BREAKING ANY WORLD SPEED RECORD ISN’T EASY, BUT WHEN IT’S AN ELECTRIC-POWERED ONE, IT COMES WITH A WHOLE NEW SET OF CHALLENGES. HERE’S HOW JAGUAR VECTOR RACING PUSHED THE BOAT OUT…
STORY: SACHIN RAO
On a clear day, Coniston Water is one of the most beautiful spots in all of England. Nestled in the heart of Cumbria, popularly known as the Lake District, this large lake is a tourist magnet come summer. But today is not a clear day. Yes, it’s early enough in the morning to be still nursing fond dreams (of coffee, mostly), but the peasouper that’s blanketing the lake is murky enough to put a hint of a frown on the two dozen faces around me.
They are not tourists; even the keenest of holiday ramblers are still sensibly in bed. But if their sense of focus and rapid action isn’t evidence enough that they are expert professionals, a Jaguar F-PACE pulls in towing a large object covered by a tarpaulin, and the buzz immediately increases. This crew is on a mission, and at the heart of it is what’s revealed to be under the tarp: a sleek watercraft – the Jaguar Vector Racing V20E.
And more specifically, what’s under its bodyshell: a huge, powerful battery that draws on Formula E technology. The goal today is deceptively simple: to break the decade-old world speed record for an electric watercraft; currently, 76.8 mph. This may sound relatively low – we’re used to motorway speeds, after all, let alone watching Formula One races from the comfort of our sofas – but given the nature of the propulsion system and the surface being raced on, the task at hand conceals a whole host of unique challenges to overcome.
This is where it gets interesting, as pushing the envelope is in Jaguar’s DNA, and that of its partners in this world record attempt, Vector Racing and Williams Advanced Engineering. Jaguar is already well at the forefront of electrification technology, with a clear mission to ‘Race To Innovate’ on track and on the water. So the key would be to successfully transfer the racecar technology being used in Formula E with Panasonic Jaguar Racing, to powerboats. “Electric racing is in its relative infancy even in the automobile world, and the marine version is almost unexplored,” explained Malcolm Crease, CEO of Vector.
“So all three partners really wanted to push the boundaries of performance in this sector.” After the decision was taken in mid-2017 to commit to breaking the electric marine world speed record, preparations and testing began, and carried on for more than eight months, with the pioneering nature of the activity inevitably leading to plenty of trial and error.
“We had to start from scratch, right from working out the type and size of boat, to the costs, weights and outputs of the various components,” said Peter Dredge, Vector’s technical director and a veteran marine racer.
“Replacing the engine and fuel tank with a battery, inverters, motor and sensors, and calibrating and tuning each setup, was a painstaking process. We needed to balance out the weight, keep it aerodynamic, and make sure everything was safe, compliant with regulations, and that the integrity of the craft was intact. None of it was an exact science; much of it had not been tried before.”
Another issue was finding suitably long stretches of water to run the systems enough to confirm the cooling systems could deal with the great heat that needed to be dissipated. Components failed, and lessons had to be unpicked. But as the learning curve accelerated, the performance data started to improve strongly, and the teams grew confident in their ability to break the record.
Meanwhile, another challenge was being steadily overcome – the Lake District has strict bye-laws limiting boat speeds to 10mph, and it takes many months to process the multitudes of paperwork needed to get special dispensation to attempt a speed record. The logistics were nothing to sneeze at either; a feat like this requires timekeepers, safety crews, and other kinds of officials. But finally, requisite permissions in hand, the stage was set. The weather forecast was good, and everyone involved was raring to go.
Cue fog. But eventually, and dramatically, like a curtain in a stage play, it lifts, magically revealing Coniston’s still waters ringed by hills. Peter lowers himself into the snug cockpit, and the V20E is gently backed in near the pier. In near-silence, save the splash of parting water, the dart-like craft accelerates away – slowly at first, then rapidly gaining speed, driveline hum resonating over the lake – until it is just a white fantail receding into the distance.
I get my chance to nurse a cappuccino, but out on the water, Peter is running on adrenaline. Everything is precise and practiced. Data evaluated; radio chatter with safety and tech crews; turnaround time; the return pass made within a stipulated time; average run speed calculated.
As an experienced racer and record breaker, Peter is mentally in the zone, breaking down everything into small and simple actions. It’s a fine line between success and failure. So he stays in the cockpit and in the zone, even as laptops are plugged in and parts checked, tuned and tweaked or replaced between runs.
A chance to stretch his legs comes only when the boat is taken out of the water, for the battery to be recharged. The sun peaks, then starts to drop. And then: triumph. An afternoon run produces a two-way average of 84.8mph, smashing the record. Three runs later, Peter and the crew push the V20E all the way up to 88.6mph, which, as the permitted sessions end, stands as the new world record*.
THE SUN PEAKS, THEN STARTS TO DROP. AND THEN: TRIUMPH
“My first reaction? Relief!” laughs Peter. “Relief that everyone’s time and effort over 15 months has paid off. And next, excitement for the future. I can tell you, this record won’t last long. We’ve already got big plans.”
STILL WATERS RUN DEEP
The third-largest lake in England, Coniston Water is long – five miles long by half a mile wide – and calm, making it perfectly suited to speed runs, where racing watercraft need as much space as possible to build up and scrub off speed, turn around and make another run. This is why it hosts an annual multi-class event, Coniston Powerboat Records Week, usually in November.
Jaguar Vector Racing’s achievement of the world electric marine speed record at Coniston Water is only fitting, as the lake is no stranger to such feats. This was where the legendary Sir Malcolm Campbell first broke the then world waterspeed record (by a fuel engined craft) when he hit 141mph, back in 1939.
In the 1950s, his son Donald set four successive records here, in the iconic hydroplane Bluebird K7. Sadly, Donald Campbell perished in 1967, when he lost control of his craft while pushing past an incredible 320mph. Its wreckage was only retrieved from the lake’s depths in 2001.