Hewland Engineering has undergone a huge amount of reinvestment thanks to the son of its founder in order to pave the way for a brighter future
By Ed Foster
“When my Dad started the company in 1957,” reflects William Hewland, “it consisted of four blokes in a leaky shed by Maidstone station. He started off with a little metal-plating idea and then kind of fell into doing racing car gearboxes.”
Humble beginnings for a company that now supplies gearbox components to five Formula 1 teams, GT racing, the WTCC, the DTM, GP2, GP3, Formula 2, Honda’s LMP1 and 2 cars and Formula 3. Mike Hewland and his ‘boxes shot to fame in the 1960s when the world was coming round to the need for specialised racing gearboxes instead of adapted VW units. The world changed, though, and by the time his son William took over the helm in 1991 the company was “pretty out of date”. It needed reinvestment, an attitude change and it needed new markets to sell to.
That’s exactly what has happened over the past 21 years and while the loss of the Champ Car contract hurt — Hewland supplied the entire grid with full gearshift systems — and the recession hit the firm hard, it responded by going back into F1. “Right in the middle of the recession we went out and invested speculatively in an enormous new plant aimed at filling the cracks we had in respect to F1 clients.”
William put his gearboxes to the test as well, with 10 years as a racer, but come the year 2000 he became a father, a new general manager arrived and he couldn’t find the time to do it properly, so preferred to quit rather than dabble in it. “You can stand in the street, pull your trousers down and look like an idiot for nothing,” he says when asked why he retired.
Although we received the sad news in August 2012 that his father had passed away, the company is more than doing the great name justice. Xtrac and Ricardo are both strong competitors, but “Hewland is the only company daft enough to try and span the whole of the motor racing range. We go from modern Formula Ford, through the single-seaters, GT and LMP racing, to component supply in F1.”
I caught up with William Hewland at the company’s base just outside Maidenhead to hear about its current work and why series such as DTM are such a challenge.
“I’ve seen three generations of the industry and one of the big changes is one-make racing. There are pluses and minuses and you could have that conversation all day, but I don’t think racing would be around if it wasn’t for it.
“We do GP2, DIM, GP3, Formula 2, we used to do Superleague, Champ Car of course, and we now effectively do Formula 3 because the gearbox has been homologated by Dallara.
“One-make racing is actually something that we’ve done very well. You’d think it wouldn’t be, but it’s been an interesting challenge. It’s a huge ask to provide 25 gearboxes that just go into a whole series without any problems.
“Take GP2 you have one car that runs some prototype miles, not very many if I’m honest, and you can’t make a prototype ‘box because it’s not economically viable. You make and then give them the first of the 30 gearboxes and if there’s something wrong you need to change it on the other 29. That’s why you have to make your art good because if you get it wrong you catch a cold the price is capped before you start. You put the price in, make the first one, test it and if anything’s wrong you pay for it. Next thing you know every single one you’ve built is on the grid in Bahrain.”
“We got the contract to do the entire DIM transmission and gearshift system in 2012 and it’s gone very well. The beginning of this year was quite interesting because the teams were all experimenting with not putting enough oil in the gearbox in an attempt to gain an advantage.
“The competitive nature of the DIM is at a level which I have almost never seen it’s bristling. With BMW coming back in you’ve got three German companies involved in an ego contest. They were trying everything! They wouldn’t even tell us how much oil they were running. At Hockenheim, before the first race, I asked BMW how much oil they had in. The guy looked at me calmly and just said ‘enough’. It’s an incredible series, absolutely amazing, and very interesting because it’s about to spread its wings to Asia and America.”
“No one supplies entire gearboxes to F1 teams any more. It’s so different to what it was. Back in the 1960s and ’70s the difference between a Formula Ford and a Formula 1 car was mainly its size. The technology and the idea or concept behind them weren’t that different then. It’s stratospherically apart now.
“Formula 1 teams control their own gearbox programmes because it’s such an integral part of the car. The nearest thing to someone buying their own gearbox in the modern era is a team buying one from another team.
“It’s all in the packaging in terms of concept it’s not amazing new technology. Even the seamless shifts, to be blunt, are similar to the stuff my dad was doing in the 1960s, but just operated brilliantly. It’s a bit like taking a sundial and turning it into the most expensive Breitling watch. The concept is the same, but the detail is amazing.
“In the motor racing ‘business pyramid’ you have the widest, cheapest bit at the bottom and then Le Mans or DIM at the top. F1 is then on a little strand three times higher. It’s very important not to mix up F1 with the rest of motor racing. To make a pinion gear for one of the ‘boxes that Honda will use to race at Le Mans in LMP1 will take, off the top of my head, eight operations to make. The same thing in Fl will take 20-25 operations.
“We started to talk to F1 teams again after a 12-year break in 2009, when the recession hit, and one of them a very organised one high up the grid came to us with a stack of component drawings. We quickly realised that two-thirds of them we couldn’t entertain because we didn’t have the processes in house. We invested heavily and now you’ll find Hewland parts in five teams’ cars on the grid.
“F1 is a good driver of people. It gives our staff a focus, a carrot on the end of a stick. It’s also a good shop window, as many of our conversations with other series start with ‘what do you do in F1?’ It was also one of the few areas of motor sport spending money during the recession!”
Returning to F1 was a bold move, and one that has paid off. But the problem with supplying gearboxes to one-make series is that most of the money arrives in one lump sum when the gearboxes are first delivered, then the only income from the championship over the next three years is the supply of spares. However, according to William this just means that you must constantly be on the lookout for more business.
Then consider that “the gearbox has become a smaller and smaller percentage in terms of overall spend; it used to be about 20 per cent of the car when I started, but it’s now more like five to 10…” William clearly has his work cut out. The current signs are good, though, and it’s safe to say that the company is entering another healthy era.