Spencer Steele and the SF-1 team built the formula car in his Maple Ridge shop.

Spencer Steele and the SF-1 team built the formula car in his Maple Ridge shop.

Formula 1 car made in Maple Ridge

SFU team enters engineering competition for first time

It has to be fast and efficient and marketable, and if it’s fun to drive, that’s OK too.

What counts most is how well it does next May in Barrie, Ont., in the Formula North 2014: Engineering Design Competition, in which the SFU-designed, Maple Ridge racer will compete.

That’s not a typical race where cars zoom around the track to see who’s first across the finish line.

Instead, a driver will take the car around the track by itself and try to set the best times for acceleration, cornering, endurance and fuel economy.

The intended market is the non-professional weekend auto racer. So it has to be cheap, easy to maintain and reliable.

It’s the first time, at Spencer Steele’s urging, that SFU Surrey’s School of Mechatronics Systems Engineering has entered the competition.

What’s mechatronics?

“You know Transformers, the movie?

“That’s pretty much what we can do,” said Steele, a Maple Ridge graduate of the program.

Mechatronics is a combination of mechanical and electrical engineering. A graduate from the program can be invaluable for a small start-up company which can afford only minimal staffing.

The car designed by SF-1 team is a one-piece, uni-body sheet metal frame. It’s powered by 600-cc Yamaha motorcycle engine. One goal is to make the machine as light as possible, so the car has no rear disc break rotors and instead uses the chain drive sprocket as a brake disc.

“We nicknamed it the sprotor.”

It’s also an aluminum, uniframe designed for minimum weight.

“It took eight months just for the design work, before we were able to cut metal for the frame.”

Steele doesn’t expect to finish even in the top five in the competition. “If we can make it mid-pack, that would be good.

“A lot of teams don’t even end up finishing the competition because of mechanical failure.”

Steele says his school’s mechatronics program is a good one, but the school needs to spend more money so it can compete with the best.

“They’re just not willing to take the next step to get on the world wide stage with all the other universities.”

UBC has been entering the competition for 23 years, he points out.

But SFU doesn’t even have shop space, so the car had to be built at Steele’s shop in east Maple Ridge. So far, the car’s only half complete, with only the engine and rear suspension installed.

“The car would just be so much farther along if we just had the proper space. The car is entirely built in Maple Ridge because there’s no shop up at SFU.”

Students have identified a possible location on campus for a shop and four months ago wrote to SFU president Andrew Petter.

One of the benefits for the engineering, business, communication, science and interactive technology students who are part of the SFU Formula 1 Club is that it provides valuable, practical hands-on experience.

“Employers don’t take kindly to SFU students. They’d rather have a BCIT student. They’re more hands on,” Steele said.

He finishes up his program this month and already likely has a job lined up –  with Tesla Motors in California. The company makes the all-electric Tesla car.

“I would love to say it was the SFU, but it’s the team that did it.”

Steele said he didn’t even apply for a job. Tesla just contacted him when they came to Vancouver to check out the car.

“It’s kind of fun when it happens like that.”