What is Formula SAE®?

sae-logoFormula SAE® is a student design competition organized by SAE International (formerly Society of Automotive Engineers). The first competition was started back in 1979 after Mark Marshek, then at University of Houston (Texas) contacted the SAE Educational Relations Department in 1978 to discuss adding a variant event of the Mini Baja; the name Mini Indy was founded. As many organizers have found, the work in building a car can be exceeded only by that to organize the event; 1980 failed to produce an organizer. Having seen the potential of the event, Mike Best, Robert Edwards and John Tellkamp, students at the University of Texas at Austin, approached Dr. Ron Matthews with an idea – how about another Mini-Indy, but with some changes? Make the rules more open; let it be as unlimited as possible. It was desired that this new competition would take the cars to the next level of engineering. The Baja competition was great for chassis design, but many students wanted to work on engines as well. The new rules would keep engine restrictions to a bare minimum. Any four-stroke engine was allowed for the first four years with power limited by a 25.4 mm intake restriction.

With grass roots support from his students, Dr. Ron Matthews contacted the SAE Educational Relations Department and set the wheels in motion. To differentiate this new event from the Mini-Indy, a new name was sought. To reflect better the road-racing nature of the event and its increased engineering content, the Formula SAE® name was adopted. Today, the competition has expanded and includes a number of spin off events. In the United States there are two locations: California and Michigan; Michigan being the largest event and longest running.


The concept behind Formula SAE® is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a design team to develop a small Formula-style race car. The prototype race car is to be evaluated for its potential as a production item. The target marketing group for the race car is the non-professional weekend autocross racer. Each student team is responsible for delivering a functioning and competitive prototype, based on a series of rules whose purpose is both to ensure field operational reliability and promote innovative problem solving.

Formula SAE® takes students out of the classroom and puts them in the real world.

The prototype race car is judged at official competitions in a number of different events. In addition to these events, various sponsors of the competition provide awards for superior design accomplishments. For example, best use of E-85 ethanol fuel, innovative use of electronics, recyclability, crash worthiness, analytical approach to design, and overall dynamic performance are some of the awards available. At the beginning of the competition, the vehicle is checked for rule compliance during the Technical Inspection. Its braking ability, rollover stability and noise levels are checked before the vehicle is allowed to compete in the dynamic events (Skidpad, Autocross, Acceleration, and Endurance).

At its core, an FSAE® competition encompasses all aspects of a business including research, design, manufacturing, testing, developing, marketing, management, and fund raising.

FSG08 in Hockenheim

Formula Student Germany competition (2009)

Formula Student Germany 2014


Formula SAE® has relatively few performance restrictions. The team must be made up entirely of active college students (including drivers) which places obvious restrictions on available work hours, skill sets, experience, and presents unique challenges that professional race teams with a paid, skilled staff do not face. This restriction means that the rest of the regulations are generally much less restrictive than most professional series.

Students are allowed to receive advice and criticism from professional engineers or faculty, but all of the car design must be done by the students themselves. Students are also solely responsible for fundraising, though most successful teams are based on curricular programs and have university-sponsored budgets. Additionally, the points system is organized so that multiple strategies can lead to success. This leads to a great variety among cars, which is a rarity in the world of motorsports.


The engine must be a four-stroke, Otto-cycle piston engine with a displacement no greater than 610cc. An air restrictor of circular cross-section must be fitted downstream of the throttle and upstream of any compressor, no greater than 20mm for gasoline engines or 19mm for ethanol-fueled engines. The restrictor keeps power levels below 100 hp in the vast majority of FSAE cars. Most commonly, production four-cylinder 600cc sport bike motors are used due to their availability and displacement, however there are many teams that use smaller V-twin and single-cylinder engines, mainly due to their weight-saving and packaging benefits. Though it is permitted, very rarely do teams build an engine from scratch.


There is no weight restriction. The weight of the average competitive Formula SAE® car is usually less than 500 lb (230 kg) in race trim. However, the lack of weight regulation combined with the somewhat fixed power ceiling encourages teams to adopt innovative weight-saving strategies, such as the use of composite materials, elaborate and expensive machining projects, and rapid prototyping. In 2009 the fuel economy portion of the endurance event was assigned 100 of the 400 endurance points, up from 50. This rules change has marked a trend in engine downsizing in an attempt to save weight and increase fuel economy. Several top-running teams have switched from high-powered four-cylinder cars to smaller, one- or two-cylinder engines which, though they usually make much less power, allow weight savings of 75 lb (34 kg) or more, and also provide much better fuel economy. If a lightweight single-cylinder car can keep a reasonable pace in the endurance race, it can often make up the points lost in overall time to the heavier, high-powered cars by an exceptional fuel economy score.


The majority of the regulations pertain to safety. Cars must have two steel roll hoops of designated thickness and alloy, regardless of the composition of the rest of the chassis. There must be an impact attenuator in the nose, and impact testing data on this attenuator must be submitted prior to competing. Cars must also have two hydraulic brake circuits, full five-point racing harnesses, and must meet geometric templates for driver location in the cockpit for all drivers competing. Tilt-tests ensure that no fluids will spill from the car under heavy cornering, and there must be no line-of-sight between the driver and fuel, coolant, or oil lines.