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Formula 1 test driver Simona de Silvestro visits UNC Charlotte research center

They stood around for an hour, noshing on vegetarian spring rolls and cocktail meatballs and talking about the latest developments in aerodynamics and sustainable energy.

It wasn’t the usual crowd waiting to meet Iron Maiden, but it also wasn’t the usual Iron Maiden.

Instead of the heavy-metal band known for thrashing about onstage, nearly 100 engineering students and professors stood in line to meet Formula 1 test driver Simona de Silvestro, nicknamed “The Iron Maiden” for her resilience on the track despite a series of bad-luck fiery crashes.

De Silvestro stopped by UNC Charlotte’s Motorsports Research Building on July 24 to show off the Sauber F1 car she’s scheduled to be racing next year: a hybrid that relies on gasoline but also on the heat energy generated from its own brakes and engine to charge its batteries.

It’s no secret to those in the automotive industry that the technology used in today’s race cars often makes its way into personal cars a few years later.

Disc brakes, suspension, grooves in tires, even rear-view mirrors once were seen only on race cars.

Next on the horizon, predicts de Silvestro, is technology that turns heat waste into reusable energy, like what’s used in the hybrid race car.

“Energy recovery, I’m pretty sure, is going to be used in normal cars pretty soon,” she said.

De Silvestro, a longtime proponent of sustainable energy, is a native of Switzerland, where 40 percent of the country’s energy comes from nuclear power. Areva Inc., one of the Sauber team’s sponsors, is the largest nuclear and renewable-energy company in the world.

Renewable energy is a hot topic in both the racing and consumer automotive industries, and one in which the engineering students and professors at UNC Charlotte are particularly interested.

Inside UNCC’s N.C. Motorsports and Automotive Research Center, engineering students and professors test theories posed by professional racing teams and automotive companies.

“We do all sorts of experiments here depending on what (race and automotive industry leaders) ask us to do,” said Mesbah Uddin, director of the NCMARC. “We look at their issues.”

Most of their research projects currently pertain to achieving better fuel economy – a topic that involves not only energy sources but a vehicle’s materials and body shape.

Uddin, an expert in aerodynamics, has worked on developing faster exteriors in both consumer and NASCAR Cup cars. A diagram inside the university’s Motorsports Research Building tracks with curved red lines the dozens of directions air flow takes when coming into contact with a moving car. Years of aerodynamic research have helped reshape not only Formula 1 cars but consumer cars, to improve fuel efficiency.

De Silvestro said she hopes someday all cars will incorporate the lessons first taught by Formula 1 race cars. It’s a long way off for now, she said.

“Hopefully, one day we’ll be totally on batteries. Full electric cars would be the way,” said de Silvestro. “But we don’t have the facilities now to store all of that energy. I think it will take a little time to get there.”

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