Pro­drive’s light­weight fu­ture

Syn­ony­mous with race and rally glory, Pro­drive’s evolv­ing into a go-to pow­er­house for ev­ery­thing from hy­brid vans to car­bon bi­cy­cles

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words Ben Barry | Pho­tog­ra­phy Alex Tap­ley

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.

nd ‘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 but­ler4

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 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 would4

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.’4

For all Pro­drive’s di­versi ica­tion, it’s the 150-strong mo­tor­sport divi­sion that’s most ex­cit­ing

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.

It’s a small men­tal leap be­tween the Gay­don/Pro­drive re­la­tion­ship and the up­com­ing DBX cross­over…

Think Pro­drive and chances are you’ll think Subaru – and the con­nec­tionlives on

Pres­sure to boost e iciency means com­pos­ites ex­per­tise is be­com­ing in­creas­inglyvalu­able

Metro 6R4 (right) one of Pro­drive’s very irst projects in ral­ly­ing, to­gether with a 911 forPorsche

Pro­drive has a long and glo­ri­ous his­tory of turn­ing hum­ble As­tons into racewin­ners

A Mak­erBot 3D printer; looks like a mi­crowave but costs more and ismore use­ful

Pro­drive loves a lowcen­tre of grav­ity, hence the ul­tra-low en­gine mount­ing

Not as in-your­face as Red Bull’s tro­phy-stued re­cep­tion, but Pro­drive’s proudof its past

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