How to build an F1 car: the world's fastest Womble

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Meet the man who raided the parts bin and built his own Formula 1 racer

by Pat Malone

In the glass technology palaces of the Thames Valley, engineering geniuses are spinning their million-dollar wheels for Williams, Mercedes and their ilk to keep Formula 1 on the dizzy edge of automotive capability. Theirs is a billion-dollar business that creates the most sophisticated cars on earth on a no-expense-spared basis. What makes an electrician on a budget think: “I could do that”?

Many a wild ambition is born in the breast of the enthusiast only to founder on the unforgiving rocks of reality, but Kevin Thomas not only thought the thought, he did the deed. Today Thomas’s F1 chassis, assembled from original race car cast-offs, is having an engine and gearbox installed by professionals, and later this month it will take to the track for the first time. And when Thomas says it will do nought to 100 in three seconds you have to believe him because in the classic tradition of amateur English enthusiasts, no matter what the hurdles, he gets there in the end. 

Many motor sport fans will have a secret cache of car parts picked up from circuits or workshops or auctions stashed in their shed. A quick office survey reveals that the staff of Motor Sport magazine, boast, among other things, the front wing of a Aston Martin Le Mans car, the rear tyre of a 1987 works Porsche 962 and the nosecone of a 1971 March F1 car. Few of us dream of taking these parts and building a complete car, but that is exactly what Thomas has done.

The remarkable Thomas, a racing fan from school days, was only 12 when he first went to Brands Hatch to see the likes of Barry Sheene and Phil Read race bikes. He soon graduated to F1, attracted not by ‘superstar’ drivers but the cars. “The drivers are paid to rag the cars to death, but my real heroes are the designers and engineers who create machines capable of withstanding the extreme stresses they are put through,” he says. “These cars are works of genius that most laymen can’t understand, and they fascinated me from the start.”

He soon became part of the thriving collectors’ market for F1 parts. “The urge to own these parts is strong because while you can see and smell and hear the cars, you can’t really get close to the heart and brain of the engine, the technology. You were not allowed to touch them – and of course, you couldn’t own a Formula 1 car.

“The first thing I bought was a tyre from Stefan Johansson’s McLaren for £10. It came from an ad in the back of a magazine, with a phone number and ‘allow 21 days for delivery’, if you remember those days. For me it was a new dimension, to own this thing, to feel it, smell it, touch it, see whether it was light or heavy, all these things.

“I put it in the garage. I didn’t think beyond owning it. But I began picking up other items – a bit of a wing, a piece of bodywork, old race suits, anything, in memorabilia shops and jumbles at the British GP. Generally I bought things if I liked the car. My first steering wheel came from Johnny Herbert’s 1993 Lotus and it was pretty Stone Age by today’s standards. It had only two buttons and a very early set of flappy paddles, and I paid £140 for it.”

Most items were sourced indirectly from the teams themselves. They’d start off in car boot sales in the Oxford area, then filter into to the hands of dealers and collectors. The coming of the internet and eBay made parts more accessible and turbocharged the market. Still, owning a whole F1 car was beyond anyone but the unfeasibly rich. But Thomas is made of stern stuff.

“I used to go to see F1 cars whenever they were displayed,” he says. “In 2009 there was a Renault in a dealership in Haywards Heath, so I went along. It was the yellow and black 2009 car, just beautiful, and I thought – I want one of these… all of it. Wouldn’t that be something to achieve?

I didn’t think about getting it running, I just wanted a show car. But it might have been worth £25,000 as a static exhibit, and of course that was far beyond the reach of my wallet.”

He did, however, know of a 2001 BAR Honda chassis for sale online. It had never raced so he was able to pick it up for £3200. Despite decades of dedication to F1 he hadn’t a clue how to build a car, and didn’t even know enough to discourage him from thinking he could. Slowly he began assembling the parts he needed. “I was well wired into the network by then,” he says, “and I put the word around for parts. You have to be careful because if people know what you need, the price goes up. I got an engine cover for £100 but couldn’t trace any side pods. On the grapevine I picked up a pair of Williams sidepods, and it took me maybe 20 hours of work with composites to transform them into BAR sidepods.

“This is one of the major attractions for me – the chance to learn something completely new. I had no idea how to work with carbon fibre, but there’s enough information on the internet or from people who know to get you started. Then by trial and error – lots of error – you improve your capabilities. I was trying to understand the details of the construction, too; you could look at pictures all day and not know exactly how it came together. My understanding of wet-wrap carbon, engineering, design, mechanics, computing, everything has benefited. And I learned something of the building trade, too, because I had to build a shed big enough to contain the car.”

The car turned into a hotchpotch of adapted parts, most from various BARs, but back wheels from a Super Aguri, gearbox from a Jordan, and a steering wheel from a PlayStation with a Honda badge stuck on. Well, needs must. Then he got the chance to buy a fairly complete car, a BAR that had spent years hanging in a Leeds nightclub. It had been driven by Jacques Villeneuve, and Thomas sold his completed BAR, and much else besides, borrowed more money and managed to trade up.

This time, in his wildest dreams, he thought somebody might lend him an engine and he’d be able to run the car. Luckily he had no idea that his goal was impossible to achieve, so he pressed on. “It took a lot of cleaning – the alloy wheels were badly pitted – but I not only had a show car, but owned the car that Villeneuve drove to BAR’s first podium finish in 2001. My friends would come to see it, stand in the shed looking at it, then we’d go for a beer and a curry.”

The real trade-up came in 2014 when the Caterham F1 team went broke and their assets came up for auction. The first two cars went for £57,489 and £38,515 including fees, so Kevin contented himself with picking up a few small bits and pieces. His biggest purchase was a stripped-down tub which the administrators said was from Kamui Kobayashi’s car, which crashed in testing in May 2014 – they described it as chassis number three, despite the fact that number three had already been sold. 

With interest limited, Kevin was able to buy it for only £4460, including fees, but he soon realised that he hadn’t bought what he thought he’d bought – he’d got a much better deal. Research established that his chassis was in fact from Marcus Ericsson’s car that had raced in 11 Grands Prix in 2014 and finished 11th in Monaco, the best result for Caterham that year. Ericsson crashed it on lap seven of the Hungarian Grand Prix when he touched the paint strips on the edge of the circuit, lost grip and hit the barrier with a force equivalent to 25g. Paintwork and decals, and particularly witness marks where a tyre had hit the bodywork during the crash, established beyond doubt that it was the Grand Prix car. The wreckage had been sent back to the Caterham F1 factory in Leafield, but the cash ran out before serious repairs had begun. The tub was supposed to be thrown in a skip more than once but survived in a corner of the factory. 

“When I collected the monocoque the people who were clearing out the factory took me to an outbuilding where an engine cover had been dumped. I managed to get that for £1400, and later I was able to buy the floor, which had come up at a previous auction, for £2500. The roll hoop was missing, but I tracked down the man in Holland who had bought the moulds and he sold me the roll hoop mould for £500. You have to be cagey because a collector who needs something is an easy mark, but there are good people who want to see a project finished, who speak the language and understand the need to make it work. I had support from the hundreds of ex-Caterham people who worked on the car, some of whom are still in the pit lane, who gave me advice on everything from construction to paint codes.”

Former Jaguar, BAR and Red Bull engineer Tom Sweet built Thomas steel wishbones for a very reasonable price, while he bought four wheels separately off memorabilia websites. Wheelnuts and uprights came the same way, and by a roundabout route Thomas managed to buy a copy of the datalogs for the car for less than the price of a pint of beer. These had been offered to the buyers of the first cars for £20,000 each.

“It comprises 107,000 files,” Thomas says, “and apart from being very arcane and hard to understand it was difficult even to open – try to open it in Autocad there’d be nothing on it. The F1 teams use a type of CAD program that can be opened with a file called Inventor, which I had to acquire. Then you have the problem of finding out what you need to know when it’s buried in 107,000 files, but luckily the data is batched into codes pertaining to specific parts of the car, so if you open the files for the nose you can look at, say, file 14LF799 and see what that is, and you’ll know that file 14LF800 is the next component from that. So you can zero in on the data you want while you index the files. And of course, this is part of the joy of it. I vastly increased my knowledge and understanding of a PC’s capabilities, how design programs work, and how to handle data.” 

One of the biggest hurdles was the steering wheel. “I thought I might have one 3D-printed from the data. So the next challenge was to learn about 3D printing. A lot of F1 teams use 3D printing for non-structural parts. First I had to work out how to convert the CAD data into 3D data, then I had to get the job done. I found a guy online who did 3D printing work and it turned out he was an F1 aficionado and willing to help. There are 15 components in the steering wheel, and once he’d printed them I stuck them together with superglue. And by the time we’d made a steering wheel I’d learned the basics of a whole new technology, and I knew what you can and can’t do.”

Then by chance Thomas discovered he might not need it. A contact in Brazil (this network spans the globe) who owned a Marussia contacted him to say he knew of a man in Australia who had a 2014 Caterham steering wheel. “I spend a lot of time talking to people, and once they know that you can explain what you need – which calls for a level of understanding most people don’t have – then you’ve moved onto their wavelength. It’s no use just saying, ‘I need a steering wheel, or an upright.’ You need to tell people exactly what you want, because asking them what you need won’t get you anywhere. There are fantasists and dreamers and dealers and collectors and pests, and you can smell them a mile away. But I’d built my own website – caterhamf1.co.uk, another skill added to the armoury – so they could check out what I’ve done, and that helps them take me seriously. 

“When I contacted this Australian he was quick to establish that I wasn’t a trainspotter, that I knew what I was doing. And he was prepared to give me the steering wheel for what he paid for it, which was £10,000.” Finding the money virtually cleaned Thomas out of F1 memorabilia.

He knew enough not to try to do everything himself. “It’s important to know your limits,” he says. “It had gone beyond the point where I could do all the work – I needed professional help. I can change the oil and the plugs, but I have no illusions about my engineering skills. Had I tried to do everything myself, the project would probably have run into the sand.” The ‘finished’ car then went to Hillspeed in Derbyshire to have an engine fitted. It’s a two-litre engine and gearbox from a 2008 Formula Renault – a slightly underwhelming choice but Thomas says there is no way around it: “Partly it is because of the size: a 1.6-litre F1 engine is not very big, but it is also for convenience. You can turn up and start a Formula Renault engine whereas an F1 unit needs pre-heating and draining down every time you use it, I just don’t have that capability.”

The completed car should take to the track later this year. Who will drive it for him? “I will drive it,” says Thomas. “F1 drivers just destroy them. If someone like Jenson Button said he’d like to drive the car I’d be prepared to allow it, subject to certain understandings…”

Then Thomas and the car will go on holiday. “Years ago I went to the Goodwood Revival where there were a load of 1960s F1 cars,” he says. “I got talking to a little old guy who owned one, and he was travelling all around the world showing his car, all expenses paid. He was permanently on holiday and it cost him nothing. That will do for me.”

In the meantime though, Thomas’s hobby has given him a broad understanding of aerodynamics, thermodynamics, mechanical engineering, detective work, research, computer programming and wheeler-dealing not to mention a fully functioning DIY F1 chassis. Not bad for a racing fan with a shed full of parts, a big idea and an eye for a bargain.