Xtrac visit

We got to see how motorsport transmissions are made. By Steve Foster.

Back in 2004 I rang round / emailed round to find some possible visits and tours for our area meeting. The main idea was to visit sites of motorsport interest that were near enough to blat to. A look on some websites and hey-presto, Xtrac, who are but a stone's throw from where I work, came to the fore. Xtrac make transmissions and systems for F1, Le Mans, WRC, Indy car, BTCC etc.

I got an answer back from Xtrac that they were sorry for the delay in their response but they had been very busy late 2004 and early 2005 with the F1 preparations. They would be happy to host a tour for us for around 20 members. I met Kirsty Montgomery (Commercial Manager) and explained the kind of format that would interest us. Kirsty went through what was possible and not possible, and was pleased to hear that we would raise a little dosh for NtL, our club charity.

Well, the day loomed. I was, of course, taking the 7 to work / Xtrac. I had a rather boring drive to work (A322, A329M, M4, A4) all in pre-rush hour (but pretty busy all the same) traffic is not the best 7 territory. At lunchtime I took a colleague (Alan) out for a blast. He had owned a Subaru Impreza but had reliability problems?! and got Subaru to buy it back at only 10 months old. Even the Japanese can make a Monday-morning car, it seems. Anyway once the water and oil were suitably warmed we were off. The exhaust was popping on the overrun, and my passenger howling through his helmet in approval. Slowing for a roundabout the exhaust gave a round of particularly loud pops and bangs and my passenger was firing off imaginary rounds in the air like a Mexican bandit.

Back to work all too soon and the time passed slowly until 18:15 came around and it was time to leave for the Xtrac car park. I was there in a jiffy and only one 7 was already there. One by one the 7's arrived, some did little loops missing the massive Xtrac building first time around and circling around the Panasonic roundabout homing in. Guy arrived not in a yellow or even mango 7 but in a van with 'Guy the Grill' on the side. This van would be of great use come Race Jack distribution day. Many thanks to Guy and all those involved BTW, but that's another story...

Before going in Kev took these pics of Xtrac and the 7's with his rather fab digi camera.

Once we had assembled, our group entered the building and we received our already prepared name badges. Kirsty was soon on the scene to inform us of proceedings and made it quite clear that photography was strictly forbidden. Sorry Kev, time to put the camera away.

We were shown in to the staff restaurant come presentation room and Kirsty took us through a brief history of Xtrac. Established in 1984 by an employee of Hewland. The founder had a neat idea for 4WD transmissions just at the right time of Audi and the rally scene picking up on 4WD. The business idea and need was there and it was up, up and away from there. From humble beginnings in a big shed to the major transmission supplier in international motor sport.

We were shown the R&D philosophy and the development and design tools Xtrac use. Some of our members are CAD designers and they felt very at home with this. The need for the best engineering minds around was stressed and Brent was the proud dad as his son will be starting his year in industry at Xtrac later in the year.

After this we split up into groups of 5 and were conducted on a tour of the site. My group were guided by a designer whose nickname was 'Disco' (Kirsty let that slip out). We started looking at the materials used, most is round bar of the highest quality steel. Xtrac keep large stocks to prevent their production being affected by market forces or production lead-times that, for this type of material, are very long.

There were then the various tools and equipment for chopping up the bar into useful sized bits for gears and drive shafts etc. We were shown gear cutting, from small machines to large walking CNC monsters. There was wire erosion cutting, this uses an electric current to remove metal. The hardening process, a cycle of heating and cooling the components to achieve the correct balance of durability vs brittleness. Each method dependant on stresses the component in its application will have to withstand. There is a special welding process that is actually stronger than the metal itself. It can be applied to incredibly intricate pieces in confined places.

Then it was on to finishing / polishing area. This used various methods and one room had a nut allergy warning sign as they use crushed walnut shells to rub away surface imperfections in giant food mixer-like machines. Basically the smoother the surface, the less likely a stress fracture is to develop.

We then moved on to the gearbox assembly and testing room. There was a collection of gearboxes under build, some for the coming Le Mans meeting. We learned that at important races like Le Mans and F1, Xtrac would have a senior engineer at track to support the teams and analyse any difficulties. The boxes are all tested to ensure gear engagement but not put on the equivalent of a dyno for gearboxes. This is not deemed necessary.

We then moved on to the design rooms. Modern draughtsman workstations and the offices where the technical directors sit.

Staff flux to and from race teams was mentioned. Also, the difficulty in F1 in a budding engineer seeing enough technical areas to become a technical director, as each area is so specialised these days that a real effort is made to rotate the best minds around, to ensure that there is the depth and breath of knowledge needed to run an F1 team.

The facility certainly was an impressive one. The site is massive and split into two areas, design / development and production. There is a heli-pad at the rear for big-wigs and crucial technical decision-makers to fly in and out.

Xtrac were cagey about who they work for, not actually naming any names. They explained that this was all part of the confidentiality needed to build confidence that, although they do work for most teams, no secrets or advantages are passed on. Chinese walls indeed.

Usually Xtrac are building to the race team's specification and applying their knowledge in advice to the way to make the parts. Of course some parts are trialed and need modification before they can ever be used. The database of what works and what doesn't really is Xtrac's intellectual property. It's being able to apply this at speed, to get cutting edge technology that works to the cars quicker, and with greater reliability than the competition, that has put them on the map.

I asked about scrap as some components are only 5-10% of the solid bar they are originally made from. The scrap returns to British Steel in a recycling deal.

We then returned to the presentation room where a variety of works of art had been placed on the table for us to examine. These were scrap parts and most had a marking or label to indicate what was wrong. The finish and intricacy of the parts was astounding. Angus tried in jest to smuggle a particularly shiny part out (cost to produce about £4000), but it was not allowed. Nothing leaves the plant unless it's authorised.

There were then many questions and Xtrac were very good about answering most of them.

Kirsty explained why she is so passionate about motor sport. Basically her dad didn't get a son and so the daughter was taken around to motor sport events and developed a real interest in all things motor sport.

It was then time to collect in £100 for NtL and thank Kirsty and her team for allowing us to gain an insight into race transmission design and production.

We then blatted up a deserted A4 in a small convoy until it was just Nigel and I. Nigel stayed over at my place before returning to Cambridgeshire the next day (via Freestyle).

The next will be the Hoggsback brewery :-). So that the majority of us can supp, we will assign Andy Webber and Brent Chiswick as our nominated drivers :-) I’m sure both can drive a minibus each.

This page is http://www.strangely.org/7club/meetings/200506/xtrac.html. It was first published on Sunday 16 October, 2005 and last updated on Sunday 16 October, 2005.