29 October 2006

Team Merlot hit Donny!

Team Merlot hit the track at Donnington Park.
WITH his heart racing, Jon Elsey gripped the wheel and steered ‘Project Merlot’ on to the circuit for the first time.
It was the moment he and fellow Eastern Region mates had been working towards for weeks - but within minutes the car’s debut at Donington Park became spectacular for all the wrong reasons.
Martin Curtis, Robbie Marsh and Jon had spent hundreds of hours renovating the ten-year-old MX-5.
They had transformed it from a rusty wreck to a race car, in just eight weeks.
Jon was on his third lap rounding Redgate Corner, when a cloud of white smoke engulfed the car.
“My first thought was that the engine had blown up,” he said.
“Robbie was in the passenger seat, and he was saying ‘it’s not smoke, I can smell antifreeze.’ He told me to keep an eye on the temperature gauge and drive slowly back to the pits.”
Martin who was watching from the pit lane, said: “My heart sank. I was about to pack everything away and go home.”
Technical guru Robbie said: “I thought the radiator or head gasket had gone, which would have been terminal enough to leave us no option but to donate it to the Donington Museum.”
But in the pits he lifted the bonnet, to discover a hose had split. He said: “I knew instantly it was the heater hose,” and he was able to fix it.
“I had a box of car bits which we’d been planning to sell off, and in it there was an old pipe which I cut in half with a borrowed hacksaw. I nearly hadn’t brought the box of spares or any tools as I couldn’t be bothered to fill the car with only to remove it all at the track, but it was a good job I did.”
20-nailbiting-minutes later, the car was ready for the remainder of the day’s sessions - which were more about the love of driving, than competing to win.
There were seven 20-minute sessions during the day, so Jon, Martin and Robbie drove for two each, and as the day progressed, their lap times improved.
They shared the final session between them, darting in to the pits for Le Mans-style driver changes.
Jon said: “We went from the fattest to the thinnest, because it was so time-consuming to adjust the seat belt every time!”
When the sun set, the trio headed home to East Anglia.
Robbie said afterwards: “It felt very planted, and the harness really makes you feel in touch with the track.”
“I don’t think Project Merlot was that fast, in fact we were lapping some 15-20 seconds slower than cars like Cosworths and Caterhams, so we’ve got some development work ahead. But if we’d been against a group of other MX-5s, it would have felt faster. We got it to the track and that was the main goal.”
Martin said: “We’d all been a bit quiet and nervous the night before. The day was nerve-racking, but exciting and quite a scary experience,” .”said Martin.
But he added: “I can’t wait to do it again. I just think it’s a fantastic achievement from what we started with, within a very short space of time, and with minimal cost – just lots of hard work and teamwork.”
They paid just £50 for the car, plus £150 to pay off the previous owner’s garage bill and get it delivered.
But more money has been spent since, on rebuilding the car for track days. The idea was always to make the project pay for itself, and Martin keeps detailed accounts. So far the project has cost them around £150 each, including insurance and road tax.
Jon said: “It shows you don’t have to spend thousands of pounds to have a go at being a racing driver. It was my childhood dream, and now for a very small outlay that dream is coming true, and it will for other people who drive it too.”
The Donington drive came after ER an Eastern Region Tech Day, a report of which featured in the last issue of STHT. Then came a fortnight of hard work for the trio and fellow member Ken Ward, who offered his skills as a precision engineer.
Ken, who runs Godfreys Precision Engineers at Beccles in Suffolk, crafted a metal bar to fit the racing harness to.
He even engraved the words ‘Merlot Motorsport’ on it, and designed and made a clever mount for a video camera.
Robbie said: “Ken had the most amazing machines at his workshop! It took us from 9am to 3pm to fit the bar, because it was made to such a high standard, and our car didn’t appear to be engineered as accurately as that!”
Jon bought an extra set of wheels through e-bay, which cost the princely sum of £56. He said: “They had the most intriguing description which would have put most buyers off. The seller was saying ‘you don’t want to buy these because they are so bad’ – so we did!
“When I used paint stripper to clean them up, I nearly poisoned myself with fumes. The lacquer had lifted and started to corrode, so I rubbed them down and resprayed them. The real revelation was not only that the wheels were in great condition under the paint, but the tyres were also very very good. They are on the car now.”
E-bay also proved a useful tool to find the Sparco pro racing harness, and they had already bought both racing seats off the website, and opened an account to sell off surplus parts.
Robbie also fitted second-hand performance springs and shock absorbers, and re-aligned the wheels.
He said: “We fitted the springs because we thought the car needed to sit lower, it just looked wrong as it was. We all know that lowering an MX-5 is one of the best single modifications you can do. It’s the only performance modification we have made to the car, and plan to make for the time being.”
Martin agreed: “We want to keep true to the spirit of the car.”
In the lead-up to Donington, Robbie was a lecturer at Huntingdonshire Regional College, where students on the motorsport course were keen to help with Project Merlot.
Two pupils even pledged to buy their own MX-5s in future. They helped weigh the car, and discovered that stripping parts had lightened it by ten per cent. It now weighs 975kg, with many parts still to come off.
Jon, Martin and Robbie then added the final touches to get the car ready for the track, like bonnet clips (which came straight from ‘the chav section at Halfords’), a detachable number plate, and a fire extinguisher - at Jon’s insistence.
Jon said: “I wanted the fire extinguisher, and had that steam coming out of the car at Donington been smoke, it could have come in to its own!”
After being black-flagged at Donington when the car was out-classed by speedier drivers, Martin said: “We realised there’s probably a lot more to this racing driver thing than we’d thought!
“We need a lot more practice. We now plan to book more track days, to allow other members to be able to drive too, and we’ll make sure we are in the right group next time.”


Anonymous said...

Well done, excellent job. We, as a club, should be 'rescueing' as many 5s as we can, even if we only use them as spares cars - I know that I could do with a rocker cover to use while I polish the wife's and then an engine while I gas flow that. These cars are way too good to be left to rot, regardless of how many millions were built - the more we can keep on the road the more people can have the oppertunity to enjoy the experience of driving one.

Keep up the good work.
Eastern Region

Roadster Robbie said...

Project Merlot covered 122 track miles during the Donington event.