An Interview with Prof Seah Kar Heng,
Advisor of the NUS FSAE Race Car Project
Prof Seah Kar Heng, Advisor of the NUS FSAE Race Car Team was recently interviewed by the Office of External & Industry Relations, Faculty of Engineering, National University of Singapore as follows:
Prof Seah, since when have you been advisor to this NUS
FSAE (Formula-Society of Automotive Engineers) race car project?
Was it initiated by you?
No, it was my third year mechanical engineering student, Peter Ho Yew Chi, who first bounced the idea off me. Peter was keen to gather a few like-minded classmates to design and build a race car from scratch to compete in the annual intervarsity FSAE competition in USA. As its name implies, it is organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers and features Formula-style race cars.
Why would a student be so keen to build a race car for competition?
Peter has been madly in love with race cars and motorsports since his early teens. He has vast experience on the race track, having raced in many competitions, and even worked with professional race car engineers. When he mooted this idea to me, he was in England on a six-month student exchange programme in Loughborough University which has a renowned automotive engineering curriculum, followed by a six-month industrial attachment in an automotive company. His long term goal has always been to design and build race cars professionally.
What was your reaction when Peter first mooted this idea to you?
I thought it was crazy since Peter was not even in Singapore that year. But I was the examiner for his design project when he was in his second year and found him to be exceptionally creative with an uncanny ability to think out of the box. He was one student who stood out among his peers. Even in his first year, he caught my attention when he zoomed noisily up and down in his no-muffler Mini just outside my flat in Raffles Hall. So I agreed to supervise him in building a race car. Throughout his third year, he e mailed me his chassis drawings and engineering calculations for approval. He obviously knew a lot more than I did about race car technology. I admitted to him that I was not an expert in this area, hoping he would find another supervisor and end my embarassment. But Peter was adamant about having me supervise the project. He probably saw that we had the right chemistry, which is so essential for any enterprise to succeed. We were fortunate that our Head of Department then, Prof Chou Siaw Kiang, was also very supportive. As they say in Chinese, "The time was fixed by heaven, the earth was propitious, and the people were in agreement." (天时地利人和)
Were you confident that the project would be successful?
Frankly, I felt it was too hard for
us to handle, since we seriously lacked experience. Nevertheless, I was willing
to give it a shot and see how long we could survive. Even now, I sometimes
wonder if the project is too tough for us to handle, since we have no automotive
culture in Singapore. Unlike in USA and UK, our local kids generally do not have
the chance to help their fathers work on cars in their backyards. We don't even
have a race track in this country, and I'm not even trained in automotive
engineering or motorsports. Surprisingly, though, our FSAE teams have risen to
the occasion year after year, and we have been able to fly the Singapore flag at
the 2004 and 2005 FSAE competitions in USA with respectable results. But to be
honest, both Peter and I never expected to see NUS FSAE last beyond our first
car. I was planning to call it quits once Peter graduated. But year after year,
there is always a new bunch of die-hard students who want to build a race car.
After building each car, we invariably discover many things that we did wrong
and want to improve on the next time. That's why we are now into producing our
At present, NUS FSAE has a history of about four years. Do you think it will carry on for many years to come?
Sure, there is no shortage of
students who want to be in the FSAE team every year. We are very fortunate that
our Head of Department, Prof Lim Seh Chun, is very supportive, being a car
enthusiast himself. Now that we have more publicity, I expect the sponsorship to
gather momentum. Besides, I have very helpful academic and non-academic
colleagues who provide technical assistance and workshop training for the FSAE
team, as well as car-crazy friends who enthusiastically provide advice and
facilities. I am immensely grateful to them for their contributions. There is a
Chinese proverb that says, "So long as there remain green mountains, there is no
fear of any lack of firewood." (留得青山在, 不怕没柴烧)
Do you foresee yourself continuing to be project advisor for many years more?
Yes, so long as I have the health
and energy. This is the most physically and mentally exhausting project I have
ever handled. I have no complaints since I've always been fascinated by how a
car works and have always loved meddling with cars. I see FSAE as an extension
of my classroom teaching. Through this project, my students learn how to apply
classroom lessons in real life situations. The students themselves are extremely
motivated and learn very fast, making my effort worthwhile. As my name Kar Heng
(教兴) implies in Chinese, I enjoy teaching my students. A car can be used to
teach every branch of mechanical engineering. I see this project as a
pre-retirement culmination of all my previous engineering and teaching
experience, just as my favourite composer JS Bach summarized all his musical
skills in his final composition "The Art of Fugue". I also feel very privileged
to be an employee of the only car factory in Singapore.
So I presume you will be going year after year to USA with the team for the annual FSAE competitions?
Of course. It is very important for
me to go and observe what happens because our team members change over the years
whereas I will still be around to advise the future teams. Albert Einstein
traveled all the way to Brazil and Africa to observe the eclipse of the sun in
order to verify his theory that light rays bend when they come near an object of
significant mass. In the same way, I need to travel to USA to observe how our
race car performs in the competition, in order to get feedback on whether my
concepts about the car are correct. After all, I rely on these concepts to
advise my students on how to design the car.
As project advisor, how much do you dictate in terms of the car design and manufacture?
I am an advisor, not a dictator. By
the time the team members reach their final year, they know a lot more than I do
in their respective areas. It will be counter-productive for me to dictate
anything. So I allow them complete freedom to design and build the car any way
they like. I just try my best to equip them with essential knowledge in
mechanical engineering and race car engineering. Nevertheless, I do step in when
I feel that their design cannot be fabricated and tested within the limited time
frame, if it is too risky, or if I detect errors in their design calculations.
These boys are very ambitious and innovative. I try not to stifle their
creativity, although I am constantly on the lookout for potential hazards. In
fact, after building just one car in their third year, they invariably become
proficient enough to advise their juniors, making my job easier.
Where did your knowledge in automotive engineering come from?
I was largely self-taught, reading
and learning about cars out of my own interest. For a start, I have always loved
physics and mechanical engineering, which are the backbone of automotive
engineering. When I was a kid, my father used to buy Meccano sets for me to fix,
knowing that the only things that could hold my attention for hours were nuts,
bolts, springs, gears and music. Having worked as a car mechanic before, he used
to involve his sons in maintaining the family car. So when I started owning a
car, I never sent it to a mechanic, preferring to fix everything myself for the
sheer joy of seeing the results of my own labours. I also felt more secure and
confident when I knew what was going on in my car. My relatives and church
friends trusted me to repair their cars, and I sometimes got a friend or one of
my mechanical engineering students to assist me. Like my father, I enjoy
do-it-yourself jobs, be it tuning my own piano, cooking my own meals, or
repairing household appliances. I suppose it is this same sense of fulfillment
that motivates my students working on the car that they will eventually be
Your FSAE team has sometimes been referred to as our local Formula One team. Are you a fan of F1?
Certainly. But while I admire the
skill and strategy of the racers, I am actually more interested in the
technology that goes into the F1 cars. While I do read books on F1 technology, I
must admit we are nowhere near their standard. Every year, the Ferrari company
throws away hundreds of used V-10 engines and spends a few hundred million US
dollars in the course of their research for F1 racing. We make do with just a
cheap second-hand motorcycle engine bought from eBay. Moreover, each F1 racing
team has a whole army of experienced professionals and researchers developing
their cars. In contrast, our team consists of just a bunch of inexperienced
students, while I am only four years into this business with no local car
industry to consult. Still, it is very flattering to be likened to Formula One.
Are there always many students clamouring to be on the FSAE team?
Every year, many second year
engineering students express interest. This year there were about 70 such
applicants. Obviously I cannot take in so
many to join the FSAE team, but those unsuccessful applicants who are in
mechanical engineering can still pursue their interest in automotive engineering
by doing projects in this area. There are a few students from other faculties
who want to join the team, but I can't take them on since they don't have the
necessary engineering background and I can't work miracles. Others contact me
while they are still doing their national service, saying they want to join the FSAE team when they come to NUS Faculty of Engineering! However, there are also
many students who are frightened away by the loss of social life, the hard and
sweaty work, plus the likelihood of falling grades. This project is extremely
demanding. We cannot afford any down time, otherwise we will never make it for
the competition. Outsiders tend to see just the glamour in the project, whereas
I have seen blood, sweat and tears, figuratively as well as literally.
To save time, why can't the team just buy ready-made parts and assemble them into a car?
Any part of the car that is not
designed and built by them will become their blind spot. I want them to build
the car with their own hands wherever possible. Even if our technicians help to
machine and weld the more intricate parts, the students must fully understand
the mechanisms so that they will be able to make last-minute repairs and
modifications. The ultimate test of the team's confidence and professionalism is
when they finally race in a car that they designed and built themselves. There
is no short cut to gaining mastery of the car. A Chinese saying goes "If you
want it fast, you will never arrive at the goal." (欲速则不达) The only major
component not made by us is the engine, since we don't have the foundry and
machine tools required. Hence every year, it is the engine that we find hardest
to tame, as we don't understand it enough. Moreover, simply assembling several
components that work perfectly does not guarantee a workable system. A race car
must be designed as a whole because it is so compact and the components are so
interconnected. Altering just one component affects the performance of the rest
of the car. Try altering one word in a poem by William Wordsworth. My role is
like that of a conductor balancing the sound of the whole orchestra for optimum
This project must be very taxing for you. Does it eat into your private life?
Sure it does. My wife keeps asking
me when will I ever be finished with the race car. I am especially busy in June
and July when we design the new car, and from December to April when we test
drive and prepare the car and the drivers for competition. As safety officer, I
need to be present for all the test drives. These usually begin after 9.30 pm,
because night classes in NUS end at 9 pm and the car parks are usually quite
empty by 9.30 pm. We sometimes test and tweak the car until sunrise. But I don't
mind sacrificing sleep over something as satisfying as this. If the car runs
smoothly, it is music to my ears. If not, I'll be thinking about the problem or
the boys will phone me, so I can't sleep anyway.
But do you really need to spend so much time with the team?
Oh yes. I need to observe closely
what each team member does on the car in order to grade his project work. But
more importantly, like a medical doctor, I can only diagnose problems when I
know the full history of the car. If I miss something that happened previously,
it becomes my blind spot and the problems arising from such blind spots are
cumulative. A race car is a very dangerous machine. I keep my fingers crossed at
every test drive and bite my fingernails at every competition because I value my
students' lives. For the 2005 Centennial car, I was worried sick about the dry
sump engine lubrication system that we were trying out for the first time. A
failure in the system could have resulted in disaster.
Did you realize the risk factor when you first agreed to be the project advisor?
In the beginning, the risk factor
was not too perceptible because the first car never got to race in USA owing to
a lack of funds. It was only with the 2004 FSAE competition that the element of
danger finally dawned on me. Speed sometimes does injure and kill, especially in
these open-cockpit open-wheeled Formula-style race cars. There have been such
incidents in professional grand prix's as well as in FSAE competitions.
Inevitably, motor racing is dangerous, although the risk can be minimized with
proper construction of the car and race track, appropriate drivers' training and
attitude, plus safety precautions. Hence, the very strict technical inspection
and rules at the annual FSAE competitions, in view of the fact that all FSAE
race cars are built and driven by university students and not professionals.
Many things can go wrong, yet there is really no room for error. Needless to
say, safety is our primary concern when we design, build and test our cars.
That's why I am on the alert all year round. This is no longer a matter of
theoretical classroom calculations but real life engineering, where what they
learn in class gets tested on real human lives.
When you first started as project advisor, did you imagine that it would demand so much of your time and attention?
I knew it would be tough, but I
never expected it to grow into such a large and complex organisation that it is
today, considering the fact that our first team consisted of just four
engineering students plus one dedicated race driver from our Business School.
There's no turning back now. For an on-going university project like this, there
is no such thing as partial commitment. We are obliged to produce one car per
year that can compete against the best universities in the world. It is far more
exacting to build a Formula race car than a saloon car. A saloon car does not
need to race against other cars round chicanes.
Does your family find it strange that you should spend so much time on a student-built car?
They're quite used to seeing me
spend hours working on our family car and my friends' cars before. But my wife
thinks I'm crazy to be in the car park in the dead of night working on the race
car with my "12 disciples". Sometimes I ask myself what on earth am I doing in
the dark with this "dirty dozen" who are young enough to be my children,
breathing in the exhaust gases amid all the noise. Perhaps my middle name "Kar"
prophetically fixes my destiny in cars.
Have you had any frustration or disappointment as project advisor?
Certainly. Unlike a saloon car, a
race car is built on the limits of technology, involving a delicate balance
between lightness, packaging and reliability. It is a precise art of
optimisation within these constraints and competition rules. Hence, things do go
wrong in the process of building the car and during test drives. The boys get
discouraged and I get frustrated when I can't answer their questions. Like them,
I do make errors in judgment and mistakes in the design calculations. This
project exposes a lot of my weaknesses. Like it or not, the team members soon
realize that their "Prof" is not as smart as they expect.
But surely, you feel a sense of pride when you see your student-built car zooming down the road.
Seeing the car zooming down the road gives me great satisfaction indeed. To me, it is a beautiful work of art, and not just science, since there are endless ways to build a race car, just as there are thousands of classical symphonies all written using the same musical structure. However, my pride is not in the car per se, since it was not designed and built by me, but by my students. Hence, the car is my students' pride whereas the students are my pride, since I facilitated their learning. In the same way as a music teacher feels a sense of satisfaction when his student gives a stunning concerto performance, I too feel a sense of pride when I see my students build an automotive masterpiece.
Do you miss the previous FSAE team members who have graduated from here?
Very much so. Whenever I look at our
old race cars, I recall their respective contributions and feel sentimental. I
am sad that after becoming so proficient in race car engineering, they have to
leave. Fortunately, Singapore is a small place, and they do drop by often to see
how the new race car is coming along and even lend a hand. In fact, our Design
Lab professional officer, Pang Cheok Fun, is a civil engineering graduate from
our 2004 FSAE team. Being very experienced in cars as well as in racing, he now
helps me greatly as my deputy project advisor. Victor Tan Chin Fei, an
electrical engineering graduate from our 2005 team, has joined our Mechanical
Engineering Department as a teaching assistant. Having seen the design and
fabrication of our previous three cars, he is now pretty knowledgeable in
mechanical engineering. I am also proud to add that Peter Ho Yew Chi (team
leader from 2001 to 2003) and Michael Leong Han Chin (team leader from 2003 to
2004) are now race car engineers in professional motorsports. They started off
as racers but after FSAE they have become professional race car engineers,
turning their dreams into reality.
Wow, their passion for race cars seems to be a life-long one.
Indeed. I can foresee many more FSAE
team members following their footsteps. We must give credit to Peter Ho for
being a real trail blazer by starting this NUS FSAE project. He once told me
that as a young boy, he cried when his Formula One idol Ayrton Senna was killed
in a tragic accident in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix (I have Peter's
permission to publish this). Now, can you find someone more precocious and
passionate about motorsports than Peter?
How has the project changed your life?
I've had to sacrifice some of my
other research activities and personal interests to accommodate it since it
demands my fullest attention. At first, I was quite unwilling to adjust my life
to accommodate a student-built car. But Peter Ho was very persistent and he
succeeded in wearing down my resistance. This true entrepreneur gave me an
ultimatum, saying, "Sir, you can't possibly do so many things at the same time.
Something has got to go." In the end, I simply could not say no. Another major
change is that for the first time in my life I possess a mobile, because I need
to be contactable round the clock, either by the FSAE team, potential sponsors
or my colleagues who urgently need information on the project.
With this project keeping you busy all year round, do you have a chance to take vacations?
I can only take very short vacations
lasting just a few days at a time, but I am the type who can survive without any
vacation all year round since I enjoy my job so much. My vocation is my
As the years go by, does your job as advisor get easier?
It gets easier in the sense that
with more experience in race car technology, I won't need to "re-invent the
wheel" so much. As the years go by, there are also more and more FSAE seniors
and alumni who can help me teach the new recruits. On the other hand, it gets
harder and harder as we approach the limits of weight reduction and packaging
with increasingly sophisticated race car design. Parts will fail if they are
under-designed. Parts that are over-designed will add unnecessary weight to the
car and make it slower. Ideally, every component has got to be just big enough
to serve its intended purpose. This is the challenge peculiar to race car
design. Although there are infinite possibilities in designing a race car, the
ideal race car is one that can cross the finish line before others and
immediately "give up the ghost". At the May 2005 FSAE competition, there was one
car whose engine overheated just less than 100 metres from the finish line of
the 22 km endurance race, and so they were disqualified. They must have
under-designed their cooling system in their quest to reduce weight or power
Have you ever thought of building your own car?
Well, I have toyed with the idea of
starting an automotive company called "Kar Motors". But it is not easy for a
locally built car to be made street legal. I don't want to end up building a
After producing all these race cars, what is your ultimate dream or goal as far as this project is concerned?
In the early years, when we were
struggling to build the first two cars, I used to ask myself why I bother to get
sucked into a project that is going to churn out graduates who will have to
leave the country in order to work in professional motorsports. Now I realize
that this project will fill a void in the local automotive scene, because we are
producing a steady stream of graduates with hands-on expertise in designing and
building cars. In fact, Singapore does have a steadily growing automotive
component industry with bright prospects for such graduates. On the personal
side, I am simply pursuing my own passion, regardless of whether Singapore has
any automotive industry or motorsports activities. Without this passion, I would
not have lasted till today anyway. It is this same passion that motivates the
boys to work feverishly on the race car all year round, and even return after
graduation to see our new cars in production.
Finally, Prof Seah, what is your advice to those who hope to be in the FSAE team when they come to NUS?
They should brush up on their
fundamentals in physics and engineering, read up on cars and racing, and if
possible gain some experience in these areas. I'm still waiting for a younger
version of Michael Schumacher to knock on my door.
Published with the kind permission of the Office of External & Industry Relations, Faculty of Engineering, National University of Singapore, 12 August 2005.