Question: Name a minister who requested leave of absence from the government to compete in a Le Mans race? Answer: Paul Drayson, who became Lord Drayson in 2004 before becoming Minister for Defence Procurement in Tony Blair’s government — and who, in 2007, went off to compete in the American Le Mans Series in the United States.
He returned to Government as Science and Innovation minister in 2008. Now, with Labour out of power, he is again turning his attention to being an entrepreneur — and by his own admission has stopped being a total “petrol head” and turned into an “electric head” (though he still drives an Aston Martin).
He and his wife Elspeth founded Drayson Racing Technologies, based in Kidlington, in 2007.
Last week Lord Drayson unveiled the all-electric 200 mph Lola-Drayson B12/69EV racing car that his company has developed in partnership with Lola Racing.
Lord Drayson, 51, said: “I have invested several millions in this project because I think electric cars are the next big thing. This is a serious commercial proposition. I am certainly not doing it for charity — and I certainly expect to make my money back.”
He added that he was not doing it just for fun either — though anyone could see from his smile that he enjoys every minute of it.
He lives across the Oxfordshire border in Gloucestershire, so why did he set up his green racing business in Kidlington?
“In order to be at the heart of Motorsport Valley — and as near as possible to expertise at Oxford,” came the answer, quick as a flash.
We were talking at the Motor Industry Association’s Low Carbon Racing Conference at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, after he had unveiled the extraordinary new car which, he hopes, may be the prototype for a machine that as soon as 2016 could line-up on the starting grid at a brand new FIA series, Formula Electric.
Could it happen? Will fans ever enjoy the same thrill watching whisper-quiet electric cars as they do watching their petrol-driven predecessors?
According to Lord Drayson, the answer can only be yes, if only because they will soon go as fast.
And it would be an unwise person indeed who dismisses too lightly predictions from such a source as Lord Drayson — who has already made one multi-million pound fortune by backing a revolutionary innovation in the world of pharmaceuticals.
He and his wife Elspeth exploited an invention of Elspeth’s father, John Bellhouse, then Regius Professor at Oxford University, to develop a needle-free injection system.
They founded the company PowderJect in 1993 with Drayson as chief executive. The firm rapidly developed into a major vaccine enterprise — which the family sold in 2003 to US giant Chiron for £540m — netting some £70m for the family, of which Drayson personally pocketed about £40m.
He said at the time of the lucrative sale: “I am 43 and have no plans to sit on the bench.”
And he has certainly not done so, despite his time in the House of Lords.
This time around, having completed his transfer from pharmaceuticals to racing, he said: “The car is really a lab on wheels. It is a platform for demonstrating so many new technologies which will transfer into the mainstream car industry and other industries too.”
Most high profile of these is the wireless charging system, called HaloIPT, which was developed at Oxford Brookes University and uses coils in the floor to enable recharging when the car is parked above a special pad.
Lord Drayson said: “We work closely with Brookes (which has a Motorsport Engineering Centre) and I see motorsport, in which Britain is a world leader, as a great area for the recruitment of talent and enthusing young people.”
He himself studied engineering at Aston University, with British Leyland providing practical experience.
Oxfordshire is taking the lead in the development of electric cars in several ways. Apart from the Halo charging system coming from Brookes, the four axial flux motors that drive the new Lola-Drayson car were developed by Oxford company YASA Motors.
Lord Drayson said: “We are in the right country to take the lead and in the right part of the right country too.”
But it is a close-knit industry in which contacts and networking are important.
For instance Lola, Drayson, BAE Systems, Halo IPT, A123, Mavizen, Oxford YASA, Rhinehart, Cosworth and Multimatic are all key partners.
Now the talk among such enterprises is largely about how to obtain a slice of a £25m grant for innovation that is on offer from the Department of Transport’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles.
For the technically minded, the Lola-Drayson car is powered by electricity stored in highly advanced lithium nanophosphate battery cells made exclusively by A123 Systems and used for the first time here.
The cells are housed in a battery pack made by Mavizen to drive the motor via inverters supplied by Rhinehart and producing up to 850 brake horse power.
Drayson Racing Technologies currently employs six people at Kidlington. There are about another 50 employed on the project nationwide.
A frequent question in motor racing circles, and one to be heard at the MIA conference is: What future is there for motor racing in a low carbon world? Lord Drayson maintains electric is the future.
Only time will tell. ib