«You won’t get many credits for the time you don’t spend preparing for exams, but in return it’s a huge leap in quality. It forces you to get your hands dirty, to understand and to imagine.” The speaker was the engineer Giampaolo Dallara , who in 1972 founded the Italian racing constructor that bears his name in Varano de’ Melegari. Dallara is an Aeronautical Engineering alumnus, a motorsport enthusiast and one of the main sponsors of Formula SAE in Italy. He was addressing students in the Politecnico’s DynamiΣ PRC team: more than 100 students that design and construct a Formula 1 style prototype racecar each year.
DynamiΣ PRC’s cars compete in the Formula SAE championship (in Europe it is called Formula Student), one of the biggest competitions for open-wheeled racecars which hosts over 15 global events and involves students from more than 600 universities across the world. The drivers are also students and therefore, for safety reasons, the events are time trials rather than wheel to wheel races (with a few exceptions).
Students compete in three categories: internal combustion vehicles, electric vehicles and driverless vehicles. Each event is held in a different country and divided into two sessions: the first, which is static, assesses the technical side of the vehicle, the financial aspects and the ability to create a comprehensive marketing strategy. Dynamic tests are then carried out on the track: Acceleration, Skidpad (handling), Autocross (fastest lap time) and Endurance and Efficiency (prototype reliability). In Italy the competitions are held at the circuit in Varano de’ Melegari, within walking distance of Dallara Automobili (the initiative’s main sponsor). Each year, Dallara goes around the garages on the Friday before the competition, when the teams have finished testing and are making the last tweaks to their cars.
Watching the students discussing how to fit a chassis or imagining how to build a wing is a tonic, giving me enthusiasm to put back into my business,” remarked Dallara. “ And then there’s the confirmation of how young people are truly a strength of our country, of how dedicated they are despite the sacrifices: because they are often forced to reschedule their exams in order to do this work.
Given the demands of taking part in these competitions, it is no wonder that they can get in the way of the students’ studies: for example, Alberto Testa, a Space Engineering student and the current technical director of DynamiΣ, told us that he commits around 70 or 80 hours a week to the team. “It’s inevitable that exams take a bit of a back seat.”
Moreno Palmieri graduated in Mechanical Engineering in 2018 and today works in R&D at Ferrari. During his studies, he was part of the DynamiΣ team: a team that won a great deal but did not exactly start off on the right foot.
“In 2014, we experimented with a carbon fibre chassis for the first time. But, not having much money, we made do with flat carbon fibre panels glued together. It was a little heavier than a carbon fibre chassis moulded using industrial techniques, but it cost a lot less. We were wet behind the ears and we made an error in the design: the internal inserts for attaching the internal components of the car were too small. During preliminary testing at the Vizzola circuit everything had gone well, but the tarmac at the Varano circuit performs much better. During the brake test, we had so much grip that the forces exerted on the suspension brackets of the chassis were much stronger than predicted, to the extent that one of the inserts was torn off. It was a disaster! We were dejected. But the competition officials, staff from Dallara, came by the garage for their usual look around and they encouraged us to find a solution. We worked on the repairs through the night, fixing the chassis with sheets of steel. Once we had finished, the car weighed 10kg more: it would have lost a little performance, but at least we could compete. The following morning, we showed up at the brake test again. This time the chassis held but the suspension brackets broke, having already been damaged during the first test. We pulled another all-nighter for the repairs because the competition was the next day: it was our last chance. We found a makeshift solution, but the car could not withstand the third brake test and we had to withdraw. However, what we took away from this story was a great opportunity. The engineers at Dallara had noticed us because of our tenacity, because we hadn’t given up in the face of such a big problem, we had tried everything. A few months later, Mr Dallara came to meet us at the Poli and he offered to support us in building the chassis with the proper tools and equipment. He put us in contact with Bercella, a company in the sector, which also taught us a lot about professional manufacturing.”
Since then, DynamiΣ has made up for the failure of 2014 many times, finishing on the podium at all of the subsequent editions. “The students often surprise me with examples of great creativity and imagination” explains Dallara, remembering countless visits to the garages. “New technologies are screened in advance, whereas sometimes the more conventional parts, like a suspension attachment, feature a certain ingenuity. But I’m also surprised by the speed with which they learn. The teams turn up for the first time without any experience, a long way behind the leading teams. But over a year or two they bridge the gap and start to become competitive.”
THE UNKNOWN LIMIT OF SPORT
Alberto Testa has been part of the team since 2019, the year in which the Poli ranked Poli ranked fourth in the world and first in Italy, competing in the Internal Combustion category. “After this success, we decided to take on a new challenge.or rather, two. In 2020 we constructed our first electric prototype and this year we will add an autonomous driving system to the car in order to compete in the electric vehicle class, both with a driver and in the driverless category.
Filippo Piovani is also a student of Aeronautical Engineering: “my last year, in theory,” he said. It is his third season in DynamiΣ. We found him in the workshop where the members of the team were gathered around the new prototype working in tandem on many things at the same time: finishing and assembling parts, checking and double-checking calculations, treating the mould of the inverter container in the spray booth. They would stay there until midnight, with special permission from the Department of Mechanical Engineering (staying open just for them). “One of the challenges of the inverter container is shielding it from electromagnetic interference caused by high voltage electronics,” explained Filippo. “It risks distorting the low voltage signals that control the operation of the car. Last year we had an electric car for the first time and there were moments when the control sensors for critical parameters were providing incorrect information because of this problem, transmitting the error to the computer that runs the car. This year we have added molecules of nickel to the carbon fibre, which should increase the level of shielding and solve the problem. At least in theory, we need to test it to find out.
After the fire-up, track testing will take place until mid-July. The championship begins on 12 July and will continue throughout the summer: the Poli will be in Varano from 17 to 19 July, in Hungary from 7 to 13 August and in Germany from 15 to 21 August. We asked Filippo what their expectations were:
"To win, no matter what. And we’re looking to improve on last year. The target is to achieve with electric what we did in 2019 with the internal combustion model: fourth in the world.”
«“That’s how the Poli team does things,” remarks Dallara, laughing. “They don’t just want to take part; they are used to winning. But they are not the only ones. The Formula Student championship is becoming more competitive every year. The Poli has won a lot, but the others have the drive to win too. It is no longer good enough to improve a little: sporting contests are not about reaching a defined level or beating a record, they are about being better than your opponent. This means that the limit is unknown until you meet on the track."..