WE LOOK AT THINGS DIFFERENTLY
Synonymous with race and rally glory, Prodrive’s evolving into a go-to powerhouse for everything from hybrid vans to carbon bicycles
SUBARU IS PRODRIVE’S hit single, the word you’d blurt out if someone said ‘Prodrive’ in a word-association game. You’ll probably know there’s a richer tapestry than the McRae, Burns and Solberg WRC championships: that the business was founded in 1984 by David Richards (who still runs the show), that the 911 SC RS, its first ever rally car, kick-started the Rothmans-Porsche relationship, that Prodrive took Frank Sytner to BTCC glory in a BMW M3, won with the Ford Mondeo in the Super Touring days too. Today, Prodrive runs Aston Martin’s GT racing team, winning GTE Pro at Le Mans 2017.
Fewer people appreciate that motorsport constitutes only part of its modern business. Who knew that it engineered electric and hydraulic control systems for Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup catamaran, makes carbonfibre for major manufacturers and engineered hybrid commercial vehicles? Not me. But it did, and it does. There’s work in aerospace, defence, marine… it’s a portfolio perhaps most comparable to Williams Advanced Engineering’s.
‘Our DNA stems from the motorsport heritage,’ says Richards. ‘The other aspects of the business are about transferring the core strengths developed there: we do things quickly, we’re not afraid to take on challenges and we push boundaries more than conventional organisations. I see Prodrive more as a technology business today.’
It helps explain why, alongside the Aston Vantage race car and Mini WRC in reception, a Hummingbird bicycle is displayed, the world’s lightest folding bike. Making like a Dragon’s Den episode, Prodrive Ventures teamed up with the cycle’s inventor to make it viable for production. The beautiful carbon frame contributes to the 6.9kg weight (and £2.9k price), and the skeletal metal brackets for the brake levers and rear folding mechanism have the same minimalist detailing that makes an Ariel Atom so astonishing.
To dig deeper into the Prodrive of 2018, we’re visiting its headquarters in Banbury, Oxfordshire, which opened three years ago. After 25 years, the previous Banbury site had grown organically to span 12 buildings. The new facility is more logically organised: the workshops are clean and light, the ceilings high, office workers grouped neatly in an open-plan layout with break-out meeting areas.
About 500 people work here, split across five divisions, each reporting financials independently to promote competition. There’s Motorsport, Advanced Technology, Prodrive Ventures and the Bespoke Clothing and Accessory Collections division in Banbury. Only the Composite Engineering division is off-site.
We tour Advanced Technology first, founded in 1990 to transfer rally-derived know-how including automated manual transmissions, anti-lag systems and torque vectoring. Today, it accounts for a third of Prodrive revenue and employs 120 people.
Motorsport people do work here, but the backgrounds are far more diverse than expected: director of engineering James McGeachie, who shows us round, previously worked in the steel industry; managing director David Taylor has an electronics background.
‘It’s about understanding first principles of engineering, understanding the basic problem you’re trying to solve and approaching it with fresh eyes,’ says McGeachie. ‘We want the right cultural fit, so we recruit from a wide range of backgrounds, but rarely from OEM manufacturers.’ The reason is adaptability and again that fresh mindset; OEM engineers – for all their highly valuable skills – might easily tend towards more narrowly focused specialisms.
The rise of computer-aided design and 3D printing has complemented Prodrive’s approach, allowing its engineers to experiment with ideas freely and productionise them quickly. That the design, machining and build of concepts occurs on-site only accelerates the process. ‘It’s a very short design-to-manufacture loop,’ confirms Taylor. ‘Many people can do high quality, many can do it quickly, but few can do both.’
We’re shown the rear centre console for the Range Rover SV Autobiography, with its champagne chiller and deployable tray tables. Land Rover set the exterior dimensions and appearance, the two companies jointly developed the specification, and Prodrive turned that concept into 1000-unit reality. Press one button and a tray table theatrically glides out like a butler bowing. The process is managed by Prodrive’s own control system for a consistent, measured rate of fall as the mechanism unfolds. The calibration required to account for weight and gravity is incredibly complex, but so seamless it probably won’t occur to customers. Taylor reveals they’re pitching a similar concept to the aircraft industry. >>
THE POWER BEHIND THE GLORY: 5 MOMENTS THAT MADE PRODRIVE
McRae’s WRC title 1995
The F1 rollercoaster 2001
Aston Martin GT cars 2005
Sytner’s M3 BTCC 1988
The 911 SC RS 1984
>> The McLaren P1’s active rear wing solves a different problem, but its principles aren’t wildly different – two hydraulic struts raise and lower on demand from within a highly constrained space, processing constantly changing ground speeds and aerodynamic loads as it operates.
Its sci-fi engineering impressed America’s Cup competitor Ben Ainslie when he dropped by to discuss his catamaran. As Taylor tells it, Ainslie quickly appreciated the wider potential, suggesting Prodrive adapt the principles to the bottom of his boat. The solution allowed Ainslie’s catamaran to lift out of the water with performance-enhancing precision.
Future legislation favouring electric vehicles also provides a rich seam for Prodrive to exploit. ‘[London mayor] Sadiq Khan is big on low emissions, there are 7000 vans in central London, and if the mayor decides to legislate [against them] he is looking for a viable product,’ says McGeachie.
Hence Ford and Prodrive’s collaboration on a plug-in hybrid Transit with government funding. Development only started in 2016, yet 20 vehicles are already being trialled; volume production begins soon. The diesel engine is replaced with a 1.0-litre EcoBoost that operates as a range-extender, only ever charging the battery when it’s depleted, not driving the wheels. It offers a range of 310 miles and zero-emissions running. Upgrading an older Transit with the new hybrid powertrain is also possible.
The battery pack doesn’t reduce the van’s payload or ground clearance, but does add weight. ‘Mass neutrality is a very interesting area,’ says McGeachie. ‘In fact, a mass-neutral hybrid is our next project.’
Perhaps Prodrive Composites can assist. Established 12 years ago, it’s in a scruffier building on the old Tickford site in Milton Keynes; soon it’ll either expand or switch sites altogether. Chief engineer John McQuilliam (an ex-F1 man who started on carbon monocoques at Williams in 1986 and was technical director of Virgin/Marussia/Manor) and quality and engineering director Richard Gregory (ex-aerospace, ex-Ricardo) do the guided tour. In this 37,000 square foot space 160 people produce 2000-3000 parts per month, taking the process from design to manufacture. It’s the only UK composites company with the IATF 16949 rating, which isn’t catchy like a five-star award, but means the same thing.
Body panels for Aston race cars are manufactured on-site, but motorsport accounts for only 10 per cent of the division’s £1m-amonth revenue. It’s here that all the McLaren P1’s bodywork was produced bar the bonnet and spoiler (all its interior too), there’s visible carbonfibre for Lotus and the manufacture of complex parts for Overfinch too. Fingers in more unexpected pies include structures for naval applications and first-class aircraft cabins.
Gregory picks up an entire carbonfibre bumper for an Overfinch Range Rover with one hand. Its incredible lightness is a happy by-product; more important is the production viability for such a low-volume part – tooling for a regular bumper would cost tens of thousands, for a part worth perhaps £100. Prodrive’s process couldn’t cater for mass production, but it’s far more cost-effective for Overfinch making, say, five cars weekly.
There are three ovens, three spray booths, and we stand as heat washes over us from the autoclaves, the vast cylinders where carbonfibre is cured. All four autoclaves are constantly full and running; some employees even return in the dead of night to load and unload parts.
We walk past rolls of carbonfibre sheets, laid flat and marked for automated trimming, like leather hides. In the lay-up room, workers wear gloves (any dirt trapped now will be there forever) and consult manuals detailing how to lay carbonfibre into the mould. ‘We don’t want anyone freestyling,’ quips Gregory.
Painted carbonfibre parts are relatively simple because paint disguises joins required to wrap carbon around tricky geometries. Visible carbonfibre is far more challenging: the different cuts must be painstakingly aligned to avoid looking like a badly wrapped present. Every part’s production is recorded step-bystep, allowing defects to be traced to the batch and employee, rooting out defects like a huge Monty Python pointy finger.
But there are issues with carbon manufacture: it’s energydense to produce, the curing process is time-intensive, and recyclability is poor. Prodrive is investigating ways to tackle all this, including making carbonfibre from methane.
It’s also experimenting with self-curing resin, potentially eliminating the time, expense and energy consumption of autoclaves.
But it’s recyclability that’s perhaps the biggest opportunity. ‘Currently, a vehicle is the owner’s responsibility at end-of-life, but that will change, and probably faster than manufacturers expect,’ says McQuilliam. ‘Carbon- fibre lasts forever unless damaged, and it ends up being recycled in things like concrete and manhole covers, almost reusing it for the sake of it.’
One option is the flax in GT4 racing aero aids, mandated by FIA rules. But recycling techniques include de-polymerising resins, separating both the resin and carbonfibre for re-use.
But for all Prodrive’s interesting diversification, it’s the motorsport division that’s most exciting. John Gaw is managing director, overseeing 150 full-time employees. A former commercial director of Pepsi, Gaw has the racing credentials to go with his business nous: he finished third in the European Le Mans Series LMP2 category in 2004, and won the Britcar 24 Hours in 2010. He arrived in 2008, amid the turmoil following Subaru’s exit from the WRC. I ask if Prodrive’s foundations in rallying, bashing the bodywork back in shape on McRae Imprezas and battling to get out of service, is somehow deep-routed in the company psyche. ‘Definitely, everyone loves a crisis!’ says Gaw.
‘It’s fundamentally a great brand with terrific people, and that ability to respond under huge pressure is great, but I wanted to combine that with longer-term planning and stability.’
As evidence of that planning, Gaw talks me through the ‘what if’ scenarios the team drills ahead of Aston’s Le Mans races. ‘Believe it or not, we worked on a scenario for Le Mans 2017: “What if it’s two laps to go and you’re fighting for the lead with another car?” One engineer suggested turning off the air-con.’ Rules state cockpit temperature shouldn’t exceed 32°C. ‘But,’ smiles Gaw, ‘they’re allowed nine minutes over that threshold before being forced to pit. That gives you nine minutes with 5bhp more – exactly what we needed.’
Driver Jonny Adam glides into the conversation like a perfectly timed pitstop. ‘I remember being transfixed by the two fans at the back of the Corvette – I couldn’t get past. Then I turned off the air-con and suddenly I could,’ he recalls. ‘The Corvette got past again, but he was rattled, pushed harder and made a mistake. That gave us the win. It was 57°C in the car at the end!’ The customer side of the Aston business is hugely important: Prodrive expects to build 50 customer GT3 cars and 150 GT4 racers over the five-year programme; you’d pay around £500k for a British GT season, including a team to run the car, a factory driver as your partner and the budget to cover ‘a couple of shunts’.
But Prodrive doesn’t have all its eggs in one basket – it produces a Golf for Volkswagen China in the Chinese Rally Championship, and still runs the Mini WRC customer cars, long after the works effort stalled. More recently, it’s built a Renault Megane World Rallycross car for pro skier and driver Guerlain Chicherit.
Prodrive uses a template to set the perfect spec for each race car, starting with CAD and extending to the CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) it invested in three years ago. ‘We have a menu for winning: how much you can spend in each area and what you achieve – we’d spend hundreds of thousands to lower the centre of gravity by 1mm,’ says Gaw.
After analysing the Megane, the rules and the racing, Prodrive’s engineers determined that grip was the priority, ahead of power or aero. Increasing grip meant reducing unsprung weight, with one solution being to move the brakes inboard.
The lack of space with a transverse engine ruled this out, so Prodrive designed its own engine and installed it longitudinally, freeing up room. It’s that ‘first principles’ approach. Prodrive’s relationship even continues with Subaru to this day, albeit with Subaru USA funding.
‘They want us to do crazy things and the engineers love it,’ says Gaw. Think Ken Block YouTube hits (Block started his exploits in a Subaru, remember) but with the focus on speed, not skids. It’s given us Mark Higgins’ incredible record-breaking lap of the Isle of Man TT course in an Impreza WRX STI. ‘The car did 185mph – we weren’t that far off the motorbike record!’ grins Gaw. ‘I don’t think we’d have been invited back if we’d broken that.’ More recently, Higgins has blitzed another specially commissioned Impreza on the Transfagarasan Pass in Romania, its build thought to total around £1m.
With these collaborations, plus Rally Japan likely to return for 2019 and Toyota publicly asking for domestic opposition, putting the band back together would be a PR fairytale, though insiders will comment only that it’s a nice idea… More likely is an assault on the Dakar rally raid: the boom in SUV sales, Prodrive’s expertise in rallying – it’s but a small mental leap to join the dots between the Gaydon/Prodrive relationship and the upcoming Aston DBX crossover, though Prodrive insiders refuse to reveal which partners might be involved.
David Richards does expect, however, a Prodrive Dakar entry within three years. The rally raid is a particularly gruelling and unpredictable challenge. But with Prodrive’s track record, you wouldn’t bet against it.