Picture this. You take a senior job in the carbon fibre car parts business at Prodrive, and just before Christmas, Subaru announces that it will be pulling out of the World Rally Championship.

So you set about rebuilding the budgets and reckon that you might get some reasonable replacement business out of Prodrive winning a place in Formula One racing.

On the day that just-auto ambles into your factory to see how carbon fibre is getting on, you stop at your own company notice board and read with growing horror the newly-posted announcement from F1 that Prodrive (and others) has been rejected as a new entrant to the race series.

What sort of effort of will does it take to stop you saying out loud what is on the tip of your tongue? But Ian Handscombe, Prodrive's composites manager, is race-hardened. He's taken a few knocks in his time. He's very disappointed, he admits. But he stays very cool.

The only major race project that Prodrive has left is the Aston Martin race project and there was a result at Le Mans with Aston coming in at fourth behind two Peugeots and an Audi and as the fastest petrol car behind the three diesels.

But it's a modest programme for Prodrive Composites and it won't keep a factory going. Handscombe will have to draw something from the growing interest shown in carbon fibre by the road car makers, and the increasing range of other industries that are discovering new uses for the material.

Here he lights up a little. He can't name names though he is dying to. One of the world's great supercar makers has specified his dashboard console for an imminent limited edition car using a new technique that delivers an exceptional finish without lacquer (which can degrade with age and use). They are also making other components for the vehicle, including floors, all to an exceptional standard.

This market demand requires real precision. The lay-up has to be just so to get an appealing pattern from the fibres and the surface finish has to be literally spotless or the component comes back for a 'try again.'

The big news in carbon fibre technology is the arrival of nano-tube technology.

So nano is stronger and will have applications in performance components but it is also prettier. "If you look at normal fibres under a microscope they are a mess. These fibres are perfectly aligned. This step could be as big a step as from metals to carbon fibre," says Handscombe.

He sure needs something new to open up. "To say that I have been kicked from all sides since taking over here would be putting it mildly. The rule changes in Formula 1 pulled carbon out of the cars. There is so little left that most have the teams have taken carbon fibre production back in-house.

"We do not have any external contracts now other than Force India. We did have Red Bull and we were on the verge of business with Williams." That company had been spending around half a million pounds a year on composites.

Other than the nameless, prestige supercar project there are contracts with other car and bike manufacturers, but most promising is the diversification outside the auto industry. The high quality audio speaker maker, KEF, has built some prototypes using the material for its space-age good looks as much as its acoustic properties. They look and sound good.

Handscombe and his engineering colleagues have also solved materials-related problems for an increasing range of other industries, including aerospace (aviation and satellites), off-shore (where the environment is exceptionally tough but weight is at a premium), military and communications. "The properties of carbon composites are creating a real buzz in other industries where weight, strength and durability are important," he says.

"It's a message we'll be shouting loud and clear."

Rob Golding


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