What does it take to compete at the highest levels of motorsport? While drivers may occupy the spotlight, engineers toil behind the scenes to out-innovate the competition. With his career rich in motorsport innovation, we were curious to find out what Kieron Salter, CEO at KW Special Projects, has learned from his experiences in BTCC and Le Mans, and how lessons from racing translate to the development of modern hypercars.
Motorsport is a symphony of engineering and adrenaline, where people and machines push the boundaries of grip, speed and endurance. The engineers, like virtuosos, design and build mechanical beasts, fine-tuning every detail to extract maximum performance. They work tirelessly, pouring over data, analysing telemetry, and experimenting with new technologies. For engineers who thrive on the thrill of competition and the rush of pushing the limits, motorsport engineering is the ultimate creative outlet.
“Racing is an unusual combination of engineering, science, technology and extreme competition,” explains Salter. “It's a high-stakes game, where the smallest mistake can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Commercial success and longevity are rare, even amongst the most well-known teams in the world. It is an industry fuelled by passion that can be absolutely brutal and certainly not for the faint-of-heart or those looking for an easy ride.”
Salter cut his teeth as a young graduate engineer at Reynard, a well-known UK motorsport business that – like many before and since – went into administration. In those early years, Kieron played a role in the development of several interesting and innovative 90s LeMans cars, as well as being Senior Engineer of the Silverstone-winning Ford Mondeo British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) programme. With such diverse exposure to top-flight racing early in his career, he gained extensive experience in chassis design and low-volume manufacturing.
“Through my time with Reynard, many of the most important lessons and experiences involved the pursuit of lightweighting. In the world of motorsport, it is all about mass. If we were able to use lighter materials, redesign components or completely remove parts we deemed unnecessary, then we could improve the acceleration, braking and handling of our race cars. For races like Le Mans, it was about more than faster lap times. A lighter car meant better fuel efficiency, which meant fewer refuelling stops.
“As material technologies have evolved, the industry has taken light weighting to the extreme. Extensive use of carbon fibre, for example, is now universal in motorsport and very popular among high-performance road cars. The maturation of 3D printing has opened up many new possibilities with advanced alloys, allowing us to create parts with optimised geometries that could not feasibly be made via any other means.”
While Salter was taking as much weight out as possible, he was also trying to put unusual technologies in. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, Salter worked on three ground-breaking projects that involved integrating unusual technologies: the Chrysler Patriot, a hybrid-electric, turbine-powered, liquid natural gas-fuelled racing car; the Panoz Q9 GTR-1 Hybrid, an innovative race car that used a petrol V8 in combination with an electric motor drive to the transmission; and the Nasamax-Judd V10 LMP1, the first car to ever compete at Le Mans using a wholly renewable fuel. All three projects were ahead of their time, faced significant technological challenges and helped lay the groundwork for modern racing technologies.
“Of the many motorsport programmes that I have been involved in, these three stand out. Not only were we working on things with little precedent, but it was also all in the heat of competition and finding a way through the regulations to outclass the field. We’re talking about early battery-electric hybrids, energy recovery systems, gas turbines and renewable fuels – all technologies that are relevant and interesting today as motorsport and the automotive industry look to decarbonise.
Considering the future of motorsport and the global push toward low-carbon solutions, Salter believes sustainable motorsport will be about more than electrification – positive news for many motorsport fans.
“I think one of the most significant shifts will be towards sustainable fuels. Investment in eFuels and biofuels will breathe life into the future of internal combustion engines, which are such an integral part of motorsport – particularly for fans. Over the coming decade, there will be an increasingly widespread investment and use of these fuels in motorsports – even Formula 1 is targeting a 100% sustainable "drop-in" fuel by 2026. In turn, this investment and development will lead to wider transport applications, hopefully keeping enthusiast cars on the road well into the future.”
Today, Salter leads two Silverstone-based businesses, KW Special Projects and the Digital Manufacturing Centre (DMC). KWSP is a high-performance engineering company that specialises in niche vehicle programmes and technology transfer between industries while the DMC is a state-of-the-art industrial additive manufacturing – or 3Dprinting – facility that serves a range of sectors from motorsport and automotive through to aerospace and MedTech. Through these two businesses, Salter and his team are leading and supplying a number of high-profile hypercar programmes.
“Just like the motorsport projects of my early career, hypercars present us with unique engineering challenges. Not only are we looking for innovative ways to cut weight and integrate novel propulsion systems, but we are achieving it with additional requirements. Things like road legality, specific customer use cases or needs, supply chain capabilities and cost all create an interesting tension with the motorsport desire for uncompromising outright performance. While we can’t say much more about project specifics at the moment, watch this space.”
For more information about KW Special Projects, visit https://www.kwspecialprojects.com/.