‘I was spend­ing ev­ery spare hour run­ning a just-in-time parts op­er­a­tion for the small­est race team in the mo­tor­sport world

VANTAGE - - Feature | Soapbox Racer -

’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.

V

‘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

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