Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Willams Advanced Engineering | Bringing F1 To The Roads

The car tuner underworld has a new overlord. And a highly respectable one at that. About as far away as you can get from backstreet outfits selling you ‘performance’ upgrades sits F1 team Williams, which has begun offering its wide-ranging expertise to outside clients.

If you were under any illusion that making other people’s cars go faster was somehow a grubby enterprise, then Williams’ gleaming new £8 million building constructed alongside the F1 operations in an upmarket corner of Oxfordshire dispels that. Especially when, last week, David Cameron opened it in person alongside Williams boss Sir Frank Williams.

The business didn’t start off so well. Jaguar had ordered Williams to build a running prototype of the breathtaking C-X75 supercar first revealed as a concept in 2010. The result was impressive: the fully functioning all-wheel-drive hybrid car combined a highly tuned 1.6-litre engine with a battery pack and electric motors to give a power output of 850bhp. The plan was that Williams would build the limited run of 250 cars each costing upwards of a million pounds. Williams Advanced Engineering was formed in March 2012 and began laying foundations for the hi-tech factory at the firm’s base at Grove, near Wantage.
But then Jaguar cancelled the car. Complicating it all was the fact that the man who ordered the original concept, former Jaguar boss Mike O’Driscoll, was now running Williams Advanced Engineering. “I believed that such a halo car would provide a great backdrop to launch the Jaguar F-type,” he told The Telegraph. But after he left in 2011 the supercar was shelved. “Technology prove-out doesn’t necessarily mean market potential,” O’Driscoll says stoically. “We always knew that it would be a finely balanced decision. We continue to work with Jaguar Land Rover very closely.”

It wasn’t all bad. Williams now uses the car as a rolling presentation of what it can offer. “What we proved is that we can build a car with the performance of a Bugatti Veyron and the fuel economy of a Toyota Prius. The C-X75 has been an enormously positive experience.”

What Williams offers to clients is over 30 years of aerodynamic, vehicle handling, and lightweight body construction experience. After developing its own in-house hybrid system for previous Formula 1 cars, it also knows about how to apply battery technology to make cars both faster and more frugal. In fact the only thing it doesn’t do is tune engines – Cosworth was responsible for the turbocharged and supercharged 1.6-litre unit in the C-X75, and the F1 team has a long history of buying in engines, currently from Mercedes.

But in an era where the combustion engine has become just one tool to both speed up cars and bring down their fuel use, that seems a very modern omission.

Customers need to be wealthy: we’re talking car-company wealthy. For example we were told that aerodynamic programs start at £50,000-100,000 rising into the millions for full use of the company’s two wind tunnels.

One example is Nissan’s GT-R Time Attack car. Williams was drafted in to create a version of Nissan’s cut-price supercar to take the production car lap record at German’s Nurburgring track, a source of great kudos among manufacturers. Nissan plumped for the cheaper aero option of computer modeling rather than wind tunnel time, but it worked. As well as modifying the suspension, Williams created all sorts of new aerodynamic body parts, including some very fiddly items such as ‘flicks’ behind the front wheelarches, all designed to increase grip by raising the downforce but without creating too much drag. Williams engineers went to the 13-mile track with the team, modifying parts on the fly until at last it managed it: 7 mins 08 seconds.

According to Nissan, it decided to employ Williams because F1 teams traditionally work fast. Just three months elapsed between getting the gig and breaking the lap record. Williams has now handed over the data on all these parts so Nissan can incorporate them into a ‘track pack’ version of its GT-R.
That’s about the only project Williams can talk about (“Carmakers are even more secretive than F1,” one engineer told me regretfully) but currently one big client has booked out the majority of the wind tunnel time for a new racing-car project, almost certainly a Le Mans car.

Le Mans is actually becoming a Williams specialty – the firm has supplied its hybrid know-how to serial race-winner Audi for its last three Le Mans cars, and it helped BMW take its sole victory in the 24-hour race in 1999 with the V12 LMR. It also dabbled in Touring cars, building the Laguna BTCC racers for its engine partner Renault (one sits in Williams’ racing car collection, looking a little odd among a fleet of F1 cars).

Not all Williams projects are car-based – the breakdown we were told was about 50/50. Of the automotive 50 percent, only half were performance projects. For example, aside from the GT-R, Williams is working with Nissan on some of its electrification projects. That’s a big endorsement when you figure what Nissan must already know about electric cars from its all-electric - Leaf.

Williams parlayed its early F1 work with so-called KERS hybrids that stored electric power in a spinning flywheel into a business that this year it sold to Britain’s largest automotive engineering company GKN, which is targeting makers of buses and other commercial vehicles to use the fuel-saving tech. According to O’Driscoll, it was sold because Williams didn’t have the capacity to build them on a commercial scale, but it retains the patents.

What it now wants to concentrate on is becoming a car fettler of global repute, comparable with other renowned British car engineering consultancies such as Lotus Engineering and Ricardo. Given how secretive car markers are about the outside help they get, we may never know how influential they become, especially given how Williams Advanced Engineering lumps its accounts in with Williams the F1 team.

But if you do happen to spot a small Williams logo in the next car you drive, you’ll know it’s taken the best of British engineering talent to make that car faster, more frugal or just plain better.

Guitar Gods