Formula SAE: Where Students Innovate Racing Globally

This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

During the early 20th century, the need for a free exchange of ideas to solve common automotive technical design issues urged engineers to create a common place where they could gather: the Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE.

So what is Formula SAE Racing, and how did it evolve into the innovative student racing program that it is today?

Table of Contents


Origins of Formula SAE Racing

SAE once held a few racing events for students, including small IndyCar competitions using Briggs & Stratton 5HP engines. However, this wouldn’t last without some outside intervention.

In 1980, the University of Texas tried to enter an SAE racing competition to give students the chance to research and develop small-engine racing vehicles. However, the university was disappointed to find that SAE recently discontinued these races.

This gave the officers and professors at UT an opportunity to make their own asphalt racing competition for students with revised rules.

The main rule they were adamant about was the freedom for teams to choose any four-stroke engine available, so long as it could run with a one-inch diameter intake. Although only four teams showed up to the first event in 1981, Formula SAE was born and became recognized by SAE as an official event in the following year.

Formula SAE Teams

International teams include Formula Student Japan, Formula Student Germany, and Formula Student Austria. In 2019 (the last year with available data), 109 teams from various universities competed at Michigan International Speedway. The teams are entirely student-run, including gathering sponsors, funding, and designing and machining every part needed to assemble a complete racing car.

How Formula SAE Works

There are competitions for combustion engines, hybrids, and fully electric vehicles, each with its own set of rules. The 2021 rulebook consists of 136 pages that ensure safety and prevent higher funded teams from developing unfairly advanced vehicles. The rules regulate every aspect of the car, including regulations such as:

  • Four-wheel independent suspension
  • Open-air wheels and cockpit
  • Max engine displacement of 710 cubic centimeters

The competitions are recognized worldwide as an effective way for students interested in automotive engineering and other STEM fields to gain the education and experience needed to find careers later in life.

Funding and Sponsorships

Due to the aforementioned benefits, Formula SAE has gained the attention and endorsement of large racing and automotive brands such as Tesla, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, and Ford. Individual teams land impressive sponsors as well, including Porsche, Wilwood, and Redbull.

Achievements and Innovations

Through media attention and years of innovation, teams have been able to make astonishing cars. The Technical University of Munich’s racing team was able to create a four-wheel drive, four-motor electric car that only weighed 156 kg (343 pounds). With a power output of 35 kW, the team was able to achieve a power-to-weight ratio of 224 watts per kilogram. This is not far off from the 276 watts per kilogram achieved by a Gen2 Formula E car.

The Future of Formula SAE

Students across the globe are pushing the limits of lightweight, low-power cars and are seeing results that are comparable to major racing divisions. The 2021 race was unfortunately canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions.

However, this gave each team an extra year to redesign any components that may have been rushed from time constraints. With the 2022 race months away, the competing cars may be the best the SAE has ever seen, both in terms of technology and performance as well as the overall design.

Attributions: Title image by Milkrusk