From UP’s vehicle dynamics workshop to the Formula 1 track … an engineer’s dream

Posted on March 04, 2024

A young mechanical engineering graduate’s dream to work as an engineer in the Formula 1 circuit and improve these vehicles’ aerodynamics is taking him to Oxford University for his postgraduate studies. Here he hopes to acquire the necessary technical knowledge to equip him to work on the world’s top motorsport vehicles.

For Wilhelm Schoeman, who matriculated from Midstream College in 2019, the decision to study mechanical engineering at the University of Pretoria (UP) was an easy one. He was very mechanically inclined, and enjoyed Engineering Graphics and Design as a school subject. He had always had a passion for motorcars, especially those that participate competitively in the world’s ultra motorsport events.

Since many of the international Formula 1 workshops and vehicle manufacturers are located in the UK, Wilhelm had always known that he would eventually need to continue his studies overseas. He was therefore ecstatic when the opportunity presented itself in 2022 to participate in a year-long exchange programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the USA. As UP’s programmes were being presented online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he could complete his third-year mechanical engineering curriculum while participating in the exchange programme at MIT.

Reflecting on his time at MIT, Schoeman was surprised by the size of the classes, compared to those at UP. There were typically between 15 and 20 students in a class, which provided the opportunity to get to know the lecturers on a personal level. There was ample opportunity to engage in undergraduate research, and he had the freedom to choose his own subjects. In this way, he could make sure that his subjects were aligned with his third-year subjects at UP. He could therefore continue with his final year of studies upon his return. “The programmes at UP certainly compare well with those of MIT in terms of quality; MIT just provided greater opportunity for open-book examinations, which focused on application rather than facts.”

When Schoeman returned to UP for his final undergraduate year, he could apply some of the technical knowledge he had acquired at MIT when he completed his final-year project in the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering’s Vehicle Dynamics Group (VDG). This group conducts research in the field of vehicle dynamics and mobility, and organises the University’s participation in the international Baja competition in collaboration with industry.

This is an inter-university competition run annually by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Universities all over the world enter teams of students who compete against each other. The teams are each required to design, manufacture and build a small rugged single-seat off-road vehicle that has to survive the severe punishment of rough terrain, steep rocky hills and mud. The competition challenges students to not only build a vehicle that is capable of winning the competition, but also one that is feasible for mass production. It incorporates both the disciplines of racing and performance design with industrial design. It also gives students the first-hand challenge of pursuing their passion, while managing real-life demands and priorities. As in real-life situations, the future engineers are required to work together as a team to discover and resolve technical challenges in design, testing and manufacturing, as well as business matters.

His final-year project focused on research into the suspension system of the VDG’s Baja vehicle, where he experimented with the use of carbon fibre to strengthen it. He continued to work in the Department’s Vehicle Dynamics Workshop after graduating, while waiting to leave for Oxford University in September, where he had obtained a scholarship to do his master’s degree.

His decision to continue his postgraduate studies in the UK is directly linked to his desire to be involved in research and practical work on the Formula 1 circuit, as there are opportunities to join a student team that works on the top motorsport teams’ vehicles. He therefore applied to the top three universities in the UK, and was accepted into Oxford University’s Engineering Department. 

He plans to do research in the field of motorsport engineering. Although his passion is to be involved in the aerodynamical aspects of the field, he will see where there is a gap in the existing body of knowledge, and perform research that will make a difference. He is confident that he will gain sufficient practical knowledge through his studies to obtain work on the circuit of his dreams.

His message to prospective engineering students is: “Go for it!” He explains that a degree in mechanical engineering can equip one to work anywhere. He considers it to be one of the best degrees one can obtain. He is not put off by challenges, and admits that if he is presented with a problem, he will figure it out for himself. His dream is within his reach through the hard work and commitment he is prepared to put into achieving it.

- Author Janine Smit

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