iRacing and Formula Hybrid + Electric: Virtual Racing Teaches Race Engineering

iRacing and the Formula Hybrid + Electric Competition collaborate to deliver a unique race engineering experience to Engineering students

Formula Hybrid + Electric History

Twenty years ago, the students from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering in Hanover, NH wanted to enter a hybrid-powered car in an internal combustion competition run by FSAE (Formula SAE, part of the Society of Automotive Engineers). Unfortunately, their car was not allowed to run because the competition rules at that time didn’t include hybrids.

Dartmouth students being Dartmouth students, they decided to design their own competition instead of redesigning their car. That was the genesis of the Formula Hybrid Competition, first held in 2006, which challenged university students to design and build their own hybrid-powered racecar. Fast forward to 2012 and the all-electric class was added, changing the competition name to Formula Hybrid + Electric in 2019.

Currently, between 20 and 30 teams from the US, Canada, and around the world build open-wheel cars and bring them to the competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS) during the first week of May. Cars and teams are judged on Design, Project Management, Acceleration, Autocross, and Endurance while being scrutinized for Mechanical and Electrical safety. Usually around 350 students and 150 volunteers show up for the four-day competition.

COVID and the Virtual Racing Challenge on iRacing

Skipping to March of 2020, the on-track portion of the FH+E competition was canceled due to the looming COVID threat. The teams planning to travel from as far away as India were able to stop the shipment of their cars and tools in time. The 2020 competition was held as Static Events Only (Design and Project Management, no on-track events) but it was lacking the usual excitement of a “real” competition. During one of our many Zoom call to figure out our next steps, two of our volunteers from the New England Region of the SCCA (Wiley Cox and Andrew Benagh) mentioned that they had just competed in a “sim racing” event on the iRacing platform. Everything was going virtual so the FH+E team had to check this out!

We went on the iRacing site to watch demo races, review the cars that were available, and check out the tracks offered. One of the tracks was the NHMS Road Course with South Oval – we would have held our actual Endurance event on the Road Course if it hadn’t been for COVID While wheel to wheel racing looked like fun, our challenge was to design an engineering competition based on iRacing’s sim racing platform and the virtual NHMS Road Course. A couple of calls and emails with our friends at NER SCCA brought us to Angela Tagariello, Manager of Sales and Marketing at iRacing’s headquarters in Chelmsford, MA. She was able to give us a good grasp of how the system, cars, and tracks worked.

The VRC Details

The team decided to base the Formula Hybrid + Electric Virtual Racing Challenge on a driver/race engineer car setup challenge concept. iRacing provided team members licenses for the Formula iR-04 car and the NHMS track. Telemetry was provided by the integrated McLaren Applied Atlas system.

Comparing student vs. expert drivers: Each team was paired with a Blue Ribbon Driver (BRD) who had experience with both the virtual and real NHMS Road Course. Teams could make as many set-up changes as they liked to the iR-04’s setup. Then, during the first half of a one-hour session, the BRD drove the team’s car for 10 laps and gave the team feedback on the setup with the quickest lap time recorded. During the second half, the team driver drove the car with the identical setup of 10 laps with the quickest lap time recorded. The team could ask any questions they had if any time remained. If the team set a lap time quicker than the BRD, they were awarded points. This lap time comparison also weeded out anyone trying to “sandbag” the first set of laps or trying to provide the BRD with a different setup than the team’s (yep, caught one team red-handed).
Comparing the initial vs the final setup: After a week or so of working on improving the iR-04’s setup and driving practice laps, the teams drove in the second one-hour session with the BRD coaching. After 10 laps, the quickest lap time was recorded. If the team beat their initial recordedlap time, they were eligible to score points. A sliding-scale comparison of the lap time differences among teams had a max of 75 points and a min of 0 points awarded.

For 2023, the final standings were (trophies awarded for 1st – 3rd places):

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)
Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE)
Princeton University
University of Wyoming
University of Vermont (UVM)
University of Victoria (UVic)
Lawrence Tech University (LTU)
University of Toronto

Lessons Learned by the Students:

The students had the opportunity to learn the track from the virtual course provides invaluable experience and advantages for the on-track Endurance Event during the competition
The students learned about car setup, the factors that were important and the ones that weren’t
Racers can make up the most time by concentrating on the set-up for the slowest parts of the track.
Gained extensive knowledge of different driving styles within the virtual car, which allowed for better preparedness in their competition driving
The performance of some drivers was less dependent on car set-up than others.
The students were reminded to ask their BRD: what’s the one change that you think will make the most difference?
Have a blast, don’t worry about damaging the virtual car.
Don’t be afraid to take the occasional off-track excursion, just mind the trees.

Lessons Learned by the BRDs:

The experience helped the expert drivers better appreciate race engineers.
Many had never been asked to give detailed feedback after a few laps in the real world. Helped them become more aware and to give better feedback. Providing feedback and coaching to student drivers allowed them opportunities to improve upon their own skills
The BRDs found it so rewarding to see teams make progress – not only on the car setup but also on how they were able to navigate the track.
Don’t be afraid to laugh with the team when something goes wrong but don’t laugh at the team no matter what, they’re learning just like you did.