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dailysportscar.comTaking Bold Steps
This Basildon, Essex based company first came to the attention of sportscar followers at, or just before, Le Mans 2001 – with engines powering the two EX257 MGs. The 2001 Test Day was the scene for a classic quote from AER boss Mike Lancaster: “There’s nothing they can do to us now to stop us smiling.”
For the significance of that remark, see more details on the two litre turbo engine project below.

The AER factory is the sort of no-frills affair you might expect of a company based on a Basildon industrial estate. The most remarkable feature of the facility is the incredible use of space. But then if you’re very successful at what you do, space soon gets eaten up. “18 months maybe, before we’re ready to move,” says Mike Lancaster (left). Can you wait that long, Mike? The amusing aspect of this dramatic growth is that it wasn’t so long ago that the staff had to spread out to try and give a more ‘occupied’ feeling to each department.

Occupied is exactly what they are now, thanks to the following sequence of events:

  • AER established 1998.
  • Commissioned by Nissan to develop their 1999 BTCC engines – six months development time (a luxury by AER standards).
  • 1999 Manufacturers, Drivers, Team & Independents BTCC titles with Nissan.
  • 2000 Le Mans 675 win for AER-developed Nissan V6, in the Multimatic Lola B2K / 40.
  • 2001 and 2002 SRPll title winners in Grand-Am, with the V6 Nissan-based 3 litre unit.
  • October 2000 – AER commissioned by MG to design and build the Le Mans two litre turbo for the MG EX257s.
  • 2002 – AER are the sole engine suppliers for the Open Telefonica World Series sponsored by Nissan, 20 single seaters using a stress-mounted development of the Nissan based V6, in identical Dallara chassis.

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How does a company achieve such growth, accompanied by such success? Hard work from the staff, inevitably: Chief Designer Tim Baker (above) took just Christmas Day and Boxing Day off in the process of creating the Le Mans engine for MG – as did almost everyone else. “Mike gives us whatever we need to fulfil a project,” says development engineer Graham Smith. “He expects us to get on and do it, while he provides whatever we need. Money no object. He’s amazing the way he provides everything we need.”

If the recipe really is as simple as that, others would find it easy to follow, wouldn’t they? But they wouldn’t have the support that Mike Lancaster has, from his 40 highly talented, staff. And others wouldn’t have his electronics background, which allowed the formation of a company that “merged the electronic and mechanical aspects of engine design, in ways that give us an advantage over traditional engine builders.”

“By bringing the two together – electronic and mechanical – we believe we can create a more modern and effective engine for a customer.”

Mike Lancaster ought to have added these words……”in a fraction of the time it normally takes.”

He did add…”We’re filling a market where our engines are exploiting the technology to the best effect, while also creating affordable power units.”

Ignoring cost for a moment, it’s the sheer pace of the design and development process at AER that stands out as their hallmark.

Chief Designer Tim Baker – 35, works like a trooper, yet still looks 28 – is the archetypal AER man. He learnt hard work from another engine genius, Brian Hart, a man who “got off an overnight flight to Brazil, started work at 7am, worked at the track all day, and still had the energy to go out in the evening. An amazing man.”

Tim Baker may have spent “three years building Brian’s engines” but he has a degree and a doctorate with a university research group behind him too, plus a spell with Ford, until he thought that “motor racing would be more fun.” Half a season following the Grand Prix circus “wasn’t my idea of fun,” so Tim headed off to Mountune, where he was suddenly the lead designer of the Ford Focus rally engine.

The Pectel electronics associated with that engine were the creation of Mike Lancaster’s Pectel company, and the formation of AER saw Lancaster looking for “the best and most enthusiastic engineers.” Tim Baker was on board the good ship AER from the start.

The Nissan BTCC contract was the perfect start – in every way, except that the BTCC was evolving in ways that saw the manufacturers edging out. Come on Lancaster, find some new business. So he did. We’d better not tell the tale of the AER SRPll / 675 engine’s birth (in Mike’s head), but its debut season on the track included that 675 win at Le Mans. Amazing. Go to Le Mans for the first time, win the class. Little did anyone know then that AER would be back a year later, with the class of the 675 power units….except that it was a little bit too new, for reasons out of Mike Lancaster’s control.

Before we cover that turbo engine in detail, the other success story at AER is last season’s Open Telefonica World Series engine, an AER development for a stress installation of the Nissan V6. “30 engines, 150,000 kilometres, one failure,” is project leader Martin Dixon’s summary of last season. Dixon is pictured with Tim Baker and Mike Lancaster (below).

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Martin Dixon took his happy band of engineers along to all of the races to oversee the new engines’ first season – and what a stunningly successful year that was, in every way. “The driving talent on display is amazing,” says Dixon, “and the crowds! Up to 80,000 of them. Nissan make the tickets available, the racing is outstanding, and our engines powered every car in the field.”

So that included Zonta, Leinders, Montagny, Sperafico…and Justin Wilson, of course.

“We had to build a fleet of 30 engines,” explains Martin Dixon, “and really treat it as a mass production engine. It had to be quick and easy to build, and every one had to be the same. We developed it from the SRPll engine, but bolting it to the chassis required some major re-engineering of the cam covers and the sump.”

Mike Lancaster: “The only standard parts are the heads and the block, and the chain drive. We put a lot of effort into making the engine neat, compact and enclosed. With last year’s 8,500 rev. limit, the life of the engines was set at 5,500 kilometres. That comes down to 4,500 this year, as the power has gone up for 2003.”

Contrast that with an F3 engine and its six rebuilds a year.

With the same equipment available to all, there was inevitably a driver who suggested that his V6 was down on power. ‘His’ engine was placed into Zonta’s car for the next race, and the Brazilian won. Say no more (Mr Slow Driver).

There’s a turbocharged version of the V6 in existence somewhere at AER, an engine with a very real potential for powering an LMP 900. But currently there isn’t a customer for this 600 bhp unit, AER having to face the realities of the sportscar chassis and engine market at the moment (this time of changing regulations).

The ‘long-standing’ SRPll sportscar unit is still enjoying success though, coming home with a 1-2 at the recent Rolex 24 for the Tony Dowe-run Team Seattle Lolas. But that class is facing a decline, as Grand Am tucks it away in the background.

The 675 Turbo Engine - XP20
In sportscars, AER’s present and future is the two litre turbo. So let’s finish off with the whole story of this extraordinary little engine – and also explain why Mike Lancaster couldn’t stop smiling at Le Mans 2001.

Two dates are particularly significant: October 16 2000 and “the third week of March 2001.” By then, no one at AER seemed to be aware of what day of the week, or what date, saw the turbo unit running for the first time. Life had become a blur by then.

Graham Smith explains the significance of October 16. “Mike came back from a meeting at MG and asked if we wanted the good news or the bad news. The good news was that we were still going to Le Mans. The bad news was that MG had decided that we couldn’t use an existing two litre block. They wanted us to design and build a new engine in five months, for Le Mans 2001.

“We worked ridiculous hours, very often 5am until midnight,” continued Smith. “We’d bump into colleagues in the corridor and be too tired to do more than nod at each other. It was crazy, but after all that effort, we did it.

“The engine was so advanced in some ways, we had to run another two litre turbo to test certain components. We knew we couldn’t wait and just test the whole thing once it finally came together: we had to test components, separately and in advance. It was an all-new engine, with all-new electronics. In five months.”

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“It’s actually very sophisticated in the way it produces boost,” explains Tim Baker. “It needed a large turbo to produce the power, and we needed the turbo at its peak at 2.5 bar. But it had to go up to 2.5 bar as quickly as possible, and stay there for as long as possible, or at least until the restrictor kicked in.”

Baker had bore and stroke figures from the block they were originally going to use – “they were in the ballpark” – so he knew the approximate dimensions required. “But the first stage was to get the suppliers on board, notably the Zeus Group, who would create the castings.”

Working initially from a single cylinder design, “we expanded it from there, putting four together, then working in the auxiliaries, in two packs on either side of the engine.”

Gradually – not too gradually – the whole design came together, with Tim Baker in charge. “I’ve got a superb design team, absolute top line guys. Fortunately, we didn’t stop to think too hard about the challenge we had taken on: we never had it there in our hands, to work on. Everything had to come together at the right time, and everything had to work together. And it did.”

The company’s grounding in getting the Nissan BTCC engine developed in six months was good practice for this, a sort of dress rehearsal for the BTCC, in readiness for the performance in front of the Royal Box – or at least the ACO at Le Mans.

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“But we had some all-nighters,” sighs Graham Smith. “One challenge was to get the parts made in sufficient numbers – and then there was the cylinder sealing problem. We’d predicted the cylinder pressures that the engine would generate, much higher than they ever see in F1. But no one would take us seriously, and we caught people out.

“But the gasket manufacturer responded with enthusiasm to the challenge, and we made it to the Le Mans Test Day with a brand new sealing system for the cylinders.”

They’d done it. “There’s nothing they can do to us now to stop us smiling.”

A typical 12-18 months design and build cycle for a new engine, then the same period in development, had become effectively six and a half months before running at the Le Mans Test Day.

Which was an experience in itself. “F1 coils weren’t good enough,” says Tim Baker. “We had flash backs and lost a plenum or two.” Rather spectacularly too, one recalls, Tim.

But he wasn’t there. Tim Baker was at Basildon, working on changes for the engines for the 24 Hours. “We had a task to make sure the next engines had all the design updates built into them, but everything came together in time.”

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Race week at Le Mans was as incident-packed as any stage in this amazing story. “The gasket problem disappeared, briefly, but we were making such progress with the engine, so quickly, that as performance improved, so the gasket problem came back to bite us. Then there was the scoop on the engine cover, the one that suddenly appeared – and in the wet race, it fired water straight at the coils!”

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The pace of the EX257s was a sight to behold, the lean, low, lithe machines hammering out of the Ford Chicane and rocketing down the pit straight as impressively as anything in the field. But MG didn’t maintain momentum with the project after that first Le Mans, and although Le Mans 2002 showed even more of the EX257-AER’s potential, including leading the race and heading the challenge to the Audis…..

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…….it was post Le Mans that development of the package began in earnest. Meanwhile, Intersport and KnightHawk were enjoying considerable success in the ALMS events.

“Since Dyson have come on board, the pace of development has been fantastic,” says Graham Smith. “Especially since last October, when we’ve really got stuck into the development for the 2003 restrictors.

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A key man in that process is James Weaver. After a Dyson test in the US, he pops up at Basildon for a de-brief with Graham Smith. “James’ feedback is absolutely brilliant. He and I can spend hours going through the data, and his feel for what is happening on the track is incredible. With that level of feedback, you can change details very quickly, and you make massive progress. Butch and Andy are part of the whole process at the track too – they’re an amazing threesome. They get the best from the car and from us.”

‘Big Steve’ - as Andy Wallace calls him – is an important part of the procedure too, providing support at the track, as well as manning the dyno. (photo)

Graham Smith’s necessarily slightly evasive reply to a question concerning the 2003 version of the engine is that “we’ve made the engine better in the lower half of the rev. range, which coupled with the chassis improvements means big improvements in the whole car-engine package. And we’ve got more to come. Even now, the mid-range torque is hard for the chassis to cope with.”

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In May and June 2001, Mike Lancaster never for one moment lost his perspective on what his young company had achieved by just being at Le Mans. As one of his employees explained, “it’s all a big adventure working here, and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. You can feel the strength building in this company.”

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Just as James Weaver can presumably feel the strength building in the AER (and EX257) package that he’ll be targeting pole position with at Sebring next month. Intersport will be going for consecutive class

wins with their MG-Lola, while potentially four of the cars will be at Le Mans, and AER are powering the new Courage too. With the Telefonica series set for another great year, Mike Lancaster can look back on the last five years with immense pride.

What on earth do the next five have in store? http://www.aerltd.com/

 

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