The rise of the Atom Cup


You hear stories like it all the time: “I was in a boring nine-to-five IT job and I decided to pack it all in”. This time, though, the man in question didn’t go off and start The Good Life farm in Surbiton or retire to southern Spain – he decided to launch a race series for a car he had never seen in the flesh before.

The man in question, Mark Harrison, is sitting on a comfy sofa in a hospitality truck at Silverstone, trying to eat some lunch while I quiz him on how he went from IT to race organiser. “I loved the concept of the Ariel Atom and I was pretty bored where I was,” he admits, “so I did a spreadsheet with all the costs on it and wrote a business plan. In October 2011 I wrote an email to Ariel and went down to Somerset to give them a presentation. Three days later they sent me an email to say ‘yes, we’re happy to support it’.”

The result is the Atom Cup, the new-for-2013 series for the British-designed and built Ariel Atoms. The car is powered by a 245bhp, 2.0-litre Honda i-VTEC engine and, weighing just 510kg, the performance of it can be described as ‘sprightly’ in the same way that the Bugatti Veyron is ‘quite’ powerful. It really is very fast. So fast, in fact, that on leaving Silverstone in the office Lotus Elise 111S I had to check whether I had left the handbrake on when I first accelerated away from one of those endless roundabouts on the way to the M40.

The car itself costs £35,000 and the racers choose from a Gold, Silver or Bronze support package. The Bronze covers entry fees and hospitality, while the Gold will take care of everything including your tyres and fuel for the season, a track assistant, transportation, storage and maintenance between the eight rounds.

The hospitality is proper hospitality too – the truck, which Harrison bought and rents to McLaren for testing – produces food that you would more easily find in a proper restaurant. The awning on one side houses the cars and on the other, tables and chairs filled with drivers and their families. “You know the difference between this race series and others?” one driver asked me as I was getting ready to leave. “It’s that out there,” he commented, pointing to the packed seating area where everyone was busy talking about the day’s racing. It hasn’t come cheaply, though, as Harrison has had to sell his house to fund it all and has now moved back in with his parents, “which has been fun”.

With such a popular hospitality setup and such an entertaining car to drive it makes you wonder why the grids have been small. There were 10 in our race and that was the second last meeting of the year. However, Harrison says that “being realistic” he’ll have 16 Atoms on the grid next year.

Radical also started up a series this year, with its new entry-level SR1, and at the Cadwell Park round on August 31 it had 24 cars on the grid. Here are the facts: the Radical season costs £37,500 and for that you get the car, a race suit, your ARDS test, two exclusive track days, a time trial at Bedford Autodrome and four race meetings. The entry-level Atom package comes out at £53,195 and while you don’t get a race suit, your ARDS test, the track days or time trials, you do get four more race meetings and the hospitality. Once you’ve taken £35,000 off that figure for the Atom it comes out at roughly £2270 for each of the race meetings where you get a 20-minute qualifying session, two 20-minute races and as much food as you can eat. There’s no denying that it’s an expensive race weekend.

Harrison admits that he didn’t put aside enough money to market the series in his budget and also that the might of Radical – a manufacturer who has been building racers rather than road cars since 1997 – gave it an advantage in terms of customer base and know-how.

You’d be unwise to write the Atom Cup off, however, as not only was the racing extremely close and well behaved (it really would put some professional racers to shame), there is a proper family atmosphere in the paddock. I’m by no means saying that there isn’t in the Radical series, but it was just as friendly, if not more, than your average historics meeting. And that’s saying something.

I was sadly off the pace all weekend and it was only in the second race that I managed to have a proper scrap with someone who eventually beat me by 0.085 seconds… After that race, though, I was seriously considering trying to find some sponsorship to do more races next year. A lack of talent and time will see to that, but it’s not often I am so easily and quickly won over by a car. It’s not a single seater, but it gives you the same thrill as one and its endless power is as intoxicating as its ability to slide through corners even in the hands of someone as ham-fisted as me. What’s more, as I headed back to London, I spotted one driver leaving Silverstone in his racing Atom. Once the headlights have been bolted on they’re road legal and this particular driver arrives at every round with two tyres strapped to the side of the car and two in the passenger footwell.

The only thing the Atom Cup lacks at the moment is a larger grid. If that is sorted for next year and some much-needed sponsorship helps lower the cost of the packages then the series will go from strength to strength. Bear in mind that every race is already shown on MotorsTV – an indicator of how fun it is even from spectator banks.

The Ariel motor company is one of the great British success stories from the past decade and a busy racing arm is the next logical step. The Atom Cup is an impressive feat considering it’s in its infancy.

Click here to read more from Ed Foster.

Onboard with Nick Whitehead in Race 2 at Silverstone.

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