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The man who builds F1 cars in his shed
The high-octane world of F1 is constantly trying to push the technical barrier. Teams spend millions of pounds building and developing cars in their squeaky-clean factories. But there’s one man doing it by himself, in a shed at the bottom of his garden. With parts scavenged off the internet. His name is Kevin Thomas, and if Top Gear did Blue Peter-style badges, he’d be getting gold.
Most people, when they decide they like Formula One, daydream about what an F1 car would be like to sit in, and possibly drive. But Kevin is not most people. Four years ago, when he saw an F1 car on display in a Renault showroom, he had an epiphany. And decided to build his own. In his shed.
“I don’t know why, but on that Sunday afternoon, I just thought, ‘I want one. I want an F1 car,’” Kevin told TG. But if wishes were fishes, then everyone would own an aquarium. Think about it like this: in 2011, the Mercedes-Benz F1 team spent £241.2million. By the end of the year, it returned a net loss of £10million. They made five cars. Yes, they had other costs in running a team - entry fees and drivers’ licences cost about £7million alone - but, still, building an F1 car isn’t exactly banger racing.
Four years on, and, as you can see from these pictures, Kevin has an F1 car. Sort of. But the story is more complicated than that, because the one you see before you isn’t the one he built for a budget that’s probably no more than your annual supermarket bill. No, that car took a whole lot longer to put together, but started him on a path to F1 glory and funded the acquisition of the car you see here. It was, by all accounts, not straightforward.
“It was like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the front, with the jigsaw pieces spread all over the world… and none were for sale,” he says of his initial forays into kit-form F1. The problem is that you can’t ring Bernie Ecclestone and order from a catalogue of parts. This meant hours and hours of trawling websites looking for bits so he could put a car together, one piece at a time.
Dedication uncovered three chassis for sale - all BAR Hondas - from 1999, ‘00 and ‘01. “I chose the 2001 BAR003, as it was the most successful year for BAR out of those three,” he says. The car never raced, but was a T-car for six or seven races and in the pit during the 2001 Australian GP. So some F1 magic may have leaked into it by pit-lane osmosis.
Unlike those people who buy bits of F1 cars and put them in Perspex boxes in their offices, Kevin wanted to build his Honda’s carbon tub back up into a full car. Ambitious. You might imagine that Kev has a degree in mechanical engineering. Or a part-time job in a backstreet garage. As it happens, he didn’t have any idea what he was doing. “I had to learn how to do it all,” he says. “As I couldn’t get all BAR parts, I had to adapt most things.”
Take the floor, for instance, which was from a car a year younger. It didn’t fit his chassis. “I watched a couple of documentaries on the telly on how to make carbon fibre. I bought lots of resin and went to the shed to give it a go. I made lots of mistakes but I got the hang of it…” So some bits he adapted or built, and others he sourced from smaller teams. Kev often travelled to Oxfordshire, where many F1 teams are based, to buy things from ex-employees who were handed car paraphernalia as leaving presents.
And so, after thousands of hours trying to bolt it all together, Kevin had quite a Frankencar at the bottom of the garden. The front wing, rear wing, front wheels (the rears courtesy of a later Super Aguri), engine cover, nose cone and chassis were all from various vintages of BAR Honda, the sidepods came from a Williams, there was a Jordan gearbox and an RA107 Honda rear crash structure. The suspension was a mishmash of Honda uprights, Renault stubs, EJ11 wishbones… and the steering wheel was from a PlayStation with a Honda badge glued on the front. Steering wheels, as it turns out, are the Fabergé eggs of F1 memorabilia. “I did get offered a Honda 2008 steering wheel,” he says. “But it was £8,000 - that’s the price I paid for the whole car!”
But he was still missing some crucial parts to properly realise the dream. An engine, for example. And quite a lot of engineering knowledge. “It wasn’t high-tech. It looked good as I had all the pretty bits, but if you’d driven it, it would have just fallen apart on the first bend – one of the wheels probably would’ve fallen off,” says Kev, ruefully. And so he went in search of a more ready-to-race upgrade. This time he found another BAR003: chassis number five - a more or less complete car, minus the motor. It had provenance, too, being the car that gained BAR its first-ever podium - the first of two for Jacques Villeneuve that season.
And where had it been hiding all this time? In Honda’s museum? No. It was hanging from the roof of a grotty Leeds nightclub like a multi-million-pound mobile.
“I had to have it…” Kev tells us, and when Kev says he has to have something, we already know he doesn’t do things by halves. But the straight-up cost meant he had to sell his home-brewed BAR003 and get a loan. He won’t go into the details, but going by the price of similar stuff on eBay and auction sites, we’d guess it cost him around £20k. The sale of the Kevin-edition F1 car allowed him one step closer to the reality of seeing his own F1 car running on a race track. “I want to get it back on track professionally,” he says. “Maybe one of the teams will lend me an engine. I’m convinced it would slot in and be good to go. I don’t know how, but four years ago I didn’t know how to build an F1 car - I do now.”
But we’ll leave the final words to an ever-hopeful Kevin, from an email he sent us after the photoshoot: “Would it be a good story to have a modern F1 team drop their engine and gearbox into my car?”
So, if you’re an F1 team that just happens to have a spare engine/’box lying about the workshop and are prepared to make one man’s dreams come true, then please getin touch at the usual address…
Words and Pictures: Rowan Horncastle
This feature first appeared in September 2013 issue of Top Gear magazine