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Interview: Mike Gascoyne, Caterham

Caterham has set its sights on building a profitable automotive development business. Chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne reveals his vision for success

by John O'Brien

 

Having been rebuffed in his attempts to acquire Lotus, Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes turned his attention to UK niche car manufacturer Caterham in a bid to expand it into a wide-ranging and profitable automotive development business.The result is the Caterham Group, of which Caterham Technology and Innovation (CTI) is a part, alongside the Composites, Cars and F1 businesses. Its home is the Caterham Technology Centre in Hingham, Norfolk. Previously the base of a variety of motorsport teams, from powerboat racers to the Caterham F1 team, the facility is not short on heritage. The race team has also given up its technical chief to head up the off-track businesses.

“When I first met Tony three years ago to set up the F1 team, it was always the intention of the shareholders to go into the automotive sector,” explains Mike Gascoyne, now chief technical officer of the Caterham Group. “And while people are quite surprised that we are here, and that I made the transition across, that was always the plan.

“The bottom line is that Formula 1 doesn’t make you any money,” he continues. “In fact, it loses you quite a lot! The intention is that the rest of it is going to earn Tony revenue and pay for the racing. Formula 1 is only going to be sustainable if the Caterham Group is profitable.”

By his own admission, Gascoyne has limited production-car experience, but he still feels that the skill sets he learned in Formula 1 are just as valid in his new role as CTO. “I’d say it’s quite a broad role,” he explains. I’m not a road-car guy, or a production guy. I don’t worry about how the door handle operates over a 20-year lifespan – I’ve never had to. I think the main thing shareholders are expecting from me is to use the team-building skills I have to build up an experienced team around me.”

The need to gather a trusted and experienced team has been given new impetus from the joint venture with Renault (see Joint Venture, page 56) to build new sportscars. As a result, Gascoyne has enlisted the skills of three former Lotus executives: Ben McGuire as commercial director, Tony Shute as head of road cars, and Luke Bennett as operations director.

“My background is 23 years in Formula 1,” explains Gascoyne. “When Tony asked me to take on CTI, this project, and the road car thing, I knew it would be a very different application. I’m not going to tell those guys how to do road cars as they can do it much better than me.”

Another of Gascoyne’s tasks is to harmonize the separate businesses of the Caterham Group into a singular, efficient organization. “I think I bring a little bit of F1 urgency,” says Gascoyne. “In Formula 1, we are very used to making decisions, acting on them, and getting them right – quickly. So encouraging the team to get that sort of philosophy into their decision-making process is key.


 
“A second aspect is trying to integrate all the facilities of the Group. If you look at the Formula 1 team, it has a multimillion-pound supercomputer. It has a massive R&D lab with a seven-post rig, vehicle simulators, F1 simulators, gearbox and hydraulic test rigs, and all sorts of hydraulic, structural and damper test rigs – all of which, comparatively, are massively underutilized. No organization would ever buy all that equipment and underuse it commercially, as it makes no sense at all. But 10 Formula 1 teams do it on a regular basis, because that’s what the competitive environment forces them to do. What we want to do is commercialize it and offer all these amazing facilities out to customers.”

This third-party work is set to embrace future technologies, with Gascoyne citing EVs and alternative powertrains, plus Formula 1-derived technologies, as potential projects that could be implemented at Hingham, as well as making use of the test facilities at the F1 team’s base in Leafield, Oxfordshire (see Facilities, above). The development of composite structures is one area on which CTI will be concentrating. “Direct application of F1 tech is very limited really,” says Gascoyne. “The two cost-performance equations are just so totally different. But there is the application of composite technology throughout the engineering industry, not just in road cars. We’ve learned a lot of lessons in F1 by crashing things into brick walls and we have drivers who validate all our testing very regularly, by crashing their cars into walls as well! We’ve a lot of experience in other areas, and we are finding that companies from other sectors – especially in the aerospace industry – are approaching us too.”

Hingham’s motorsport roots make it an ideal base for CTI. The 4,000m2 facility offers ready-made areas for workshops and drawing offices, as well as specialist areas for composite and other niche work.

“We have our own wind tunnel [at Leafield], and we have access to other tunnels that we’ve used previously,” adds Gascoyne. “But more importantly, we also have an aerodynamics department of about 120 people doing specific Formula 1 work. We are looking to expand that department so that it is capable of doing third-party CFD and wind-tunnel projects, alongside the F1 work.”

Gascoyne says consultancies that can offer wind-tunnel programs up to a Formula 1 level are thin on the ground: and the select few that can are Formula 1 teams themselves, he adds. With successful collaborations over the past three years in maritime racing (with Vendée Globe competitor Alex Thomson) as well as endurance motor racing, and of course, Formula 1, Gascoyne is confident that Caterham’s consultancy business in this area will only grow in strength. “There are very few companies that can offer what we can. We think we have a big advantage in the market.”



The F1-style development philosophy preached by Gascoyne won’t be applicable to all projects, but its value was recognized by Renault when it established the Caterham JV, as he explains: “It was absolutely clear from the outset that the bosses at Renault see a huge advantage in having Caterham and its niche, low-volume expertise as a partner. They see that we [Caterham] are in the partnership to fast-track a lot of things, to ensure that they don’t get bogged down. Because if you try making these type of vehicles as a major OEM, the business case doesn’t work. There are lots of skills we are bringing that are absolutely key to how to make a program work, and we have an equal say in this joint venture with Renault, at their insistence."

Naturally, there are benefits for Caterham too. “Caterham has to represent outright sports performance, and performance through light weight, and we very much want to maintain that,” says Gascoyne. “But we have to be realistic and realize that we cannot make a fantastic sports car that no one can get in and out of, or even drive. Plenty of people have tried that route already and it doesn’t sell. So you have to be realistic about your markets, and British sports car manufacturers haven’t really done that – they’ve created engineering products, but not necessarily products that anyone actually wants.”

The technical expertise that Caterham brings to the deal is hinted at in the specification that Gascoyne briefly outlines. “Even if we introduce more mainstream products, the motorsport heritage and the design philosophy of performance through light weight is absolutely key,” he reiterates. “So we want that with this car, too – the Caterham version at least. [Beyond that] our philosophy is going to be affordable F1 for the road. So we will be looking at KERS, DRS [drag reduction system] wings, and such, so that people can play with things on the car, the same as in F1 where the driver can push buttons and things move. We want that technology on our cars – doing it affordably is the challenge.”

Facilities 

The ongoing installation and development of the Hingham site incorporates some of the Caterham Group’s specialist facilities, but it is not a comprehensive collection. “There are a couple of things we don’t have,” explains Scott Thompson, business development manager at Caterham Technology. “That includes some of the really specialist stuff, such as climatic facilities for example. We’d never use them enough to justify the purchase price. Likewise, track work is done on commercial circuits. There is no business justification for having such specialist facilities, so what we have are the sorts of things you’d need typically on a daily basis to do a development program. Some of the NVH testing is done on site, but we haven’t been here all that long so we are still setting up certain areas. We don’t have a specific NVH chamber at the moment, but that is one of the areas that we are looking into.”

Caterham’s second UK site, at Leafield (pictured) in Oxfordshire, houses the Formula 1 team, and as a result, has access to much more test equipment including several bedplates in various sizes; a Multimatic 10kN hydraulic damper dyno; FIA-approved squeeze rig, built to sign off open-wheel racers; 48-channel HBM datalogging through analog, digital and CAN formats; a secure 80m2 test room complete with a sunken, MTS controlled seven-post test rig; and a dedicated 100m2 simulator room, with Ansible Motion-based simulator, operating over a secure network.

The joint venture with Renault is also proving beneficial for Caterham. “Renault has a lot of in-house facilities, so that program is using some of those,” explains Thompson. “But for third-party work, we are looking closely at what we need to have in-house. It’s about finding the balance between what you need to have, and where it’d make more sense working with a trusted partner.”

Joint venture

The Renault-Alpine collaboration is the key driving force behind the Caterham Technology Centre’s expansion. The proposed two-seat sportscar is intended to deliver buyers a Formula 1-type driving experience at an affordable price. Caterham Group has a 50% stake in what is officially called Société des Automobiles Alpine Caterham. The joint venture will see “each brand bring their respective technical skills” to the project, with a 50-50 split in the workload. Production will occur at the Renault Sport facility in Dieppe, alongside the road-going and race cars already built there.

Meanwhile, Renault recently established the Alpine Advisory Board, comprised of members specially selected for their expertise, knowledge and involvement with the Alpine brand. The 14-strong team includes Jean-Charles Rédelé, son of the Alpine brand founder; Bernard Darniche, a rally driver who helped Alpine win the inaugural WRC in 1973; and Tom Mautner, a former Alpine dealer and collector from the UK. It’s chaired by Renault’s chief operating officer, Carlos Tavares.

 

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