Racing Pedigree

4 min read

After being at the front of the grid for over two decades, Prodrive is facing a fresh challenge. Justin Cunningham finds out how the motorsport legends are taking on and winning new markets

There are few industries that the UK can genuinely hold claim to being a world leader. But, when it comes to motorsport, few will argue against its pedigree. Prodrive has become synonymous with the world of motor racing, and during its 25 year reign it has developed race winning cars for the likes of the British Touring Car Championship, Le Mans and the World Rally Championship. Their heritage centre is home to a number of historic racing cars produced over the years including a 1986 MG Metro – re-engineered beyond recognition for the powerful Group B category – as well as Colin McRae's championship winning Subaru Impreza, the elegant Ferrari 550 GTS and the more recent Aston Martin DBR9. Tony Butcher joined Prodrive in 1998 and has been extensively involved with many of the more recent championship winning, and now legendary, vehicles "This is where Prodrive really started to gather momentum," he says. "When Prodrive moved to Banbury, what is now the heritage centre was actually our workshop where we race prepped the Rothman's Porsche 911 and the MR Metro 6R4." The company has grown significantly since then and the unit that was the workshop is now home to a plethora of trophies and cars from years of hard work and success. Its workshops at Banbury have had to sprawl into almost every adjacent unit and building over the years to facilitate its fast moving expansion. But, even that has not been enough as the company has also set up a specific facility for composite production in Milton Keynes and has a test track 20 miles away in Warwickshire. After Subaru pulled out of the World Rally Championship at the end of the 2008 season, the company has seen a shift in its business portfolio. And, as managing director of Prodrive Automotive Technology, Butcher is tasked with finding opportunities for the company's technology to be used in new applications and industries. "Going back about five years or more, much of our business was motorsport based with us exploring a few opportunities elsewhere," he says. "But that has evolved, the balance has shifted. Now much of our business comes from outside motorsport from the diversification of the processes and technologies that we have developed being applied elsewhere. "A good example is the paddle shift gearbox. We first started developing an automated manual system for rallying, partly to provide a faster change but also to help protect the gearbox. The gearchange is activated by pulling on the paddle and that, in turn, sends an electronic signal to a hydraulic system which engages the selected ratio in a fraction of a second." Butcher and his team found new applications for the concept and are now introducing it on vehicles as diverse as motor scooters and buses. "Buses typically use big automatic gearboxes which are heavy and can be inefficient," he says. "In developing markets, they tend to use manual gearboxes but these can use up a lot of fuel unnecessarily as un-skilled or distracted drivers select sub-optimum gears and over rev the engine. If you incorporate an automated manual gear shifter but give it automatic gear selection, every gearchange is made at the optimum point, fuel consumption is greatly reduced and wear is greatly reduced because every change is perfect." Another innovation that stems from the racing world is the development of an electronic stability control system (ESC) that Prodrive calls Active Torque Dynamics (ATD). Unlike conventional ESC systems which apply the brake on individual wheels to stabilise a vehicle, it applies positive torque to appropriate wheels, helping to avoid a vehicle skidding or loss of control. "These systems have been used on more than a dozen road vehicles and, interestingly, we have applied the same technology to a large quarry truck," he says. "These trucks can transfer huge shock loads through the wheels and into the transmission. These are normally operated manually by a driver, which requires a lot of skill and concentration. So we applied ATD to it and the vehicle came down a large bumpy hill handling excellently, and was able to stop and turn how the driver wanted. The improvement in up-hill performance was equally dramatic." Butcher explains that motor racing is about solving problems and coming up with better solutions. The in house design team face a continuous need to innovate and improve a cars performance. And that expertise is shedding light on other areas. "We did some work with an America's Cup racing yacht," he says. "We took a look at the winches and found that they were pretty heavy and cumbersome and had been over designed and engineered. By introducing lightweight sprockets driving a toothed belt mechanism in a carbon fibre housing, it reduced the weight and improved the reliability significantly." Prodrive's expertise in the use and manufacture of composites is also proving very useful to other markets. "We have found uses in so many varied applications," he says. "We have made a shale shaker for the oil and gas sector. This removes debris from crude oil as it is removed from the ground. They have traditionally been made from steels, but the obvious problems of corrosion and weight have meant that we have been able to develop an alternative that solves some pressing problems." With its extensive use and knowledge of the material, Prodrive has recently identified a need to develop the material so it has a good surface finish straight out of a mould. "Lacquer is very heavy and very weak," he says. "We use as little as possible on a racing car, but on a road car it is used extensively because it looks nice. This process eliminates the need to use any of it at all." Motorsport has always been a platform to test emerging automotive technologies and Butcher expects this trend to continue. "We will begin to see things like electric cars racing, and alternative energy motorsport events. These cars are being developed for the track, so it's an exciting time for the industry." Cornering new markets Tony Butcher, managing director of Prodrive Automotive Technology, got in to the industry as a student apprentice, gaining an MSc in engineering business management before starting his career at Rover. He progressed through the ranks, running major operations at Unipart and Benetton F1. His role within Prodrive is away from the track and tyre smoke as he looks to develop opportunities for the company's proprietary technology and processes to be used in new applications and industries. "In motorsport, the ultimate aim for a car manufacturer is to win races and ultimately increase the value of the brand," he says. "But all that engineering knowledge, expertise and technology that we develop along the way can be used elsewhere."