Bluebird’s charge into the future

An event this weekend was set to mark Bluebird’s return to the racetrack and entry to the world of low volume sports car manufacturing. The event is no longer going ahead, with has left Martin Rees, who heads up Bluebird Performance Engineering and who is project director for the brand’s ambitious racing programme plans, in a bit of a quandary.

“When it comes to the Bluebird name, expectation is always incredibly high,” he says, in a lilting Welsh accent. “After all, it’s a name that is built on 100 years of racing and record breaking, including 30 world records. Managing that expectation is a very hard thing to do. It takes a lot of commitment and an awful lot of money. We cannot enter anything on a whim.”

The Sustainable MotoExpo, which has been postponed until April 2014, was set to be Bluebird’s platform to unveil a preproduction version of the DC50, a limited production, all-electric sports car that will be delivered to customers next year. The car has been built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Donald Campbell’s 403.1mph world speed record, a record that stood as the fastest by a wheel-driven car until the turn of the century. That year remains doubly significant to the Bluebird legend as 1964 is when Campbell also broke the water speed record, becoming the first and only person to achieve both in the same year.

But the event was also to be a sounding board for a raft of other initiatives, from the Bluebird Academy – that will aim to inspire and develop engineering talent – to announcements about Bluebird’s entry to some of the world’s foremost racing series. And the small matter of a 500mph electric car.

Assembling the B team

“Our target is to build the fastest ever Bluebird,” says Rees. To him and his small team, that means achieving 500mph in an electrically-powered car in the next three years. In itself, that would be a mean feat. But Rees is also making a battery powered sports car that will measure up against Aston Martin and Porsche and hatching plans to enter some of the world’s most demanding motor racing championships. He is not a man who dreams small.

Today’s Bluebird is no longer just a paint scheme on the Campbell family’s latest speed machine. “There are two entities of significance,” Rees explains. “There is an umbrella organisation that looks after the racing and speed records activity. The name is also used, under license, by a Midlands-based engineering company that produces capability to support the performance objectives of the racing and record breaking entity.”

Rees is part-owner of Bluebird Performance Engineering and works closely with Don Wales, grandson of Donald Campbell and torch bearer of this generation’s feats of daring. “Nothing is done under the Bluebird name without approval from the Campbells,” he says, “although the engineering arm does undertake non-Bluebird projects.”

The engineering firm has a manufacturing centre in Coventry and has been developing electric drivetrain technology since the mid-1990s. The DC50 sports car is to be manufactured in Oxfordshire at a new facility shortly to be announced; its powertrain and lightweight body panels are currently being developed at other locations around the UK. “A collective Bluebird facility has long been required,” says Rees.

The car is limited to a production run of just 50 – the name gives it away – and first customer deliveries are timed to coincide with July 17 record-breaking anniversary. “Not all 50 will be built and delivered in 2014. It will take 18 to 24 months to complete the whole run,” Rees explains.

Blurebird has a clear brief when it comes to the scissor-doored, aggressively styled DC50. “This is not a supercar. It’s a sports car. We’re not doing a Zonda or a McLaren,” says Rees. “We expect to sell 60% to collectors, 20% to regular users and 20% to customers requesting a higher performance version. That one will be suitable for track day use, faster but with shorter range. It’s a very bespoke process.”

The process is so bespoke that no prices have been revealed – and might never be, according to Rees, although his benchmarking of the vehicle against Aston Martin and Porsche yields a clue as to which end of the scale the car will occupy.

“The limited numbers means we simply can’t produce a mass market vehicle with a £30,000 window sticker,” says Rees. “We’re in dialogue with customers for about half the production run, but we don’t see a need to market the vehicle. It’s really a private project, an attempt to retain the spirit and human story of a man killed at 300mph. This car is meant to be a part of the ongoing Campbell story.”

DC50 powertrain derived from Formula E race car

Profit from the limited production run will provide a significant funding stream that will help Bluebird return to the race track, which is where the Campbell story started. “Malcolm Campbell would race anything. From 1912, he named his race cars “Blue Bird” – whatever make they might be,” Rees says. “But then he went on to create the world’s first purpose-built record breaking car. Today, that means there are some significant issues with Bluebird’s return to the track. We need a substantial say in the technology particularly and, preferably, the ability to campaign our own car.”

If that position seems unusual, it is down to what Rees sees as intrinsic to the Bluebird name – design, engineering and manufacturing. “Bluebirds are Bluebirds,” he says. “That legacy of custom-built vehicles makes it difficult now to simply badge other cars. Bluebird is not just a badge or brand. We have engineering integrity and a distinct character and identity. We can’t afford to have that diluted.”

Add to that priority list Bluebird’s focus on electrically powered vehicles and the number of opportunities dwindles considerably. Enter Formula E.

“We were involved very early with the FIA at the development stages of Formula E,” says Rees. “We were there when the technical regulations were first being drafted, early in 2012. Those meetings included two or three other interested parties who were hoping to be constructors.”

At that stage, Rees says, the team’s intention was clear: design, build and race a Bluebird in the first season of Formula E. Win. Celebrate.

“The first iteration of the regulations included enclosed bodywork and cockpit, which informed our first design,” he says. That first design was labelled the GTL. It is an exciting, wild-looking concept, equal parts Batmobile and cruise missile. A detuned version of the bespoke powertrain developed for the GTL is what will drive the DC50. If Formula E is serious about creating a vision of the future of motorsports, Bluebird is serious about engineering that vision into reality.

“Our intention was to offer the car and the technology to other teams too,” Rees explains. “That was a principle bound up in the FIA’s original approach. We felt that was a good approach. There are a limited number of top-end experts; it isn’t going to be easy for 10 teams to run their own cars with distinct technology because it will take a number of years for the expertise to build. Having three or four constructors is a good way of making sure the constructors could see a return on investment and offers a route to sensibly grow the series.”

“Jury’s out” on one-make series

Subsequent evolution of the series makes it unlikely that the GTL will ever see the track, however. Rees: “Following the appointment of promoter FEH, and the relationship between FEH and Spark [Racing Technology], the regulations have been refined and moved towards open wheel, open cockpit formula, with fixed aero and other changes that meant we had to reconsider our proposal.”

Then came the announcement that Formula E would be a one-make series in the first season, with Spark to supply all teams an identical car.

“The promoter needs to be applauded for such commitment to the series: producing cars for a whole grid is a huge financial effort. But as for Bluebird becoming a constructor in year one, that is clearly now not possible,” Rees says. “We’d prefer to campaign with our own car, and the Campbell family would prefer us to be there with our own car. We’ll meet with FEH shortly to discuss what might be achievable. But we’re probably looking at entry into the 2015 season, which will open in July next year.”

There are still options on the table for Bluebird in 2014. “We very much support the project,” Rees says. “But whether we contribute as a team, by supporting another team with our engineering expertise or as a constructor – that’s still to be decided. And the jury’s out on whether one-make series appeal to fans.”

Rees points to the meeting of the FIA World Motor Sports Council this month which will lend some clarity to the detail of the series. “Our position has been a watching brief for the past eight months,” he says wryly. “We’re not in a position to force any agenda. And when it comes to racing decisions, such as who might drive for us, we need to wait and see what happens before making a serious comment on any entry.”

Rising to the challenge

Bluebird isn’t hanging around for Formula E however; still under wraps are plans to enter another high profile racing series. Rees says that an announcement about the entry is imminent, as is news of a partnership to build a sports boat to pair up with the DC50.

Also in the pipeline is the Bluebird Academy, which will engage youngsters at an early age to foster understanding of electric technology. “Out of that may come driving talent,” Rees says. Though the programme is still in development, it is at an advanced stage, as are many of the plans highlighted here.

“We are entering a phase where a number of these projects will become highly visible,” explains Rees. “Together, these projects will turn the business into a much more significant entity than it has been for last decade. But we’re being careful not to outgrow ourselves. We’ll progress steadily, in a measured way. We need to deliver; we need to succeed.”

Rees operates this focus on electric vehicle technology under no illusions about the environmental limitations of battery powered cars. “Fossil fuel is a finite resource that we have ripped through in the last 150 years. We have used up a two million year old resource in two centuries. We need an alternative. Yes, the use of electric cars simply removes the problem from cities, but the technology does have the potential to become much more environmentally friendly on the back of sustainable energy resources. EV technology is part of a long term process to reduce emissions and to eliminate our use of fossil fuels.”

When it comes down to enjoyment, the eco angle doesn’t spoil the ride, Rees believes: “The first land speed records were set using electric power. The driveability, the way you apply the power in geared or ungeared form, is intoxicating. Electric drive has a character all of its own.”

A 500mph electric land speed record target, a Porsche-beating sports car, a power boat and two racing series – for a team as diminutive as Bluebird, success in such a diverse array of projects could be nothing more than wishful thinking.

“It will be tough to achieve it all,” Rees admits. But he isn’t fazed by the challenge nor the weight of responsibility that comes with the unique history attached to the Bluebird name.

“If there’s one thing Bluebird does well, it’s rising to the challenge.”

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