprocket hanging out the left side. That sprocket drives — via a chain — another sprocket on the drive axle, which has a built-in limited slip differential. You can see two photos above that the car has a double wishbone rear suspension with steel control arms and a “pushrod” coilover setup. As the suspension moves, a rod pushes and pulls one part of a chassis-mounted rocker, which rotates about its pivot, pushing against the coilovers. I’m no dynamics engineer, but per my cursory research, it seems that remote coilovers offer potential advantages in the areas of unsprung weight, aerodynamics, tune-ability (thanks to the rocker/bellcrank adding an extra “lever”), and ease of coilover adjustment/replacement.

UTS’s team is currently working to replace steel suspension arms with carbon fiber rods that have steel sleeves — which the team 3-D printed itself — attached via a special adhesive, as Bevon is describing to me in this picture:

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Just ahead of the car’s rear axle and behind the driver sits the “accumulator,” which is a lithium ion battery pack (shown below) made up of a bunch of 21700 lithium-ion cylindrical cells (the same ones used in many modern Teslas). The cells are air cooled via an electric fan, and arranged in a 128S4P configuration, meaning that there are four parallel sets of 128 cells wired in series, for a total of about 500 volts, and — if my calculations are right (and assuming a 3.7 nominal voltage for the cells) a total capacity of between 8kWh and 10kWh.

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UTS’s electrical lead is a young student named Broughton. He walked me through his pack design, and I have to say: I was impressed by his knowledge, work ethic, and passion for what he was doing.

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I mean, look at all the wires he had to individually crimp for the connectors plugged into the power electronics shown in the photo below!:

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The group of us — me, Broughton, Bevan, Darren, David, Imraan — chatted for hours in that basement. We gasbagged about politics — I learned about Australia’s preferential voting system, I learned that voting is mandatory, I learned how Australia’s health care system works, we chatted about Oz’s gun laws, and we discussed jobs available for car-loving folks engineers now that the local auto industry has died. We even chin-wagged about the “Emu Wars,” which apparently involved Australia sending folks out to slaughter Emus, but ultimately wasting far too much money on an unsuccessful mission. The team laughed about how its country had lost a war against a bunch of tall birds. Of course, I learned some great slang, we commiserated about our COVID experiences, and ultimately we just had a good time as a group of folks who share the same two passions: cars and engineering.

There may have been a discussion about why Land Cruisers are more prevalent than Jeeps in Australia, and it’s possible the team claimed that the former are more reliable. I quickly moved on from this conversation.

Heading To Wrenchtown, Australia (AKA Dubbo)

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I left UTS after dark, headed back to my hotel near Sydney’s Central Train Station, snagged a Schnitty (a chicken Schnitzel; they’re the pub food over here, alongside the “Parmie,” or chicken parmegiana) from the bar, and went to bed. The following morning I dragged my tools and car parts to my  7:20 A.M. train. It was about seven hours to Dubbo; I worked, ate my first meat pie (see above), and looked out my window to see if I’d spot a kangaroo.

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I did see a kangaroo, but I must say, it wasn’t’ the moment I thought it would be. I figured the clouds would open up and beam a spotlight onto my first wild kangaroo as a choir belted out into song. I expected a magical moment; these animals jump and have huge tails and carry their babies in pouches — it’s objectively bizarre! But then I saw a few in a field not far from the train tracks, and I barely even noticed. My brain registered them as deer. I had to do a double-take and then focus my eyes on the ‘roos before the gravity of the situation dawned on me. Kangaroos became even less interesting as time went on, since they’re truly everywhere, and frankly, a massive hazard when driving at night — so much so that they’ve created a humongous bull-bar culture here (I’ll talk more about that in a future article).

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Anyway, my seven hours on the Wi-Fi and outlet-less train eventually concluded, and I arrived in Dubbo, where Autopian reader Laurence was ready to pick me up (that’s him above). As I would find, he’s friendly, incredibly passionate about cars, mechanically adept, not involved in the organ-harvesting trade, and extremely well connected in the local car community. That latter one is important (maybe slightly less so than the one before i t), because there’s no chance in hell that he and I will be able to get these two things on the road in four weeks without some beer and pizza-fueled friends working by our sides in the garage:

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This is the first photo I took of the utes on Laurence’s mom’s property; we got there just a few hours after I arrived into town; the sun was starting to set, so I didn’t have time to take a close look. But I did a few days later, so you can expect a full rundown of the utes’ conditions soon. All I can say is this: Imagine hauling nearly 100 pounds of tools and car parts to the other side of the world — taking a 20-hour plane ride, then a bus from the airport to a train station, then a seven hour train ride out into the middle of bush country, only to arrive at a vehicle whose engine oil dipstick looks like this:

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That dipstick is a good representation of the vehicle’s overall condition, which — to use Australian slang — is to say that it’s absolutely cactus.

Expect a full rundown of #projectcactus soon.


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38 Responses

    1. Aww… the little brother showed up!
      Heya lil guy! How are ya doin? Ya’ll figure out how you’re going to do whatever weird twist is going on this season? Something ridiculous about the frame clarification and new engines I think? And a year or two back it was full time AWD or some other setback?

      Git ‘r Dun!

  1. David:
    From the perspective of a 70-year-old hippie facing prostate cancer and Goodness knows what-all else, I hope I can offer my little bit to reassure you:
    You’re on exactly the correct heading, Grasshopper!

    (But, of course, you already know that.)


  2. Many moons ago I took an overnight greyhound bus from Sydney to Brisbane. A few hours into the journey I decided to stretch my legs while we stopped at a gas station.

    The first thing I saw as I rubbed my eyes open at 3am was an absolutely huge kangaroo wrapped around the front of the bus, his head flopping around next to the door. The driver and two other guys were trying to yank it out of the roo-bar but it was thoroughly entangled, so every time they pulled on his legs and tail, his whole torso bucked around like it was still alive.

    1. I remember as a kid going on a trip in primary school where they loaded us all up in a chartered bus, I can’t for the life of me remember where we went but I DO remember sitting in the bus, at night, for hours while the teachers and driver figured out what to do about the kangaroo jammed in the front of the bus..

  3. If the Wi Fi is lacking may I suggest getting a pre paid SIM? They’re reasonably cheap down here, a $30 recharge from Boost Mobile will get you 40gb, which should do it if you don’t watch too many videos.

    1. I suspect that he’s actually referring to the 4G phone signal…in which case, he’s got Buckley’s since the signal penetration outside the Dubbo area is notoriously poor. Especially if he’s off to the south east of the city…

  4. I actually busted out laughing at the photo of that dipstick. Holy shit, best of luck to you DT. I’ve never seen something like that in my entire life.

    I was lucky enough to be involved with Formula SAE for all 5 of my college years. It’s an incredible experience and teaches you much more than just automotive engineering. I was the lead machinist as a primary job, but also designed the front suspension, worked on our business presentation (a mandatory part of the competition designed to get young engineers thinking about cost-efficiency and scaling manufacturing up from a single vehicle) as well as courting sponsorship money and doing STEM outreach for our university. If you have the chance to be involved, absolutely don’t pass it up!

    1. I should also note: any “older” (read: post-college) engineers who want to get involved can be an invaluable resource for students with design feedback, mock judging, etc. Automotive engineers especially – if you have a local FSAE team nearby, shoot them an email or social media message and see if they could use your help.

  5. I hope you do a profile on the “average” vehicles you see down there. Despite being an Aussie expat myself and working in the light truck aftermarket suspension industry, last time I visited in ’19 I was amazed that nearly every pickup (or ute, although that term no longer applies just to sedan based car-trucks) I saw had a snorkel, bull bar with UHF antenna, and pull out side awning, even in downtown Melbourne and Brisbane.

    1. Absolutely not, the bigger issue is having enough time, money, and organization to make use of one years worth of free time to make a racecar.

      Some cars don’t even run at competition. Some cars have stick welded tube frames with Lycra stretched over them. Some have complete bespoke carbon monocoques and purpose built AMG engines in the back (the German teams get a lotttttt of manufacturer support).

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  7. I liked the FSAE bit. I was deeply involved with it in engineering school in the ‘90s and it was the best thing about my education.

    You’ve got a tough row to hoe with that Ute, though.

  8. Thanks for getting the word out for FSAE! I was involved with the team at my school many years ago (controls group that was responsible for shifter, brakes, etc.), and it was a great experience. We were using 600cc Yamaha motorcycle engines at the time. I got to drive one on a “Sponsor experience day” when we would set up a course in a parking lot for the team’s sponsors to drive older cars. What a blast! I bet the new electric cars are a lot of fun.

  9. Thank you David for posting this article.

    I especially enjoyed the video where the students showed off their project. With an 80 kW limit on motor power, there is plenty of incentive to reduce mass. The aluminum honeycomb material is GREAT for a monocoque. I’ve been considering ordering some for a project I’ve got going on, shown in my profile, to make a safety cell out of. Those Tesla cells should get adequate cooling with a fan system, considering the power limitation. The Panasonic 21700A can handle a max continuous discharge current of 15A and a peak of 20A. So 128S4P pack should be good for 60A continuous, 80A peak, which at 3.7V nominal, would be a 473.6V nominal pack. It should make roughly 40 kW peak, 30 kW continuous, at least when fully charged. So I suspect they aren’t exactly using Tesla Model 3 cells, just batteries that have the same form factor.

    If they’re going to have a pack that can actually do the 80 kW limit, I suspect that they might be using Molicel P45B, as those can do 50A continuous. THAT would make 80 kW continuous viable with the pack configuration they described and allow the car to race around the track at full power without the battery failing. Which then means the motor and/or controller becomes the next weak link. You wouldn’t be able to do that with their described configuration using Model 3 cells.

    In college I was once interested in working for the Formula SAE team, but it was soon shut down from budget cuts. I spent many long nights reading the SAE publications at my university library because I so badly wanted to design an electric car from scratch. This was nearly 20 years ago and lithium ion batteries weren’t yet available off the shelf in the format needed at an affordable cost, so I was considering how I could make lead acid batteries work and still get 100+ miles range. That is when I decided to convert an old Triumph GT6 to electric.

    Now days, whenever I get time to work on my projects, I’m mostly focused on the microcar in my profile. It’s like a miniature SAE car, that can be pedalled. It’s also a way to have a “car” that meets the legal definition of a bicycle where I live so that I can get around without license, tags, or insurance, and the cops can’t do shit! It is perfectly functional as a bicycle with the motor disabled, and I could sprint to 35 mph on flat ground with the motor disabled due to aerodynamic slipperiness. It is in the process of receiving upgrades, including what will be a very streamlined body doing away with the outboard wheels so that I can pedal it to 45 mph on flat ground with the motor disabled. When the motor is in use, it used to have 4 horsepower plus pedaling, and could do donuts with that modest amount of power. It will soon have 13 horsepower plus pedaling, which will end up allowing 0-60 mph acceleration like a modern car and a top speed in the triple digits, with wheelspin out the ass. I still need to complete the roll cage before I can resume the next iteration of the body, but this thing is going to be all kinds of insanity when I get done with it. I’m going to hoon the crap out of it. Promise.

      1. I don’t know how I missed that, but thanks for pointing that out. Their specs could also reach that magic 80 kW continuous for the configuration they mentioned.

        That car is going to fly. 80 kW is close to what the 1st gen Miatas had, except it’s in a vehicle with roughly 1/4 the mass.

  10. I have plenty of advice to give about this project but the first piece of wisdom I am offering is to find a decent ‘takeaway shop’ in Dubbo and order a ‘hamburger with the lot’.
    I promise you will never eat Macdonalds again.

    1. I can assure you that finding actually decent takeaway burgers in Dubbo is far far harder than you might imagine. And I haven’t eaten a McDonald’s burger in over twenty years…

      That said…I haven’t tried the Muki Cafe yet.

  11. I thought we were the only crazies to do a Formula SAE car with an Ali monocoque! In the UK, we call it Formula Student (because we have to be different from the rest of the world, obvs), and I was part of BCU Racing at Birmingham City University. Our car had a lot of things in common with the UTS car…

    We did an ali monocoque with honeycomb, but eventually moved towards ribs – lighter, but a lot more complex to design and simulate. Easier to assemble though, and meant we could justify an air-powered rivet gun, which was an awesome tool. We also tried carbon fibre wishbones, but we couldn’t get a good enough bond between the metal inserts and the carbon fibre tubes. Luckily, we’d constrained our carbon fibre suspension guy to use the same mountings as our old steel wishbones used, so we were able to reuse last years at the eleventh hour.

    It’s awesome to know that there’s a team just as crazy as us on the other side of the globe!

    If you’re interested in seeing some more similarities, check out our instagram @BCURacing 🙂

    1. Article idea here, people: look at all the FSAE (AND BSAE !! ) love here. Gar-un-teed someone would love to write up an overview and their specific experiences for the rest of us to peruse. Just sayin’ …

  12. Can’t recall from previous articles if that’s got the slant 6 or Aussie Hemi-6, but much as I’d like to say that sh*t will buff, that’s a terrible indication even for the indestructible leaning tower of power! I hope you’ve got a donor engine in the hip pocket or that something suitable is available nearby.

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