On Saturday CUER held one of its largest events to date, a full afternoon of presentations, mingling and even a little bit of road-testing at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire.
As the home of many Top Gear tests, Millbrook seemed like the perfect place to invite a selection of some of our most dedicated sponsors to get an update on how the team did in the late World Solar Challenge last year, as well as look ahead to our strategy for the next race in 2013.
Being a test centre for military vehicles and new concept cars for manufacturers like Jaguar and Lotus, security turned out to be tight – very tight. All 450 acres or so of the complex is strictly prohibited for photographers without a specially-appointed photo minder provided by Millbrook themselves, which pretty much puts having to sign a form saying ‘we won’t take any pictures from our mobiles – promise!’ into perspective.
Anti-reconnaissance aside, we arrived at their ultra-modern Concept Centre and found ourselves immediately swept up by Millbrook’s wonderful hospitality team. This gave us a few precious moments to mingle with some of the sponsors who had chosen to arrive even before our start time, including representatives from AV Engineering and ST Microelectronics. We were soon ushered into an excellently-decorated conference room (with thanks to all the team who arrived early, and to Millbrook Events) right on time for our 35+ strong guest list to take our first presentation.
Emil Hewage, the team’s leader for WSC 2011, and Lucy Fielding, CUER veteran and current Composites Team Leader, talked us through the team’s achievements in Australia, including the trials and tribulations of having to replace a steering wheel capacitor with – but what else? – an entire extra steering wheel, giving the already-cramped driver the motor-racing equivalent of a tummy rub – head patting challenge, all at 50mph. The logistics of feeding 12 hungry engineers and providing for the car’s shipping – and the spilled washing liquid that came with customs refusing to let the car out (there wasn’t any milk, apparently) – right through to the majestic weaving of the car in and out of bushfires and the slipstreams of Australia’s road trains all failed to escape Emil and Lucy’s quips and expert scrutiny.
Up next was new Team Leader for the 2013 project, Mark Nicholson, who took us through just a smidgen of the development of our new car and why, provided at least something runs smoothly, we will bag ourselves a win in the next race with drinks breaks to spare. Having been a PR team lackey for the last race, Mark showed his true mettle when it came to advertising the new opportunities and exciting challenges that faced the new team with a car that is sure to cause a storm in Australia.
By the middle of the event, we, as an eclectic group of engineers, eco-enthusiasts and members of PR and associated press, decided we were all desperately craving grub. While expertly appeasing our appetites, Millbrook offered us tours of their famous testing circuits, including their Mile Straight – reputedly the flattest straight road in Europe – and their High-Speed Bowl, oft-used by the Top Gear team when testing some of their wacky home-made contraptions.
Speaking of dubiously-designed vehicles, our precious WSC 2011 workhorse Endeavour gave us another show, zipping across the steering pan right outside the Concept Centre at maximum speed. It was by this time that our esteemed guest speaker, environmental campaigner and former Friends of the Earth International Vice-Chair, Tony Juniper, decided to show his face.
With just a touch more mingling, we stepped back into our conference room to be given a Millbrook motor-history lesson by their Managing Director, Miguel Fragoso. He expertly wound us through the brief but eventful history of Millbrook, first as a tester of cars for manufacturers like Vauxhall and Bedford, right through to their affiliation with Lotus and to the present day, testing anything from military Jeeps to Jaguar concept cars and even the occasional Routemaster bus. Miguel emphasized the need for the development of projects such as CUER when examining exactly how much energy we need to travel as we do today, without polluting as much as we do today – the weight figures for lithium ion battery packs suitable for 5000km, for example, would make the eyes of any chassis engineer water.
Taking the lead from Miguel was our last speaker, Tony Juniper, known internationally for his success at the helm of Friends of the Earth and for being a general pain-in-the-neck for governments, industries and especially journalists (because don’t we Brits love some occasional media-bashing?) who either by accident or choice decide not to get their facts right. Tony took us through the ever-debated role and importance of renewable energies, including the growth of biofuels and our beloved solar power. He finally provided a welcome boost to our engineers and PR department by praising the team’s efforts to publicize the requirement for renewable fuels and technological innovation across the country, from local schools and colleges (see blog below) to presence in TV and photo media.
So what have CUER and our sponsors learnt from our sojourn at Millbrook? First, never underestimate the power of having a good chin-wag, and of finding the right people for the right job. Second, organization is key – that is, if we can remember what we’re all organizing ourselves for. And finally, as the CUER beacon is finally handed over from the 2011 to our 2013 crew: if you want some decent traffic cones…come to us.