The high-tech world of radio-controlled car racing

The place of the second step of the six-round, radio-controlled 1:12 scale LMP12 British Championship of the season is in the gym at Lord Lawson of Beamish Academy, near Newcastle.

Hospitality is a fracture of the coffee machine and Bernie Ecclestone is a bit younger chap called Peter Winton with less hair, but all of it his own.

I can not laugh, though, because a lot of road cars, I just parked my old nail between the arrival are serious pieces of kit, including a 65-reg BMW X5 M50d, a 17-reg Golf R and a 67-reg Mercedes-AMG C63. Unlike me, these guys are not here on a tight budget.

What they are here for the race. This is evident in the “garage” (the Academy of the games room), where close to 70 guys (there are only one or two women riders) of all ages, but most of them in their thirties, are rows of tables stacked with voltmeters, electro-soldering, electric screwdrivers, pliers, rolls of electrical tape brightly coloured plastic car bodies and half-finished cans of Fanta.

A chap lovingly wiping down his car’s plastic body with a bright yellow duster. Another is testing its electric car, the connections with fierce concentration. In the corner, a group of grown men are expertly rotating small tires on three small lathes, grinding down the rubber to reduce its thickness, thus the small electric racing cars slide more easily.

Lewis Hamilton cut his teeth in radio-controlled car racing after his father, Anthony, has given him a when he was six years old. Hamilton is second in the BRCA national championship the following year.

Surprisingly, the multi-millionaire Formula 1 champion has better things to do today than to encourage his former rivals. Regardless, there is ample compensation is no less a figure 14-time European and five times champion of the World LMP champion David Spashett. He has been racing for 36 years, almost since the LMP class, one of the oldest RC racing classes in existence, began in 1976, in fact. He cuts a modest figure.

“There is no secret to winning,” Spashett said that he makes last-minute adjustments to the upturned racer in the palm of his hand. “It’s about making the most of the car that you have and constantly adapt to your style of the way it behaves on the track.”

This level of control at a distance may seem far-fetched, but the cars Spashett and his fellow RC enthusiasts racing today are the most advanced, the electrical models of the planet. The features include a regenerative braking system, programmable EV motor of which the frequency and the timing can be varied across the rev range, the heatsinks on the speed controller (the ECU) and the engine to keep running temperatures up to 70deg C, and multi-adjustable suspension. They are powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries, such as you find in mobile phones and laptops. Alone is powerful enough to start a radio controlled car.

Many of the top EV engineers in the automotive industry have served their apprenticeship, the advanced design of the powertrains for RC racers. It has been a brain drain for the sport, with a famous California-based provider of losing so many of its engineers from Tesla that he had to close shop.

A rider here today, whose work day shall enjoy his passion for the sport is a Trademark of Stiles. The multiple BRCA winner of the race, is a mechanical design engineer at Renault Sport F1 team, although by the time you read this he will have exchanged combinations of Mercedes F1, to the house of his former race rival, Lewis Hamilton.

“We are the same age and from the same region,” said Stiles. “I’ve raced a few times and even beat him on occasion, but he could see to his attention, and he has always held his nerve no matter what.”

Stiles passion for the sport began at school, when he joined the radio-controlled car club. That has fuelled an interest in the automotive industry which eventually led him to the University of Oxford Brookes, with a degree in mechanical engineering and, since 2009, a career in F1.

“Just like the Formula 1, LMP12 is very precise and technical class,” he said. “You have all of the complexity of the transmission, but also of the suspension system.

“The rear is a live axle roll and bump adjustment, and a ball differential that allows you to adjust the level of thrust of the load for different levels of grip. The front is a independent sliding pivot system with a lot of possibilities of adjustment of the wheel angles.”

And just like the F1, tire selection and preparation are essential. It is quite warm today, which will help soften the tires. Before each race, the competitors can be seen with the application of an approved chemical for the rubber to speed up the process.

However, in contrast to the F1, not a circuit is always the same, which means those who have run at Lord Lawson of Beamish Academy last year may not claim a benefit of this season.

That said, the surface itself (non – linting needle-punch materials) is fairly standard, leading Stiles to say about the next race at Tamworth: “I went there last year, so I know the carpet really well…”

Anyway, it’s time I had a go, but first of all, my car must pass scrutineering. Maximum allowed battery voltage is 4.209 V, the maximum weight of 730 g and the height must not be less than 3 mm. I’m good to go.

The track is about two metres wide and has 11 corners. The fastest riders lapping in around 11 seconds, it is a corner every second. I joined five of my fellow “pilots” on a couple of stacked benches offering a bird’s-eye view of the track. I take the controller with two hands: on the left the rocker, the power; to the right the toggle, the direction.

The race director, the countdown, and we are, me in the barrier, but the rest of the pack clear into the distance. I think that by the time commissioner has the air lifted my stricken race car into position, I was lapped by the other at least once. It goes down to the humiliation of the forces of my retirement.

It is difficult, this RC racing thing. Keeping your thumb on the toggle at all times and the knowledge of your left to right (not easy, because you have to constantly redirect depending on whether the car is heading from or towards you) are key elements. But I can see its appeal and that the club said to me (and that Stiles proves), for a young man keen to cars and engineering, there is the seed of a successful career here.

There are 10,000 active runners and 220 clubs in the UK alone. While places such as Lord Lawson of Beamish Academy continue to sing to the sound of 50 mph remote-controlled racers, the future of Britain’s automotive industry is in good hands.

John Evans

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