A few Sundays ago, I went on a little early morning road trip, in a northerly direction from my abode, along some reasonably quiet motorways. It seemed that everybody else was still snuggled down enjoying their Sunday morning duvet time. I knew, as I zoomed along, that once I reached my destination, there would be a large group of people there who had been up even earlier than me, and on the previous day too. In fact, on many other weekends over the past year, because today was to be the culmination of a year’s hard work conceptualising, designing, documenting, building, testing, racing, collecting data, perfecting, racing again…(and repeat).

Today, was the Greenpower Trust International Final 2015 at Rockingham Circuit, and I’d been invited to come along and see just what the Greenpower Education trust was, how it helped to inspire the participating schools, graduates, apprentices and individuals to get involved at all levels and get hands on experience of engineering.

So, what is Greenpower Education Trust all about? Well, if you take a look at their website, you’ll see their formally stated objective is “…to advance education in the subjects of sustainable engineering & technology to young people”. It is ALL about inspiring engineers, and the project that they have set-up is to design, build and then race an electric car. Currently, they are working with 500 schools and over 8000 students around the UK, and there are other such schemes all over the world.

There are different categories that teams or individuals can compete in:

  • Formula Goblin – 9 to 11 years. All teams have the same kit, and take part in drag/slalom races, with a final at Goodwood that took place in July.
  • Formula 24 – 11 to 16 years. Teams can build a car from a standard kit that they can obtain from Greenpower, or build their own cars to regulations.
  • Formula 24+ – 16 and over, mainly 6th Form, University teams, and apprentices – most cars built from scratch.
  • Corporate Challenge.

I’d first heard of Greenpower Trust through my friend Lisa Russell via Twitter, and knew that she was heavily involved in it, plus additionally I’d seen them in action at Battersea in their support race role for Formula E. However, I have to tell you that this was merely dipping my toe in the water, because once I arrived at Rockingham, I saw the whole thing in a whole different way….and during the day, I came to the realisation that it was so much more than that.

As I parked at Rockingham, I caught my first glimpse of the circuit through the buildings. I’d known it was an oval, but had not been aware of there being an infield track too, and was also impressed by the sheer magnitude of the grandstands I was stood in the centre of, and to either side of the main straight.

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I met up with my friend Andy, and we headed to the Welcome Centre, which was highlighted to us by the glowing papaya orange of a McLaren 650S parked at its entrance. McLaren Automotive had been kind enough to bring this along for the day, and allow visitors to try it on for size. They also had a stand with staff on hand to talk to visitors, and this was no surprise to me, because I knew they had been fully supportive of Greenpower Trust throughout the year. Many universities offering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses also had similar stands, as well as other supporters and partners of GPT, such as Siemens, and Solutions Inc. There were some interesting people to chat to, and we took time to walk around the stands. I was particularly impressed by the University of Wales Trinity St. David (@UWTSD), who had a 3D printer working on their stand which was fascinating to watch, and also Brunel University, who were displaying an electric racing bike.

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Once we had reached the guest suite, we took in the view of the pit buildings opposite, and the main race where the first race was assembling. Taking our place up against the panoramic window, we watched Greenpower Patron Dave Richards arrive in the centre of the circuit by helicopter. You may be aware that Dave is chairman of Prodrive, and formerly of Aston Martin, BAR and Benetton, and it was very much appreciated that he had taken his time to attend.

We also found ourselves amongst representatives of some of the teams, sponsors, and invited guests. I was very pleased to be introduced to Mark Williams, a name that my inner-bobblehat knew well, as Mark was previously Head of Vehicle Engineering at McLaren, and before that worked at Lola. Mark was the perfect person to have at the event; when we then walked through the tunnel over to the garages to see the teams at work, his strong engineering background and naturally inquisitive nature meant that he truly engaged with the students he talked to. I could really see the value of what Greenpower are trying to achieve, and it is the enthusiasm of people like Mark, and many of the mentors that we saw that day, that provide the inspiration and support for these young engineers.

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As we walked through the garage, I was introduced to Dave Cullimore (@CullimoreRacing), as he was busily working on his car, Jet II. He had been the previous year’s winner of the F24+ category with his car, Jet.

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We also stopped to chat with the Renishaw team (@Renishawplc) who enter 3 cars, and their team is made up of apprentices at the company. Andy, who is an app developer, instantly got talking with Jack Joynson (@jack_joynson), who has developed an app to allow the team to measure telemetry and energy readings from their cars.

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We also had an extended chat with Sam Titchner (@EMFRacing), as he was making the finishing touches to his car, number 534. Far from some of the larger teams and those with company backing that we had seen, Sam was a tenacious one-man band, normally accompanied to events by his girlfriend, but today had his mum and dad on cleaning duties as we chatted to him. He showed us his portfolio, that detailed the journey his project to build his car had been on. We immediately noticed his steering wheel, and Sam explained how he has designed it, and written the software for the display.

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What struck me was how much more motivation an individual must need to have if they don’t have the support network of their university of company around them, so he instantly impressed me. After engaging in a bit of F1 banter, we discovered that Sam now works at the Red Bull factory, a role that he has secured as they were so impressed by his portfolio. What more evidence could you need that Greenpower is honing the skills that engineering companies are looking for? Hats off to Sam, hard work pays off.

After talking to Sam, we proceeded upstairs to the level above, a great vantage point where lots of the schools had gazebo’s set up for their support teams. Here we came across CAUC – “Complete And Utter Chaos” – the team from Sandbach High School (@CAUC_SHS). This was mid-race, and the girls were monitoring their cars via telemetry software that they had worked on with their teacher’s guidance. They were communicating with the drivers in their cars via mobile phone, and asking their teachers if it was “Hammertime” yet! (Oh Lewis, you and Pete Bonnington have a lot to answer for!)

The team had three cars out on circuit, Brian, my favourite, who was a unique sort of snail shape, and in the traditional black and gold JPS livery of days gone by. There was also Dylan, and Dougal, who’s livery was a nod towards that of the Williams Martini F1 team!

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After lunch, we were invited onto the starting grid for the last Formula 24 race, and got to wander around looking at the cars readying for the race, as well as the E-Safety Car. For this category, each had a team member alongside who was allowed to push the car off at the start. We got to see up close how many different designs and interpretations of the rules the teams had come up with! Gadget Show presenter Jason Bradbury was also on hand to encourage the teams at the start.

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Back up in the guest suite, our panoramic view allowed us to see cars as they made their way round the entire lap, and it was telling that those with less energy being deployed struggled around the last bank where there was an incline. The teams often gambled with their energy reserves, and much like when we watch Formula E, some teams did run out before the end…and needed the Rockingham recovery truck to pick them up. We often noted that the most exciting part of the race came as we entered the final few laps, and this was exactly the case in the F24+ final race, where the Cullimore Racing car, Jet, was overtaken by the Renishaw entry, Reprobation, making for exciting viewing.

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The day wrapped up with a podium ceremony to rival those in Formula 1, and certainly it defied gravity how so many team members managed to squeeze onto the steps as they collected their various awards across the different categories!

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This day was the culmination of their season, and living proof of the saying that it is more about the taking part that the winning. Here is a series that is inspiring and teaching its participant skills for the future, and with the news announced that day that participation in the programme can now lead to formal recognition, long may it continue.

(If you are interested in finding out more, or getting involved with Greenpower Trust, they are always looking for volunteers to assist and steward their events, so get in touch at @GreenpowerTrust)