‘I was spending every spare hour running a just-in-time parts operation for the smallest race team in the motorsport world
’m often asked: What’s the most surreal thing you’ve done with Aston Martin? Standing at the top of the Alexandra Palace course, looking down at 22,000 cheering fans and preparing to launch our mini V8 Vantage GTE, I knew this was it. After months of planning and a down-to-the-wire build, Aston Martin’s first ever Red Bull soapbox run was actually happening.
Working in the company’s PR team, I tend to find myself dreaming of the next big thing we can do and, after watching repeats of the worldfamous Red Bull Soapbox event over Christmas, it struck me how cool it would be to see a miniature version of our Le Mans racer take on the course at ‘Ally Pally’. With my mind made up, the next challenge was to convince the bosses back at Gaydon.
First day back, I happened to pick up a call from Le Mans winner Darren Turner. Before we could begin asking about each other’s holidays, it was clear we had both had the same thought. ‘Have you seen the Red Bull Soapbox TV ads? We’ve got to enter that race,’ he enthused, before adding: ‘I’m not crazy enough to drive it. I’ve seen people lose their teeth racing those things and I like my teeth, but we’ve got to enter!’
I put down the phone, hatched a plan with my manager and went for a coffee, dreaming big. Returning minutes later, I found manager Kev giving me the thumbs-up. ‘The boss wants it to happen!’ he beamed. Unbeknown to us, Andy Palmer’s Christmas TV viewing had also included the Dave channel and, while there’s no secret of his love for F1 and the World Endurance Championship, his enthusiasm for soapboxes was a welcome surprise. We were on.
Despite AML’S close relationship with Red Bull Racing, our entry still had to make the cut on merit. In keeping with the spirit of the event, we reached out to other parts of the business to get a team together to design and build what would end up being the mini V8 Vantage GTE.
Thankfully, if there’s one thing that Aston Martin isn’t short of, it’s enthusiasm. I quickly found the right person to design our racer. Enter Alex Summers, a prototype engineer who like myself had joined the company through the graduate scheme. Our paths had never actually crossed before, but Matt Becker, chief of prototype operations, recommended him for the task. While Alex’s day job is working on the next range of sports cars, the chance to work on the soapbox was too much of a draw for him to turn down. Happily for us as it would turn out, he’s a dab hand behind the wheel, too…
It took several attempts to get the chassis and body to a point where everyone was happy. Despite the appearance of some of the creations you see in the television coverage, Red Bull is fairly prescriptive with the specifications and dimensions, and our worst nightmare from the start was to see a wheel or piece of the chassis snap while taking on the course.
That concern ballooned when Alex calculated that, with the driver on board, each wheel would experience a load of up to 150kg on the hardest landings. The reality was that our little racer spent the first two months of its life on a computer screen before submission to Red Bull HQ for acceptance into the shortlist of runners for the event. While that may seem like overkill for a soapbox, when you’re carrying the famous Aston wings there is still an expectation and a desire on the part of our engineers to create the best ‘car’ they can.
With the design approved, we knew we needed some of the best in the business to pull the soapbox together, and that saw us knocking on the door of Aston Martin Works at Newport Pagnell. With a month left ahead of the event, Charlie Briggs and apprentice Tom Gordon stepped up to the plate. Though both were engaged on the DB4 GT Continuation build, they were more than willing to get I
involved. Charlie’s been with the business for over 30 years and his experience would prove invaluable. So, with a month left to go, it was full steam ahead. Though, in hindsight, things were looking much too easy…
With blueprints and CAD drawings complete and sent to Charlie and Tom to commence the build, major components started to arrive – the mountain bike suspension units, an AMR Vantage GT4 race wheel donated by our special projects team, and the steel that would form the spaceframe chassis.
After consulting the design department, we decided to create a one-piece fibreglass body formed over milled foam moulds using our CAD data. With the delivery date set exactly one week before the race, we knew it would be touch and go. It was after a filming session with Dave for our team’s TV intro segment that the enormity of what we had left to do began to dawn. I found myself spending every spare hour running a just-in-time parts operation for the smallest race team in the motorsport world!
It was also my responsibility to round up – or create – all of the props we’d need for our 20-second performance before we launched the car down the course. I’d envisaged a pit stop, though not one our factory racing team would necessarily approve of! Confetti cannons for
wheel guns and super-soaker ‘ champagne bottles’ would feature heavily. We were also indebted to our colleagues at Aston Martin Racing, who, despite the Six Hours of Nürburgring being just a week later, even leant some of the genuine gear from the WEC team.
While Alex’s drawings provided a great basis for Charlie and Tom to follow, small jobs such as setting the rear toe links soon sapped valuable time from the build. With just one half of the suspension fitted on the Thursday before Saturday’s race, things were looking grim.
The body was eventually ready late on the Thursday night, then it was all hands to the pumps. Arriving at 3am on the Friday morning after a week working abroad, I found myself in the workshop, stickering up the freshly painted body. With just one hour left before the soapbox was due to be collected for the main event, we finally applied the signature Aston Martin wings to both the bonnet and rear deck. Our rolling chassis was finally… rolling. With apprentice Tom in the driver’s seat, we undertook a ten-minute testing programme at Chicheley Hill, near Newport Pagnell. With a top speed of 35mph, high fives all round and the soapbox loaded up, we were ready.
AND THAT BRINGS US BACK to that moment at the top of the hill, Alex in the driver’s seat and surrounded by everyone who’d brought this whole thing to life. Le Mans winners Darren Turner and Jonny Adam had joined us for the day and were busy working the crowd, brandishing a cardboard Le Mans trophy and super-soakers. When I looked to my left there was a dancing T-rex ready to take on the course. To my right was a London bus containing the four judges, including BTCC ace Andrew Jordan, who would be scoring our performance. It really was the most surreal but genuinely amazing moment to be involved in.
With the launch performance over in a flash, we were just pleased and relieved to hear a loud cheer from the crowd and see four ‘tens’ from the judges. We pushed Alex off the starting blocks and sent him on his way.
You can read Alex’s full thoughts on the right. ‘Once I’d seen that we’d received a good score from the judges for our performance, my nerves at the thought of driving in front of over 20,000 people completely disappeared and I was able to really enjoy the atmosphere,’ he said after the run. ‘I was surprised by how hard the drops were and the swimming pool was particularly tough on me and our little soapbox! I could tell the front of the chassis was hitting the tarmac, losing us time and speed on every landing, but it looked and felt pretty spectacular from the cockpit, which is what it’s all about.’
And, for us, that’s all that mattered. We’d created something that brought smiles to 20,000 faces and built a soapbox that completed the course in style. All that remains is for me to thank everyone who provided the support and expertise to make it happen.
I think we all thought a company like Aston Martin would never actually do this, but it did, and we loved every minute of it.
‘We were losing time and speed on every landing, but it looked and felt pretty spectacular from the cockpit!’
Above and opposite Mini Vantage GTE hit 35mph in testing, powered only by gravity. Build was carried out at Aston Martin Works in Newport Pagnell. The annual Red Bull Soapbox Race attracts crowd of 22,000 and millions more on TV. This year’s entries inclu
Left and below Despite speed-sapping scrapes with the tarmac after every jump, the Aston soapbox finished a brilliant second in the ‘24 seconds of Le Ally Pally’. Below: driver Alex Summers gets words of encouragement from AMR star Darren Turner