A tour of Prodrive

DSC_0054The name Prodrive is synonymous with motorsport the world over. This small contract engineering firm located at Banbury in England’s so called ‘motorsport valley’ is the knowledge, experience and brainpower behind some of the worlds most successful motorsport endeavors.

DSC_0130Say you’re a large manufacturer and you want to go racing but you don’t have the resources or expertise to run a race team. You contact Prodrive, and they assume your identity and run your campaign for you, leaving you to simply sign the cheques. The Subaru World Rally Team and Mini Rally Team in WRC, Aston Martin Racing at Le Mans, Ford Performance Racing in V8 Supercars, BAR in Formula 1 and countless others. All Prodrive.

DSC_0193Prodrive was founded in 1984 by ex World Rally Championship co-driver David Richards and Ian Parry. Housed throughout several buildings on a 14acre site in an Industrial estate, you wouldn’t really know what is inside these generic looking white warehouse buildings if you were to just drive past. The only building to carry major signage is the main admin office and reception building. Visiting Prodrive for the first time is almost a little underwhelming – I was expecting a car or at least a trophy or two in the reception, but there was nothing. I was greeted by Jackie, my guide for my two hour tour, and we were off through a nondescript, unmarked white door…

DSC_0045… which led through to the Prodrive Heritage Centre. It was literally like bursting through into Narnia. A simple door in a boring white office leads through to this. There are around 13 cars and various bits of memorabilia on display on the floor, and photos of Prodrive’s past drivers line the wall.

DSC_0055Taking pride of place in the middle was this 1996 Subaru Impreza Group A rally car, the actual car driven to victory in the 1996 Rally Catalunya by Colin McRae.

DSC_0011It’s funny to think how far rally car technology has come – this could be the cockpit of a WRX running in a state championship these days. This was the very last Group A WRX, and was replaced in 1997 by the new WRC spec cars.

DSC_0013This 2000 Subaru Impreza WRC99 is based on the 2 door STi coupe chassis, and represents the WRC spec cars. I spent many hours building a Tamiya model of this exact car as a kid, so it was quite special to see it in person.

DSC_0015This is the very car that Richard Burns drove to victory in the 2000 Safari Rally in Kenya.

DSC_0014The Safari Rally was unlike anything else in the calendar, and the cars were fitted with several Safari only modifications such as this large snorkel to help them breath during river crossings. The roads in Kenya weren’t actually closed to the public, so the bright lights in the mirrors are there to let the locals know that a rally car is approaching at high speed, and that they should move out of the way. Apparently they had problems with locals confusing rally cars for the local bus. I’d have thought the speed difference would give it away, but maybe not.

DSC_0077Proper gravel rally suspension is beefy, but these are the biggest strut tubes I’ve ever seen.

DSC_0023Subaru’s involvement with Prodrive began long before the famous blue and yellow livery was introduced. This 1990 Legacy RS was Prodive’s first Subaru rally car, and was driven to fourth place in the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland by Ari Vatanen.

DSC_0025A primitive cockpit for a top spec rally car.

DSC_0039Prodrive had been preparing rally cars for a few years before Subaru arrived, and this Rothmans Rally Team Porsche 911 RS was Prodive’s first rally car – driven to victory in the 1984 Middle East Rally Championship by Saed Al Hajri.

DSC_0009This was of course during the manic Group B days, and in 1986 Prodrive fielded an MG Metro 6R4 in the British and Irish championships as the Rothmans Rally Team.

DSC_0044In 1990 Prodrive ran this E30 BMW M3 Evo, clinching that year’s French Rally Championship. It’s good to see this rare car still in its original rally livery and spec.

DSC_0052Prodrive have a proud history in the British Touring Car Championship, first running BMW’s in the early 90’s, then the famous Volvo 850 sedans and wagons, and even Alfa Romeo 155’s. On display was Alain Menu’s 2000 championship winning Ford Mondeo.

DSC_0050Next to the Mondeo was the Ferrari 550 Maranello GTS, the 2003 Le Mans 24hrs GTS class winner. What makes this car extra interesting was that Ferrari had no hand in this effort– an independent customer came to Prodrive with an idea, and funded the design and development of 9 cars. The race cars were actually built from used road cars sourced from the open market.

DSC_0034Under GTS rules all that had to remain from the production car was the chassis, engine block and heads and a few other parts such as door handles and rear lights. Everything else was a bespoke Prodrive design solely for racing. The V12’s were tuned to produce around 700hp and sound like no other racing car.

DSC_0027That foray into sportscar racing prepared Prodrive for their efforts later on with Aston Martin – but more on that later. This DBRS9 was a class winner in 2007 at Le Mans, with Aussie David Brabham behind the wheel. And yes, that is an FG FPV GT in the background. Not only were Prodrive responsible for Ford Performance Racing in V8 Supercars, but they also owned Ford Performance Vehicles at one time and were responsible for the development of the current GT.

DSC_0037Prodrive have competed at the top tier of the sport in Formula 1, and this BAR Honda was driven by Jenson Button to third place in the 2004 World Championship. In 2001 Prodrive were brought in to run the failing BAR team, and by 2004 they had turned the team’s fortunes around which enabled the sale to Honda.

DSC_0038Only a small detail I know, but I love the graphics created for the drivers displaying all the vital information in a clean and logical way.

DSC_0086After not nearly enough time in the Heritage Centre (but I guess 2 hours still wouldn’t have been enough), it was time to move on with the tour. First up was the mechanical assembly room. I was not allowed to take photos in this part, so I’ll have to do my best with words.

As you would expect, the large room is clean and clinical. Offices and store rooms sit around the outside, and the large center section is divided into bays where groups of technicians work on set projects.

In the first bay, a technician was finishing the assembly of a $50,000 X-Trac sequential gearbox for a Mini WRC car. These change gear in 30 milliseconds, require a service every 3 events and a rebuild once a season. After the service they are put onto a special gearbox dyno where they are tested to make sure they function properly. But this is apparently nothing compared to the gearboxes they used to run in the Subaru WRC cars. “The Subaru days were definitely the golden days at Prodrive, the sky was the limit with cigarette money”, Jackie tells me. Subaru boxes had a magnesium casing and shifted in just 8 milliseconds. But they needed a full rebuild every 800 miles, at a cost approaching the value of the X-Trac. To build they also cost $133,000, each. You can see why they aren’t used anymore.

The projects are varied at Prodrive – in the next bay some engineers are working on “a hydraulic activator for the rear wing of a very expensive British supercar”. I suggest the McLaren P1, and Jackie simply smiles and continues with the tour.

The electronics engineers are making a wiring loom for an Aston Martin DBR9, all from the finest aerospace grade wires, connectors and sensors. Jackie shows me how bunches of wires are hand looped with strands of Kevlar tape to stop them from crimping. Each full loom takes an engineer anywhere from 3-5 weeks to make.

The engine assembly area is a hive of activity due to next weeks Le Mans 24hr, and Prodrive are fielding 5 cars this year. All of the race engines left last week, but the builders are busy assembling the spare engines which will be shipped to the French track. After assembly each engine is put on the engine dyno, just a few steps from the assembly area, to run it in and check for any problems. We go into the engine dyno office where they are running an Aston Martin V8 race engine at race speeds. The sound deadening is so good that you can’t hear it, the dials and the computer readout the only clue to the stresses it’s under.

DSC_0087We go into the fabrication shop, and cameras can come back out. This Mini Countryman shell is fresh from the factory in Austria and is undergoing its transformation into a WRC beast. The amount of work that is done to the chassis is simply huge, and this is where the intricate roll cage is installed.

DSC_0090There are hundreds of little modifications, such as these notches in the B pillar to fit the roll cage bars. The Mini jig is permanently installed in some of the bays to ensure the accuracy of each car.

DSC_0093Cars are stripped right down every few events and put on the jig to make sure they’re still square. The jig is also used when fixing crash damage. This Mini went into a tree backwards, but luckily the roll cage wasn’t too badly damaged so it will be fixed.

DSC_0099This Aston Martin V8 Vantage is undergoing transformation from road car to GT4 spec racer. The Aston’s are delivered to Prodrive as complete shells, and are significantly modified depending on what the rules of their class allow (GT2, GT4 etc).

DSC_0100Here’s one little example of the craftsmanship and time that goes into these cars. These grilles sit at the front of the V8 Vantage and stop stones and rocks from going into the air intake. They are hand fabricated from stainless steel, and the workmanship is stunning. The outer line looks like one continuous bent piece of metal, rather each and every curve is a separate piece, welded together. There’s over 6 hours labor in each grille, and they are seen as a consumable as they get damaged by contact and bigger rocks. At Le Mans each car will go through several of them, the backmarkers even more. Prodrive charge around $800 each for them.

DSC_0192From there we headed to the machine shop which was another no photography area. Inside sits rows and rows of machinery – multi axis mills, lathes and machines I didn’t even understand. Behind them sits banks of computers running Solidworks CAD software to run the machines, and incredibly smart but friendly engineers working at the absolute top of their field. Jackie was very sketchy on going into too much detail about some of the things they were making, but the ones she did explain were breathtaking. One machinist had just finished making 6 rattle gun fittings for the centre lock wheels of the Aston. They are made from titanium to be light during a quick pitstop, but mostly because titanium is the strongest material. They still have a limited life span, and they cost $5,000….each.

Prodrive do a lot of fabrication work for Formula 1 teams, and Jackie admitted that Prodrive is essentially Marussia’s fabrication shop as they don’t have one of their own. They also do a lot of non motorsport work, particularly designing and making high end, low run sporting equipment for the British Olympic team, such as bobsleds. They also do work for NASA, and some of Prodrive’s work is currently up on Mars in the Mars Rover.

DSC_0114You just know when you walk through a door with this sign that it’s going to be good.

DSC_0115And yep, it didn’t disappoint. This is the Aston Martin Racing assembly room for the cars racing internationally. The car in the foreground is the first ever V12 Vantage GT1 car undergoing its final assembly – up until now they’ve only run the V8 Vantage in GT2.

DSC_0121Here you can see how much work goes into these cars. The V12 engine is a lot longer than the V8, so they’ve moved it right back in the chassis, to the point where the front of the V12 sits in the same spot as the front of the V8. In the top left you can see where they’ve cut the factory aluminum extrusion and bolted their own fabricated engine cradle up. Same goes for the chassis rail in front of the front suspension. That bolted on aluminum bracket (factory extrusion is matte silver, new fabricated bit is shiny) is designed as a replaceable part to absorb impact energy, and hopefully project the chassis in a crash.

DSC_0131Assembly of this V8 Vantage is about to start, and here you can see just how little of the stock car is retained.

DSC_0138The V8 Vantage powertrain can be laid out on a jog so that it can be tested before installation.

DSC_0144DSC_0146The Aston Martin Racing workshop was a little quiet as all of the cars racing at Le Mans left last week, along with most of the personal. The technicians remaining are enjoying some peace and quiet after the rush to get the cars ready, and are preparing for the rush of rebuilding them all after the race.

DSC_0124The star of the show was undoubtedly the Aston Martin LMP1 Prototype that raced at Le Mans in 2010. An incredible car in its own right despite its lack of results against the diesels, it has just been purchased by one of its Le Mans drivers for $1.67million for use in historic events and to be put on display in his museum.

DSC_0155Next door was the preparation area for the V8 Vantage’s running in the British GT championship.

DSC_0159There were old, dust covered cars sitting in corners of the workshop. Just like most people’s garage, right?

DSC_0180The final room we visited was the Mini WRC preparation area. BMW and Mini initially backed this program but pulled out their financial support in 2011, however Prodrive still build, run and support these cars for privateer teams.

DSC_0167The big news was the transformation of the Mini to run in the Global Rallycross series against the likes of Ken Block, with Liam Doran their driver.

DSC_0174The rallycross cars have a bigger turbo restrictor and a lot more power from the 1.6 four…

DSC_0164… and have many other modifications such as the rear mounted radiator. Rallycross is benefiting largely from energy drink sponsorship, which is almost like the new cigarette sponsorship I guess.

DSC_0177It was really good to see a proper WRC preparation area…

DSC_0179… but I still couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like in this room in the Subaru days. I really got the picture that the late 90’s and early 2000’s were the glory days at Prodrive. There would have been championship winning WRC, BTCC, Le Mans and Formula 1 teams, all under the one roof.

DSC_0042But I guess this is just a reflection of the age we live in more than anything else. Prodrive have a history like no other company, and it’s fantastic that they open their doors to fans like me justwanting to catch a glimpse of the legend.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles

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2 Comments

  1. Lewis June 15, 2013 Reply

    WOW!!!.. Got to be close to the best AGR story yet!

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