Welcome to pothole hell

Ford S-Max at Ford's proving groun
A Ford S-Max at the company's punishing proving ground in Belgium

I’m crossing the finishing line on a world tour that’s taken me from deepest China via Brazil, California, Florida, France and Essex and - despite some atrocious potholes and ham-fisted driving - the Ford S-Max is holding up well.

Thanks to the magic of Ford’s sprawling proving ground at Lommel, Belgium, the trip has taken 15 minutes - and the odometer has recorded just 1.9kms.

It’s here, on a tightly-guarded site bounded by high fences and endless tracts of forest, that the firm treats all its vehicles destined for sale in Europe to the kind of punishment you’d never inflict on your own car. It’s where engineers drive vehicles until they break - so that you don’t have to.

In response to the rise in callouts from motorists whose vehicles have been crippled by increasing numbers of potholes, as reported by breakdown organisations across the UK and Europe, Lommel is where Ford replicates, in precise detail, some of the most diabolical road conditions from around the globe.

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With UK roads suffering a pothole epidemic, Ford believes it is time well spent. The RAC reports that drivers now suffer more pothole damage than ever, and that it was called to 25,487 pothole-related breakdowns in 2015, a rise of 24 per cent year on year. The worst damage is usually to shock absorbers, wheels and suspension.

Chancellor George Osborne responded in the Autumn Statement with a “pothole fund”, setting aside £250 million for road maintenance and repair, up to the end of the decade. It was dismissed by the AA as a "sticking-plaster approach to a massive maintenance backlog", while the 2016 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance Survey said roads were deteriorating faster than they can be repaired, with nearly £12 billion needed to get roads in England and Wales up to scratch.

The obstacles

In order to build cars equal to the punishment that deteriorating roads dish out, Lommel boasts jagged cobblestones from Paris and Belgium, vicious railroad crossings from the Florida swamps, sand-strewn potholes from the California desert, craters from the Brazilian outback and a particularly nasty humpback bridge from Essex, to name but a few.

The potholes are located by technicians who pore over worldwide warranty claims filed by customers reporting component failures. The "scenes of crime" are recorded and later - as Ford’s 10-person flying inspection team tours from country to country - physically inspected, enabling offending potholes to be faithfully documented, photographed and digitally scanned.

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The data is wired to Lommel where technicians painstakingly recreate each pothole in metal and concrete - down to the last vicious millimetre - before embedding meticulous copies in the test track.

The aim? To discover just how much torture a car can take when it is run 24/7 - stopping only for fuel, driver swaps and safety checks - for up to six months, laden with sophisticated measuring gear similar to that used by seismologists. It records the stresses and strains exerted on individual components as a fleet of 230 vehicles (including rival manufacturers’, for benchmarking) is pummelled over 80kms of artificial surfaces by specially trained drivers working in never-ending shifts.

All manufacturers subject new models to similar punishment but Ford’s unique pothole archive has made it the envy of handling and durability engineers across the motoring industry.

Ford has created some of the world's toughest road conditions at its Lommel test track

“It’s merciless - the vehicles run around the clock,” says Olivier Duyssens, Ford's Durability, Corrosion Fleet Test Supervisor. “It’s so tough we limit our 130 test drivers, who between them cover more 3.7 million miles a year, to three hours then move them to something more gentle instead.”

Where is Breaking point?

In Ford’s quest to discover what it takes to break wheels, suspension, chassis, engine, drivetrain, bodywork and interior fittings before new models go on sale, however, the cars receive no such dispensation.

Only after being hammered in Ford’s "accelerated wear programme’" equal to a decade’s "normal" use and including frequent high-speed runs through highly corrosive salt and mud baths, are the vehicles’ engines finally silenced. Each is then torn apart - down to the last ball bearing - before being forensically examined for wear.

The data is analysed and used to improve current or future models, making components stronger or more flexible or by fine-tuning sophisticated active chassis and suspension to cope with real-life conditions.

Lommel played a vital role in the development of Continuous Control Damping with Pothole Mitigation on the Mondeo, Galaxy and S-Max, the firm’s Tyre Pressure Monitoring System, Electronic Stability Control and other systems.

On my "world tour" - after arriving on billiard-table-smooth Belgian autoroutes - it is a shock as we pass a sign announcing Lower Dunton Road followed by Botney Hill Road in Essex: suddenly the car is jolting into potholes, but worse is to come.

David Williams surveys the cobblestone section of Ford's test track

At 30mph we hit a particularly nasty railroad crossing - from Florida - before traversing a vicious level-crossing from Brazil. Even that’s child’s play compared with the vision-blurring Parisian cobblestones around the next corner then, 10 metres on, the sunbaked surface of a Californian highway.

The next stage looks innocuous enough; a meandering track through pine forests planted on this 325-hectare site when nearby mining operations required straight pit-props, a century ago.

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But as we approach the network of straights, twists and turns also used to fine-tune ride and handling, and NVH (noise vibration and harshness) issues, it’s a different story. We round a bend and thump over a series of sharp kerbs projecting 13cms from the ground, just another of more than 100 extreme surfaces replicated from 25 different countries worldwide.

With pothole-reporting website Potholes.co.uk claiming damaged roads now cost UK motorists £730 million every year, Lommel doesn’t feel a million miles from a drive through the British countryside.

Potholes are motorists number one concern

Data gathered for Telegraph Cars by the AA shows that motorists believe A-road surfaces are 12 per cent worse now than last year, with 34 per cent rating surfaces as "poor" compared with 22 per cent in 2015.

The survey of 24,070 people found that four-fifths of respondents cited potholes as their overriding motoring worry. Concern was highest in Scotland (82 per cent) and lowest in London (70 per cent).

Not all motorists suffer equally however, including many in Surrey, where the county council launched five-year, £100 million Operation Horizon in 2012. It’s a rigorous programme of resurfacing - not patching – targeting the busiest roads and backed by a guarantee. If problems emerge on a resurfaced road within 10 years the contractor funds repairs - not the council.