Forging the future
One thousand two hundred students. Fifty-eight teams from around the country. Fifteen sponsors. That was the scale of the 2009 SAE Mini Baja competition, where the competing teams were tasked with designing, building and racing their own Baja buggies.
An initiative which is strongly supported by the Indian automotive industry, this one-of-a-kind event is held annually at the NATRAX facility of NATRIP (National Automotive Testing and R&D infrastructure project) at Pithampur near Indore. The event got Indian engineering students to design and build an off-road vehicle that will survive the severe punishment of rough terrain. The Baja is modelled on a globally popular student competition, mini-Baja initiated by SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers), USA, and NATRIP in association with the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI).
Though this was only the second edition in India, already the number of competing institutes has vaulted from 27 to fifty-seven. In fact, seeing the huge response, the organisers decided to include a ‘virtual Baja’ competition for the remaining teams.
For the main competition, the teams were required to submit their designs for evaluation to the organisers, who inspected the designs and advised them accordingly. Once the design was ‘passed’, the teams began the actual construction. To ensure equality, all teams were issued the same engine (Lombardini’s 275cc air-cooled single-cylinder motor) and a four-speed synchromesh transmission (supplied by Mahindra & Mahindra). The petrol-engined buggies ran on fuel supplied by Bharat Petroleum, and since all these are provided free of cost to the students, it helps to keep costs in check.
JK Tyre was the title sponsor of the event.
This is as real an engineering challenge these budding engineers will probably face in their entire career, since the challenge is to design, build and finally race a ground-up design. The organisers stipulate that the costs be maintained within Rs 2 lakh, and the teams can scout for sponsorships. This includes the cost of material and workmanship. As far as possible, all construction should be carried out in-house in the college’s own workshops.
Only if the teams satisfy the judges in all the static and dynamic criteria, are they allowed to participate in the final race. This is the big one, and while speed is important, the focus is on reliability. The drivers have to negotiate an arduous course with a number of challenges, including a water trough, whoop-de-dos and a metal trap. The event was scheduled to run for three hours, but was shortened by 30 minutes for logistical reasons. Nevertheless, this was enough to gauge the capability of the buggies.
While IIT Mumbai led the early part of the race, it stopped with a broken drive shaft on the second lap, handing the lead to AISSMS from Pune, which lost out with a lengthy refuelling stop. Thus, the team from Sant Longewal College, near Patiala, shot into the lead. It was a case of strong reliability and a strong drive from the midfield. Equally impressive was the team from Punjab Engineering College, which started even further back but drove hard throughout to finish a close second.
According to Dr Pawan Goenka, president, Mahindra & Mahindra, “This is the most exciting opportunity for an automobile designer. As an automobile engineer myself, I can imagine what an exciting challenge it is for all these students who have done such an excellent job. I am also happy to see participation by girls, including an all-girls team.”
Dr Kamal Vohra, convener, and research associate from ARAI, said: “In 2010, we want to take the Baja international. We will have teams from China and Japan to challenge you (the students).”
While the top three overall winners won cash prizes worth Rs 5 lakh, Rs 3 lakh and Rs 2 lakh respectively, there were prizes across various categories. With over Rs 31 lakh in prize money, there was indeed strong motivation for the teams, and the organisers have the right idea to encourage the teams to think innovatively and design fast and reliable buggies.
Over 60 students received on-the-spot placement offers from the sponsor companies. Given the worldwide recession and the impact on the auto industry, this number could potentially have been higher. Either way, the SAE Mini Baja seems destined to go on to bigger and better things. It does glisten with a veneer of feel-good co-operation of all parties concerned, but then in an otherwise cynical environment it does prove refreshing. May it grow.
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