x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The percentage game

Feature Impossible does not seem to register in the vocabulary of Britain's Richard Noble.

This is a computer generated image showing what the Bloodhound speed record car will look like. The Bloodhound is a British supercar designed to break the world land speed record has been unveiled and if it succeeds, the driver  Andy Green will be the first to drive through the 1000 mph barrier.
This is a computer generated image showing what the Bloodhound speed record car will look like. The Bloodhound is a British supercar designed to break the world land speed record has been unveiled and if it succeeds, the driver Andy Green will be the first to drive through the 1000 mph barrier.

Impossible does not seem to register in the vocabulary of Britain's Richard Noble. Between 1983 and 1997, he held the world land speed record, hitting a top speed of 633mph (1,013kph) during those years. Then he silenced the doubters further by heading a project to go supersonic for the first time. And the goal was duly achieved with Wing Commander Andy Green in the cockpit, with Green registering a top speed of 763mph (1,227kph) in Nevada in the United States 12 years ago.

This time, Noble and Green are teaming up once again to hit the 1,000mph mark. And to bring that speed into context - it is the equivalent of the car, Bloodhound SSC, travelling faster than a bullet fired from a handgun. Powering the car will be the engine from the Eurojet fighter with a rocket bolted on top for an extra boost. And what makes the immensely dangerous record attempt even more remarkable is that it all came about by accident.

Noble explained: "I had a meeting with Lord Drayson [the science minister in Britain] while he was working at the Ministry of Defence. He had heard about plans by the late American explorer Steve Fossett to break our land speed record. So we all thought we better get a defence together. "We went to Lord Drayson with the idea of trying to get the use of the Eurojet 200 engine as we'd heard one could soon be available at the end of its testing runs.

"We thought we'd done our best to persuade him but he completely turned things around. He said he was growing increasingly worried about the state of engineering in the UK. He said we needed a truly iconic project so he said let's go for the 1,000mph mark as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." And so 18 months ago the project was born. By March, the design of the car is set to be fully signed off, the building will begin in May and the team hope to get the car out on the UK runways at the start of 2010.

First there are plans to go for the current land speed record with an attempt at 800mph, then 900mph before the final stab at the 1,000mph mark in 2011. "Well, that's the plan but who knows whether it will happen in that timeline," he said. "These projects can be notoriously difficult, traumatic in fact." Part of the problem is that it is a completely private project that needs as much as £10 million (Dh 52.7 million) to fund it, money you would have thought was relatively impossible to raise in the current financial climate.

But Noble, an eternal optimist, believes a recession is the very best time to get such a project off the ground. "We have to grow 400 per cent this year and I'm confident we'll do it," he said. "Actually during the good times it's a nightmare as nobody wants to change what they're backing. In fact, Britain's reluctant for change. But in times like this, it's actually more beneficial for us. Places have more capacity for us to use their facilities plus there tend to be more designers available with time we can use."

As project leader, Noble makes all the decisions over the task and has a 35-strong team working on it but he readily admits it is second best to the role being undertaken by Green. "I'd love to drive it but the reality is that you can't always do these things," he said. "It's a big mistake to do all these things yourself. I really wanted to drive Thrust [the car in which Green broke the land-speed record] but I realised that the British establishment wasn't going to support that at my age or at least it was going to be enormously difficult to raise the funds.

"But while driving is the best thing, this is the next best. It can be enormously inspiring. "You're trying to get a team working at the same time as getting funding by telling people you're going to be as big as The Beatles, or something like that." The project is operated from the team's headquarters in Bristol at the former home of Concorde. All the team's plans are available to see on their website (www.bloodhoundssc.com) from the preparation to the record attempt and the doors are open for visitors to see the project in action on a daily basis.

A supporters' club is well under way and already 1,000 members have signed up in the opening few weeks. But interest in the land speed record is nothing new. The Thrust attempt got 3.5 million people visiting the website, quite an achievement 12 years ago, and Noble expects millions more this time around. But what is the lure for the public exactly? "Part of it's because they probably think we're bonkers, but we think the rest of the world is bonkers," he added. "But I think the big appeal is that most people have a car and basically all we're doing is driving a car in a straight line ... very fast. And most members of the public think they could do that.

"It's not the same with going into space for example and most people don't think they could end up being an astronaut. But they feel this is something they could do and I think that's the key to why people love it. And in addition to all that, we have no limitations like they do in all parts of motorsport like F1. We just aim to go faster and faster and faster - that's it." Noble laughs and adds that it is not exactly rocket science but therein lies the key to the record. A potent rocket will be strapped onto the back of the car in the Nevada desert.

And to break the record, the car has to travel in both directions at top speed - the record is taken from the average speed of the two runs - and that involves changing the rocket on top at the turnaround which, at 800 lb, is not exactly simplistic. "That's an issue we have to work on, but it's achievable," he said. The other major obstacle is safety and one that Noble, as a former driver and with Green's life in his hands, will not take lightly.

"That is absolutely paramount and it's not always easy," he said. "Sure, this is very dangerous as it's never been done before and we're going into the unknown. "And there will be times when there will be pressure from the media and the sponsors to just go for it. But if the car and the conditions aren't spot on, I'll happily pack everything up and we'll go back to the drawing board. You can't mess about with safety."

However, despite describing the project as the "most exciting thing on earth", Noble insists breaking the 1,000mph is only the tertiary target of the entire project. "It's bigger than that," he explained. "The number one goal is to create a generation of engineers, number two is to provide an iconic project for students [Bloodhound is working closely with schools across the UK], number three is the 1,000mph mark and number four is pure and simple publicity.

"We're bidding to save engineering which is dying in this country. It was massive in the 1960s and 1970s but it's dying with a shortage of iconic projects. But the recession's a time when the industry can come flying back." However, Noble and his team have other obstacles to overcome, most notably their rivals for the land-speed record. The car Fossett planned to break the record in, Spirit of America, is now up for sale, then there's North American Eagle, which looks capable of the 800mph mark at the very least and then there's Jetblack, an Australian team bidding for the 1,000mph mark.

"Jetblack looks the most serious opposition but it's great to have rivals," said Noble. "It drives me and the team forward and sharpens us even more in what we're doing." The goal is simple - to raise the speed record by 31 per cent, the greatest hike in the history of land-speed records and something which Noble points out "has never been done before". With his very positive outlook, you cannot help but buy into it what he is doing. It remains to be seen whether 2011 will be his and Bloodhound's year. mmajendie@thenational.ae