Just under two years ago, sports car manufacturer Prodrive started work on a hydraulic control system for the foils on a prototype America’s Cup boat. Since then it has become a full technical partner to Land Rover BAR – the official entry for the 35th America’s Cup – and is supplying electrical, electronic and hydraulic control systems.
Sailing and motor sport – what on earth do they have in common? Well, enough for Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup team to approach Prodrive. “This is as fine-tuned as any motor racing car,” Prodrive’s chairman David Richards told me recently, “the stresses and loads on everything are quite sensational.” And he should know, he’s just been for a ride on the boat itself.
“It’s been in planning for some time now,” he says of his recent trip in the Solent, “probably a year. Soon after Martin Whitmarsh joined the company last year he had a go and was telling me how extraordinary it was so I’ve been waiting with baited breath.”
Richards, with his hotel in St Mawes, Cornwall, has done a bit of sailing himself and he’s also been surrounded by motor sport since his younger days as a rally co-driver in the 1970s. However, this was like going from a road car to an Formula 1 machine: “You start off with a half-an-hour briefing on safety and then you’re dressed up in a dry suit. It was quite a cold day as it turned out so you have plenty of warm underwear and a dry suit over the top. You then get an oxygen bottle put onto your back and it’s pointed out that this will keep you going for about three to five minutes underwater, should you get trapped underneath anything. They then give you a crash helmet and you begin to realise this is a little bit more serious than you’re used to!
“When you get out on the water and you’re skimming along downwind at 40 knots and upwind at over 30 knots in a 15-20 knot breeze you realise just what a potent machine you’re on. There are six people and the activity is constant. The interesting thing for me was that this is a fit bunch of guys – you’ve got Ben [Ainslie] on the helm, then another person trimming the sails and four people on the grinders. They’re giving you the hydraulic and trimming power for everything you need.
“We went upwind for about less than 10 minutes, probably put in two tacks upwind and at the end of the run I watched the guys because they were completely worn out and these are fit, fit guys. It’s not some leisurely cruise as you’d imagine sailing might be. It’s real athletic stuff and on the ragged edge.
“If you think of the environment we have in motor racing you do have pretty arduous conditions and you just build the sailing components to the same specification to be quite honest. Obviously you don’t expect cars to go completely underwater, but you also don’t expect boats to be submerged either. The basic technology around it is actually very similar, and not dissimilar to the work we have done with active aero systems on road cars over the past 12 months. Reliability on electrical systems anywhere is critical to the whole operation.”
There are plenty of similarities to motor racing, and that’s why Prodrive was approached in the first place, but there are also stark differences. The America’s Cup has been gaining more and more traction in the media over the past few years and much of this, as Richards points out, is down to the progress in TV coverage with onboard cameras and real-time trackers – gone are the days of watching boats a mile offshore with no idea what’s actually going on.
It’s also genuinely a ‘green’ sport. “It’s difficult to make F1 green,” Richards points out. “You can nod towards green credentials – hybrid power, the KERS systems – but when you’re burning your way through tyres and fuel it’s not quite as relevant as it is in an America’s Cup boat. That has nothing more than some wind power and six people working on winches…”
The America’s Cup is taking place in Bermuda next year, but before then the World Series will visit Portsmouth in July, 2016. Expect to hear a lot more about Ben Ainslie’s attempt to win the ‘Auld Mug’ in the meantime.