July 15, 2006

The ‘Spirit of Ben Gurion’ will compete come May 2007 in the Formula SAE race, held each year by the American Society of Auto Engineers.The Spirit of Ben Gurion will be competing in a race.

This isn’t as strange as it initially sounds after one realizes that the ‘Spirit of Ben Gurion’ is, in fact, a race car. Under the direction of Professor Eran Sher, a team of students at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev is working to build a car that will compete against other student creations from 120 universities around the globe.

The car will compete come May 2007 in the Formula SAE race, held each year by the American Society of Auto Engineers.

The Formula SAE grew out of a student race in the 1970s that was sponsored by Briggs and Stratton, a company best known for lawnmower engines. Competitors had to design an off-road vehicle using a standard eight-horsepower lawnmower engine. The race was later expanded to include on-road racing, and in 1981, the first competition was held in which participants could choose their own engine.

But to keep things interesting, strict limitations were placed on the engine’s size and the car’s cost. General Motors is now the main supporter of the competition, and similar competitions are held in Germany, Japan, Australia, Italy and Brazil. Major car companies scout the competition to find fresh talent and innovative designs.

Whereas Formula 1 races are more about the drivers than the cars, the SAE race concentrates on engineering, with cars and their creators competing fiercely off the road in categories such as aesthetic design, acceleration, braking, cost of manufacture and ease of maintenance. The competitors must say within a budget: each car must cost less than $25,000 to build.

It all started when Universal Motors, importers of General Motors into Israel, told BGU faculty about the SAE race. Almost two years ago, Gidi Goldwine and Yaroslav Tenzer, doctoral candidates doing work on fuel and engines, put together a team under the leadership of Sher, chairman of the department for mechanical engineering.

The team recently succeeded in building the first version of their prototype to actually hit the road – an impressive feat in a country where very little formal knowledge of auto engineering exists. Lack of access to information turned out to be their first major obstacle. The few Israeli auto engineers in the world have lived and worked overseas for many years, with no return to Israel in sight.

“When we started, we had a big problem with finding information,” Tenzer told ISRAEL21c. “So we went to Amazon and bought books based on what people recommended in online forums. We the first year mostly reading and collecting information, and during the second year we figured out the concept and built the prototype.”

Fourth-year students in the mechanical engineering program were recruited to begin building the car. Each two-person team took upon itself a specific system or part of the car. The project served as the thesis project for a bachelor’s degree. Those students graduated in 2005, so this past year a fresh team has been working on the automotive venture. And standing on the shoulders of the previous year?s work, this year’s team got to see the fruits of their labor: a working race car.

Now that the vehicle has been put together and is driving, the team has reached “the most interesting and difficult stage,” says Tenzer. “We’ve read a lot, and now we’re seeing if it really works the way it’s supposed to. If we see that we’ve made a mistake, then we’ll have to build certain things from scratch.”

There have been mistakes along the way, he adds – it is difficult to manage the twenty-person team. “Sometimes parts didn’t fit together because the people responsible for them didn’t talk to each other.”

The main systems that still need to be tuned and refined are the engine and the suspension. The engine currently works off of a carburetor, and the team wants to turn it into a fuel-injection design, which allows highly specific control of more aspects of the engine. Doing so will require hundreds of hours of work with specialized computer systems.

Except for the engine and the tires, the team manufactured all of the car?s components themselves. “That’s why we’re proud,” says Tenzer. “This is the first and only sports car to be engineered and manufactured in Israel.”

One of the team’s more daring design decisions was to make the car’s frame out of magnesium, an exceptionally light and strong metal. Although magnesium frames for cars have become more common in the European auto industry, they?re still relatively rare.

Israel doesn’t normally manufacture a significant quantity of the metal, but the country is considered a global leader in magnesium research. The area near the Dead Sea is one of the world’s primary sources of the material, and Israeli magnesium manufacturer Alubin took the Spirit team under their wing and offered their support.

Among the team’s other sponsors are the Rotal Group, a consortium of chemical manufacturers; Tomcar, a company that specializes in off-road vehicles; and Bomb Bass, a company that outfits cars with premium, custom-built stereo systems. A local shwarma and falafel stand also wanted to get into the act, and offered to feed students who work on the project next year.

Despite all of the sponsorship, the team still needs $50,000 in order to pack their creation off to the US for the May 2007 race.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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