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Formula Gravity Project History

In 2000 my nine year old son Jonathan wanted to build something in the garage, so I asked him what he would like. He said that he would like a soapbox cart. I thought that this would take about one afternoon. That was the start of a quest that is still not finished.

The end result of this 'afternoons' work was two months of hard work and a racer that looked a bit like an old Bentley. Jonathan loved it and used it around the village for the next year. Then in May of 2001 I read in the Daily Telegraph that Gravity Racers, a hi-tech soapbox, raced at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, an event sponsored by dunhill. This seemed a good place to try out our handiwork. This was where the passion for gravity started.

I phoned up Lloyd McNeil the organiser at the festival and asked if we could play. This was met with a kind refusal. Persevering, Lloyd agreed to let me visit on one of the scrutineering days that take place before the festival. Not to miss a chance I took the racer as well. We arrived driving a series 111 Land Rover towing the racer up the hill as others were coming down. Someone did then explain to me what 'track live' meant. Having the scrutineers' full attention we had arrived, but not in the quietest way. Everyone was very kind, but our entry was refused as we were not a major motor manufacturer, and our racer was certainly not up to the stringent Goodwood specifications. Each of these fantastic racers was built to racing and safety specifications laid down by the Festival of Speed. Later, after seeing some of the crashes I began to respect the rules.

Seeing the other fantastic machines I then decide that this was for me. I then returned to work at Samuel Ward Upper School and Technology College in Haverhill, spoke to the pupils and lots of the companies in town. We decided to use the project to train automotive designers, engineers and fabricators.

Encouraged by the help offered from Taylors Foundry Motor Sports, our local race team, we looked for a design. An aircraft design company, Anvil in Surrey offered to help. Using the project to train their workforce I was presented with a design that has stood the test of time and track. Patersons Steel Services in Haverhill offered to build the spaceframe. We were on our way.

At this time I thought that we should again check that all would be well with the Goodwood Festival of Speed organisers. Again our entry was refused. We did need to be from a large organisation. I picked up my phone and called Vauxhall Motors in Luton. Eventually I got through to Stuart Harris, the Manager of their Motor sport Team. A meeting was arranged the following week. I quickly got in touch with Helen Scott-Davis the manager of our local Business Partnership scheme with whom I had already worked on other projects. We both arrived at Vauxhall and left as part of their Goodwood entry. We were on our way.

Pupils and companies worked to produce the Vauxhall Phoenix our first entry at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2002. As the only school entry ever to be accepted we did well, passing two tough scrutineering days and coming 19th out of 27. Beating B&W Loudspeaker, Lola Cars, Cummins engines, Ricardo, VSCC, amongst others even with penalties for a few scrutineering problems. We even got a magnum of champagne presented by Sir Stirling Moss. Engineering for our team was really becoming fun. We were lucky to have a fantastic driver, Formula 3 instructor Dillon Battistini.

I remember saying to Dillon just before our race 'Well you have fifty two thousand people watching you. You are live on national TV and the world's media are reporting on your performance in the press, but don't feel that I am pressurising you to do well'.

The next year we rebuilt the racer from the Phoenix. In the light of our Goodwood experience we replaced the large wheels with smaller 20 inch. Michelin presented us with some state of the art kevlar tyres. We changed the steering system and the suspension. The Nemesis was born.

By this time in 2003 we were starting to be noticed by the press. Our school team appeared on TV on the' About Anglia' program, and pupils were interviewed on the radio. Local newspapers started to write about us. The pupils were enjoying the adrenaline that comes from competition and success in engineering projects. We were not only engineering but running the project as well.

The Goodwood Festival of Speed 2003 saw a better sleeker team performance from us. Scrutineering was less of an ordeal. We had more sponsors. Cash as ever was in short supply but we had help in construction. Our racer went into Nimbus ltd. Our local car repair experts, together with a student who wanted to find out about a career in the trade. The finished product was fantastic. Logos were created and applied by Sasex International, and our logo embossed race uniforms supplied by G.A. Safety.

Dillon now a veteran of Goodwood agreed to drive again for us. We got noticed on the last day of Goodwood by tipping the Revelation Racing car with a friendly vicar on board into the crowd at about fifty mph. No one was hurt but it made great TV. We had about three minutes of national ITV time. The hundred or so school pupils with us from East Bergholt High School loved the spectacle. Girls now began to see that engineering could be for them as well. We again came about a third of the way up the ratings against the big boys, beating Honda, Bugatti, and Goodwood themselves. Not bad for Year 9 and 10! It was great to mix with the likes of Moss, Coulthard, Bell, Button, Surtees and Jack Brabham during the prize giving. Lord March gave great importance to the event. It was nice to see that the other major motor manufactures were using the event as we were, to train up their next generation of designers and engineers. Some of their creations must have cost in the region of £250,000.

Our entry as the Vauxhall VX Gravity Racing Team in 2004 saw a complete rebuild. TBI Shaddowgate bent our steel and Graham Parish Ltd. fabricated the new spaceframe. Even class 4b can not get the welds just right! The new Vauxhall Nimbus was built. We were lucky enough to get a well known parachute company to build us a drag shute to slow us down at the end of the race. This was a great new spectacle that exerted about 0.5 g on the driver. By now we were reaching speeds of about sixty mph. and we felt that this brought another dimension to our project.

It was at about this time that I was still worried about the steering. As happens I awoke in the middle of the night with the answer. I crept to the workshop and set to work. By six in the morning I has the system cracked so I woke up my son Jonathan and told him to help on a test run. As there was no traffic and I live in a quiet Suffolk village I decided to use our local hill. Donning racing gear I climbed in and after a push from Jonathan set off. About five seconds later I was waved down by motorway traffic cops. No engine! I was safe from prosecution, but was that the way forward? I admitted to speeding at 80 mph. I explained that I would plead guilty, pay the fine and praise the action of the police to the court. I just needed that ticket. The one time that you want a speeding ticket you can't get one. These two just wanted free tickets to Goodwood! No trade was offered.

As luck would have it my driver Dillon could not drive that year at Goodwood. This was a last minute decision. So I contacted the Daily Telegraph Motoring Section and spoke to Peter Hall the editor. I explained that I needed a driver for the event. The result was a member of his staff Jasmina Jambresic. Fifty kilograms and photogenic. She was ideal.

We again did well in the races but the main attraction was the drag shute. This attracted lots of attention and a standing ovation from the grandstand. This again gave us three minutes of national ITV time. The Daily Telegraph did us well with two full page write ups; for two weeks. Jasmina drove as well as any formula 1 driver. 2004 had been the best so far. Our racer proved more stable at high speeds than most others. This sadly was the last year that Goodwood put on the dunhill Soapbox Challenge. They felt that the race had outgrown the Festival and they needed the hill for other events. The race was a victim of its success. Our speeds of sixty mph plus were at the limit of the track. Accidents were happening. We were lucky that nothing too serious happened; perhaps it was time to stop, but what a shame, we were still happy to go on racing there. The project continued, we had only lost a venue.

By this time the East of England Development Agency had backed the project for a year and provided much needed funds for the twenty three schools that were involved. We had our own event for schools at a slower track at Stoke High School in Ipswich. This was a great event and we had over a hundred school pupils attend. Vauxhall presented a cup to the best team. Needing a national event we went to Mansel Lacey in Herefordshire for their derby.

I arrived expecting to be greeted by Dillon and Jasmina who were to drive at the event. But Dillon had been caught by a surprise family party and Jasmina was in hospital unexpectedly ill. For the first time ever I had to drive. After an exciting race I won my first event ever. I got a cup and £60. Now the trick is to keep it in the future. There is still work to be done.

By now I was talking to the famous Brooklands Museum who had contacted me with interest after an article about us in the Daily Telegraph. What about having a race there? I agreed to help and we had the first race since 1939 on the famous curve of Brooklands in August 2005.

Our VX Racer is the first ever Gravity Racer on the track. Although AT Kearney (Lola cars) deservedly won, My schoolboy driver James Oakley was awarded £100 by Brooklands as the most promising driver. This event was attended by lots of the ex Goodwood teams keen to get the dust off their machines. We are planning other gravity race events there annually. Schools, colleges and university teams especially welcome. Hopefully we will be able to combine these with courses at Brooklands and help the next generation of designers and engineers.

The VX Nimbus was on exhibition in the entrance hall of Brooklands Museum for the latter part of 2005. I was asked by Brooklands to exhibit my racer at their Dunsfold Wings and Wheels event.

On arriving I discovered that I was sharing the stand with a Merlin engine. Ironically the engine belonged to John Derry the DeHavilland test pilot, and my boyhood hero, who I had seen killed above me in his DH110 at the 1952 Farnborough air show. Allan Winn the Director of Brooklands is backing the Gravity Racing project and would like the Museum to be the geographical centre of the project, as well as becoming involved it the project by involving and advising southern schools. As with any project we must evolve, so I asked Loughborough University's Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering to get a team of undergraduates to design a new racer. Dr. Martin Passmore, the course director, agreed to set a team of six students under the leadership of Anibal Villatoro to come up with the best ever design. We were still using the Goodwood specifications for the design.

Six months later and we have a great design, wind tunnel tested as well, with a drag coefficient of 0.33. This helped the students to get their degrees by giving them a worthy topic. Two of them went on to the MSc course, and I have a new racer being built at Suffolk College Ipswich by students on the automotive course. West Suffolk College is now hoping to become involved. Vauxhall, together with Hogg Robinson have kindly financed the build of the new Vauxhall VX Firefly. Prolong who have the most advanced lubricants in the world have now offered to help sponsor our endeavours. Vital to lessen our friction. All told we now have some forty five companies helping us, and some thirty schools in various stages of development.

In 2014 we gave the sales rights to Technology Supplies in Shrewsbury, who are well known educational suppliers.

Schools throughout the UK have built their own Gravity racers and have successfully raced them. I hope that the lasting benefits of the project are in the hearts and minds of a new generation of designers and engineers. As with any project of this type most of our time is devoted to raising funds. Think what we could do if we only devoted all of our time to engineering and education for the future.

David Ackroyd