It is May 2004, 3am, and I am fighting the tiredness with tea and energy drinks to get my final year engineering project completed for the end of the week. My housemates are out. Not partying, but also pulling some all-nighters down in the workshop, frantically finishing off the Oxford Brookes Formula Student race car, ready to be taken to Silverstone to compete against other universities from all over the world.
Fast forward eleven years and I find myself interviewing Ahmed al-Guindy, who is doing exactly the same here at Cairo University. Ahmed is the team’s Managerial Director and one of 19 students who are studying mechanical, electrical, and aerospace engineering. They are split into six sub-groups with dedicated responsibility for different parts of the car such as chassis, brakes, and suspension. Unlike my peers in Oxford, who can work right down to the wire then put the car on a trailer the night before, the Cairo University car will take weeks to be shipped over to Germany for the competition at the Hockenheim Formula One circuit, a point that was not lost on the judges as the team won an award in recognition of their struggles and determination.
I have carefully used the word compete and not race. Ahmed keeps reminding me that “it’s not about racing, it’s about learning”, which is very much the truth. The team is judged on lots of things, many of which are done with the car stationary. They are being judged as a complete race team, so even how they attract sponsorship and manage their budget is scrutinised. The design and engineering of the car are inspected, and once the car is fired up the acceleration, handling, efficiency, and reliability are all measured. Old clichés such as; ‘there’s no “I” in “team”’ and ‘it’ll look good on your CV’ really do play out here. It has been known for engineering talent scouts to hire an entire team off the bat of their performance in Formula Student.
The team have many more challenges facing them than teams in the west. The ordering of certain parts has to be done weeks ahead of when they are required, rather than everything being available with next day delivery. Also, the quality of materials can be difficult to ensure, and when you are machining fractions of millimetres off an aluminium bracket to reduce weight as much as possible, the purity of the metal is of great importance. The month of Ramadan can slow down the pace of life, and that extends to students working in a sweaty workshop with a deadline that does not move.
I cynically ask if the aims of the students would be to move abroad and try and get a job in Europe? Ahmed’s infectious passion for engineering in Egypt and his entrepreneurial spirit quickly put that one to bed. He tells me of the team members’ grand plans to innovate and start businesses here in Egypt. Ahmed also has a passion for renewable energy and gets sidetracked, telling me about the Shell Eco Mileage competition that the university also enters. Ahmed constantly brings it back to the learning experience. He knows they will be some way behind Munich University, Stuttgart University, and indeed my old haunt, Oxford Brookes University at the competition. But then Formula Student only started in Egypt in 2012 – decades after America and Europe. Ahmed sees this as a long term project that will take time to develop, though already Cairo University is top of all Middle East teams, including six in Egypt. He concludes by telling me that students like these will soon be starting the real revolution in Egypt. One of industry, enterprise, and economic success.
Benjamin James has a background in automotive engineering, a keen interest in two- and four-wheel motoring, and an unrequited passion for overlanding.
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