x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Blaze of Glory, jet cars at Yas

When the space next to you in your car is occupied by a jet engine you know you will be going very fast. Neil Vorano meets a man happy to be co-pilot to a rocket

Martin Hill took a jet engine off a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter and built his own afterburner for it; he claims it puts out about 10,000hp. Pawan Singh / The National
Martin Hill took a jet engine off a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter and built his own afterburner for it; he claims it puts out about 10,000hp. Pawan Singh / The National

Martin Hill is a very composed individual. Which is probably a good thing, considering he's about to sit next to a screaming jet engine and blast to 440kph down a slim strip of tarmac. It's not exactly something you need to get pumped up for.

"I just like the adrenaline, the excitement," says the northern UK resident in a relaxed and genial tone. "It's just something I've just got to do."

He certainly doesn't look the part of an adrenaline junkie. Grey-haired and bearded with a slight paunch, Hill - who will only say he is "over 50" - looks more like a darts player than a dragster driver. But he has been drag racing jet cars for more than 30 years, and he was here at Yas Marina for its Drag Racing Festival last weekend to put on a demonstration with his Fireforce 3 turbine-powered funny car, to the absolute delight of the crowds.

"I've been involved with turbines since the early Eighties," says Hill. "I used to race motorcycles in the 1970s. I've always been a motorcycle enthusiast. Then I just wanted a change; didn't know anything about V8 engines or all that, so we just pursued turbines."

Hill built his first jet car in his parents' back garden in Sheffield, England. Incredibly, he had no formal training in jet engines; he taught himself right from the start.

He went on to build Fireforce 2, a more powerful version, in 1989, and then decided to build a third car - Fireforce 3, which is the one he has at Yas. The power comes from a jet engine Hill took off a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter; he built his own afterburner for it and claims it puts out about 10,000hp.

"This is just a show today, but we also race the car," says Hill. "There's a couple of turbine cars in the UK; obviously, there are a lot more from the States that come over. But the number is very limited.

"We don't go to the States, though. The thing about it is, we're all chums in the UK, but the Americans take it way too seriously. And the fun's all out of it there. Where they're money oriented, we're just out there to entertain."

Hill is taking a break from servicing the car between runs on this Friday evening; while the Top Fuel teams have six or eight mechanics swarming over the cars, Hill's pit crew consists of just himself, Richard Henry and Horace (who uses only one name). It's a small operation, and the three have been together for almost 20 years, racing and entertaining all over the world. So far, Abu Dhabi is the furthest east the team has travelled, and Hill is enjoying his time here.

"It's been phenomenal. Everybody here just complements the show. For me, it's being part of the drag racing experience, and to meet people like Rod [Fuller, Yas Marina's Top Fuel driver] - he's from the States, he's got quite a bit of experience - it's just been an enjoyable experience. And the facilities here are first class; the track is the best I've ever been on; it's as smooth as a billiard table."

But what's it like to drive a jet car?

"It's hard to describe, really," he says, struggling for the words. "When the engine fires up, you hear the noise, you get knocked about in it; but it's a lot smoother ride than the dragsters. It's a bit like a roller coaster.

"We don't accelerate that hard off the line, because we're just thrusting, there's no wheel drive. But the further you go the faster it goes; we don't stop accelerating. The Top Fuel cars slow down; we never slow down. We keep going faster."

And of the turbine-car set, FireForce 3 is officially the fastest; in 2005, Hill set a world record for terminal speed in a quarter mile for jet cars, clocking in at 336.1mph (540.9kph) at his home track of Santa Pod Raceway in Northamptonshire, England (which is emblazoned on the side of FireForce 3).

He won't hit that here at Yas; in fact, the team is taking it easy on the Friday to make sure the exhaust from the jet engine won't blow out the windows of the control tower behind the track. But something tells me the crowd won't be disappointed.

Hill gets back to the car and eventually readies himself for his next run. The car is towed out onto the strip in a van, and Hill's crew does a final inspection before the jet engine is slowly spooled up. Every eye in the place is on the car as the engine whistles to life.

Suddenly, a huge plume of white smoke comes out of the back, dissipating in the backwash of the jet - part of the show. With Henry acting as conductor, Hill suddenly fires off the afterburner with thunderous cracks, to the shock and glee of the spectators. The car inches forward to the start line with more deafening afterburner effects, until Henry spins his finger in the air to signal Hill to speed up the turbine and steps aside with a wave.

The atmosphere is electric.

Suddenly, the afterburner spits out a plume of fire, and with a deafening boom, Hill and Fireforce 3 are catapulted forward in a blur of noise and colour. He takes off down the line, getting faster and faster until his fiery tail disappears into the night. The crowd is delighted and loudly whistles and applauds; it's a spectacle that can only be fully appreciated live, with all the senses.

Hill does well, clocking almost 440kph, but does even better on Saturday, when he gets up to 441.56kph in 5.89 seconds on his last run. Thankfully there were no problems, but in more than 30 years of racing jet-powered dragsters, you're bound to have some close calls.

"We've had some incidents," says Hill "It's one of those things that's going to happen. Obviously, we try and keep things as safe as we can, but there's always a risk."

And then he smiles.

"You've got to keep your heart going somehow, give yourself a little fright now and then."