Article by Kevin Eason
They had barely seen a racetrack, never mind dominated it as they competed against some of the most familiar names in motor racing. But the students from the University of Bolton turned the famous Silverstone circuit into an extension of the classroom last weekend at one of the nation’s most prestigious events.
The Masters Historic meeting attracts familiar names from across the world of motor racing, including top drivers such as Alex Brundle, a veteran of the Le Mans 24-hour Endurance Race and the son of Formula One pundit, Martin.
But Brundle and some grizzled veterans found themselves up against a group of teenagers from the National Centre of Motorsport Engineering. The students prepared a 40-year-old Ensign 180B F1 car for Michael Lyons, a seasoned driver, to take pole position and two victories, winning the Murray Walker Memorial Trophy, which is now proudly back in Bolton.
It is a remarkable story for the university since it linked up with Bob Fernley, the former deputy team principal of the Force India Formula One team. Fernley loaned the Ensign car from his personal collection and put his own money behind the engineering programme in an effort to give youngsters a chance to enter the heady – and expensive – world of Formula One.
The University of Bolton Student Motorsport Team
Lewis Hamilton often speaks of the lack of diversity and opportunity in Formula One for kids like him from a council estate. Fernley, brought up on a council estate in Stockport, decided to do something about it and rounded up Vijay Mallya, the former owner of Force India, and Jonathan Kendrick, a millionaire businessman who was a former Goodyear tyre fitter in Formula One and is now chairman of the ROKiT Group, to fund the £500,000 programme to give teenagers a chance at the highest levels of motorsport as engineers.
The extraordinary performance at Silverstone was the result of a year of preparation, not just learning the intricate skills of engineering a complex Formula One car, but also understanding the speed of thought and organisation that characterises the highest levels of the sport.
Jonathan Hyde, at 22 the elder statesman of the student group and who graduated this summer and is progressing to a masters at Bolton, was chief mechanic. “This experience has been amazing, and we have all learnt so much,” he said, as the students arrived back in Bolton to strip down the Ensign to check how well it had performed at Silverstone.
“When things don’t go right you learn to work twice as hard, and it’s not about having the will to win, but working hard to get the win. This journey has been a rollercoaster ride and couldn’t have ended any better.”
Fernley, like so many in Formula One, is already planning the next stage of the programme with a potential tilt at race wins in Monaco next year at the most prestigious motor racing event for historic cars.
“The last time I raced the Ensign 180B was 1982 and it is testament to the skills, hard work and dedication of everyone involved in the project to take a 40-year-old car, rebuild it and then compete in the Silverstone Classic Historic Formula One event, securing pole position, winning the two races and posting fastest laps in both races. It represents a feat very few F1 teams achieve,” Fernley said.
“It has been an absolute pleasure to support the University of Bolton with the use of my old F1 cars and mentor their students.”