11 December 2006

Merlot in The Media - Part 2

Project Merlot features in the December 06 issue of "Softtop Hardtop" the magazine of the MX-5 Owners Club.

28 November 2006

Weigh to go Merlot

Project Merlot has now been weighed! Having spent so much effort removing bits it was time to find out what we had achieved so the car has now been corner weighed. And the results;

251.5 (LHF) 269.5 (RHF) 232 (LHR) 236.5 (RHR) totalling 989.5 kg..

This makes Project Merlot about 10% lighter than when we started, about the same weight as a MaX5 race car. So 10% lighter, 10% quicker, just maybe…

13 November 2006

Merlot in the Media

Date line: Monday, 13 November 2006; and Project Merlot features in the Evening Star Newspaper.

Features reporter Tracey Sparling fills the centre pages of the paper with the full story of Project Merlot so far...

But there is more to come, keep watching...

2 November 2006

Project Merlot

A legend is born!

The invitation was innocent enough.
An e-mail had arrived out of the blue, asking ‘Does anybody know someone who would be interested in buying a dead MX-5 Merlot with a blown engine?’
When the message was received at Eastern Region headquarters in August 2006, technical guru Robbie Marsh was put straight on the case.
“Oh dear me,” was his first reaction as he spotted the car, in the yard of a Cambridgeshire garage.
The bodywork was poor, with several large dents and numerous deep scrapes, not to mention the rust and corroded alloys.
The interior was a very sad sight, with peeling wood trim and a general air of neglect.
On further investigation Robbie discovered the Merlot had been driven until its motor had seized. The radiator was completely blocked and the engine had simply cooked itself.
Area coordinator Martin Curtis said: “No doubt the previous owner had loved the car but it looked like it was now the end of their relationship. “Robbie’s expert opinion on this sad wreck was that restoration was simply uneconomical.
“So we had a dilemma. Did we allow the poor car to go to scrap, or could we somehow turn this into something worthwhile, with a little imagination and a lot of hard graft?
“Three options were considered; purchase the car and break it for spares, restore the car to its former glory and sell it on, or the even more off-the-wall suggestion to get it running again and strip it out for use as a road-legal racer to promote the club.”
As is often the case, where an opportunity exists, it gets discussed down the pub. The pros and cons of each option were debated over a pint or two.

Martin, Robbie and fellow member Jon Elsey seized the moment. They had soon agreed a price to buy the car, pay off the previous owner’s garage bill and get it delivered for a thorough inspection.
Meanwhile graphic designer Jon had been giving the subject much thought, and when he was feeling particularly inspired one rainy afternoon, produced a Photoshop image of a Merlot track car complete with Eastern Region graphics.
Martin said: “That was it, we needed no more discussion. The image looked so cool we just had to go for the third option, to strip it out and make it available for anybody from our area, to try on a track. But we also wanted to make the project pay for itself.”
The Owners’ Club National Rally was less than three weeks away, and because every plan works better with a tight deadline, they decided to unveil Project Merlot at the Lincolnshire event.
So several hundred man hours later, after much fluid had been spilt on Robbie’s drive (some of it oil, most of it sweat!), the car boasted a replacement engine and radiator, refurbished wheels, and restored interior.
Dents had been knocked out (sort of!), and bare metal crudely painted.
Other club members then stepped in to help. Gary Kearley gave the car a professional polish, and sign writer Ady Neill made and applied the eye-catching graphics which Jon designed. Project Merlot was once again roadworthy and fit to be seen in public!
At the rally, members stripped the car with the aim of selling any parts that were deemed not essential. The grey leather seats had already been sold through an MX-5 online forum.
Martin said: "We wanted to recoup some of the costs, and get people interested in the project. Crowds flocked round the car to see what all the fuss was about.
”We were extremely busy, with people buying or part exchanging bits and pieces all day. We nearly broke even that day, but we've spent more on the car since then!"
A week later the tax, temporary insurance and MoT all ran out simultaneously. With mounting trepidation, the trio booked Project Merlot in for its MoT.
Amazingly, it flew through the checks, with just one advisory - that the passenger seat was missing! Then they taxed and insured the car, and fitted it with two racing seats.
At the Eastern Region Tech Day in October, many other members became involved with the project. Engineer Ken Ward fitted a four-point roll bar, assisted by Ian Ward, Jamie Day and expert welder Steve Alleyne.
It proved to be a test of ingenuity as they used angle grinders and hacksaws to carve in to yet more of the interior.
Although the car was initially bought by three enthusiasts, a real team effort has developed to get it ready for the track.
Some members have donated parts either to equip the Merlot, or to sell to raise funds.
Jon said: "We are already having fun building the car, and maintaining it on such a limited budget. We’re all learning as we go along.”
Members are now looking forward to the day when they can get behind the wheel.
Gary drove it up and down the road at the rally, and said: “I nearly demolished the club's display by accident! I’d like to go on the track with it, especially now it looks so cool with the roll bar and race seats. It's a great opportunity, and it's something I'd never do with my own car."
Steve would also love to drive the track car, and he said: “It's a great idea. I think I would have to join a very long queue to drive it - but they probably wouldn’t let me in it anyway!"
As preparations continued, Jon said: “This is now about more than putting a car on a track. Project Merlot has brought a lot of people together, and thrown down challenges - which so far we have managed to solve.
“We knew Robbie was a Roadster expert, but we didn’t know about Ken’s brilliant engineering skills, and we didn’t know that Steve was such a good welder. So it’s brought a lot of people out of themselves, and revealed their talents. And we haven’t even got near a track yet.
“Just like any great racing team, the pit crew are just as important as the nut behind the wheel!”
Martin agreed: "Between all the members we have quite a lot of expertise in all sorts of areas, and I think most clubs would be the same.”
Hence another idea is born - today the Eastern Region is issuing an invitation to other areas of the MX-5 Owners’ Club. It plans to host an inter-club challenge which will be the first of its kind.
Could your area build a car to rival Project Merlot?

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.”

Merlot in the Movies !

Project Merlot makes its first appearance on YouTube blasting down the Pit Straight at Donnington Park. Looks like it could be Jonnie Boy in the drivers seat. Not often he gets overtaken..!


7 October 2006

Tech Day Triumph

A LAST minute disaster brought out the best in Eastern Region members at their latest Tech Day. It should have been a triumphant hour, when everybody could sit back and enjoy a mug of tea before heading home. Modifications had been made to the club’s new car – dubbed Project Merlot - including the addition of a new four-point roll bar to prepare it for track days.But as members went to replace the driver’s racing seat, things all went horribly wrong. The team had spent the day adapting the interior with an angle grinder to take the roll bar, which was expertly bolted it in to place. But then they discovered the seat wouldn't fit back in. There was a dumfounded silence, as hearts sank in unison.A crowd of glum faces gathered round to ponder the problem. Mazda expert Robbie Marsh, the man who had to drive the Merlot home, was suffering a rollercoaster of emotions.“I love this car,” he’d been saying.When disaster struck, the weeks of hard work flashed before his eyes and he was heard to say “Oh scrap it, I hate it and I want to scrap it.” Then he declared “Let’s just go and leave it here!”It took Ken Ward, Steve Alleyne and Ian Ward to work out a solution. They decided where to cut the metal, to realign the bar. Then in the blink of an eye, the task transformed from a feat of precision engineering, to a scene worthy of Scrapheap Challenge.Two pieces of 2x1 timber and a roll of gaffer tape, combined with a burst of ingenuity, were needed as the team built templates to find the answer.Then it was Steve and his Mig welder to the rescue, to cut-and-shut the cage’s support bars, to safely make them fit. RESULT !!! Nice one guys....

17 September 2006

Merlot goes on show

Project Merlot, unveiled to the public and attracting lots of attention at the MX-5 Owners Club National Rally in September 06 just a few weeks after the wrecker first arrived on Robbies drive way !

3 September 2006

From wreck to racer

Day 1 and the wrecker arrives on Robbies Drive.
Not long after arrival the new engine goes in. Robbie and Jon do all the hard work whilst Martin watches and takes the all important photos!