x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Setting records in the desert

Andy Green is hoping to drive a car about five times as fast as a Grand Prix speed machine can go even on a long straight.

Andy Green, a former pilot for the Royal Air Force, set the land speed record of 766mph in his Thrust SSC in the Nevada desert in 1997, above. He hopes to reach 1,000mph in his yet to be built Bloodhound SSC.
Andy Green, a former pilot for the Royal Air Force, set the land speed record of 766mph in his Thrust SSC in the Nevada desert in 1997, above. He hopes to reach 1,000mph in his yet to be built Bloodhound SSC.

While Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa have grabbed the lion's share of the glory on the world's Formula One circuit this season, one man can leave them both in his dust. Andy Green is hoping to drive a car about five times as fast as a Grand Prix speed machine can go even on a long straight. The pencil-shaped vehicle in question, Bloodhound SSC, will attempt to smash the world's land speed record by reaching more than 1,000mph, or close to 1.4 times the speed of sound.

Bloodhound is designed to accelerate from a standing start to 1,050mph in just 40 seconds, causing Green to experience giddying forces of up to 3G. But if anyone can cope with the demands of controlling the 6.4-tonne Bloodhound, it is Green, since the 46-year-old former pilot with Britain's Royal Air Force is the current land speed record holder. In 1997, Green tore across Nevada's Black Rock Desert at 766mph in Thrust SSC, which became the first car - more like a landgoing aeroplane - to break the sound barrier.

Needless to say, breaking this record will not be easy. Among the difficulties will be keeping the vehicle in a straight line, as the effect of tiny disturbances are magnified at high speed. Green discovered this to his cost in 1997 when Thrust veered to the left as a result of being what is said to have been just a few thousandths of an inch out of line. However, according to Professor Richard Stobart, head of the department of aeronautical and automotive engineering at Loughborough University, the biggest challenge with vehicles like Bloodhound is keeping them on the ground.

If the downforce is insufficient, the craft will take off, while if it is too strong, the vehicle will lose energy and the wheels will generate too much friction and could catch fire. "The design of the outside will determine these forces. It's about how the air flows over the vehicle and how much force that creates," he says. The perils of losing downforce have been seen in racing cars when their front ends have flipped up and the vehicle has taken off, often with fatal consequences.

"Some of the problems on the racing circuit happen when you get a gust of wind that disturbs the airflow, or something falls off the car that disturbs it enough that it causes adhesion to be lost. You turn from a down thrust to a vertical thrust," says Prof Stobart, who holds the Ford chair of automotive engineering. The challenge for Bloodhound's engineers when they finalise their design is to take account of these potential disturbances.

Part of the design process, says Prof Stobart, will be a thorough safety analysis, although given that this is a record attempt, the team are moving into uncharted territory. "You don't necessarily know how to calculate things because it's never been done before. I expect there will be an awful lot of wind tunnel work," he says. "With careful design, it will be safe and sound and will work, but there are some huge challenges. That's one of the reasons they're doing it."

The difficulties Bloodhound's backers are up against have been mirrored through the history of the land speed record. Green's 1997 mark was set 99 years after the extravagantly named Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, a Frenchman, set the first land speed record. Driving an electric car, he reached a speed of 39.24mph at Acheres in France. From this modest start, vehicles speeded up considerably in the early years of the 20th century.

The year 1902 was particularly fascinating, since a steam-powered vehicle called Oeuf de Paques - Easter Egg in French - took the record in April with 75.06mph, only to lose it in November to a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. The internal combustion engine held a monopoly on the record for the subsequent decades as speeds increased to 152.30mph in 1926. This record, set by Henry Segrave in a car named Ladybird, was the last time a racing car, as opposed to a specially-designed record-breaking vehicle, set the fastest time.

While the land speed record has long fascinated those interested in all things mechanical, it has been as much a personal as an engineering endeavour. Take John Godfrey Parry-Thomas, a Welsh racing driver who grainy photographs from the 1920s show gazing out from his speed machine with a pair of goggles perched on his forehead. In a car named Babs, Parry-Thomas set a record of 169.29mph at Pendine Sands in Wales on April 27, 1926, only to raise it by nearly 2mph the next day.

In February the following year, Malcolm Campbell, who had earlier held the record, took the accolade back with a record run at Pendine Sands. Undeterred, just weeks later Parry-Thomas returned with Babs to the huge expanses of Pendine Sands. This time, when travelling at close to record speeds, a chain that linked the engine to the drive wheels broke and is said to have partially decapitated Parry-Thomas.

Babs was buried on Pendine Sands, only to be recovered four decades later and restored by an enthusiast. Even if the heroic Parry-Thomas had managed to wrest the record back from Campbell, he would have been able to do little, in Babs at least, against Segrave, whose mighty Sunbeam smashed the 200mph barrier at Daytona Beach in March 1927. Ever since, the US has been the setting for nearly all of the records.

The ever determined Campbell bounced back and made plenty of successful record attempts into the 1930s. He was an even more legendary figure than Parry-Thomas, holding at various times both the land and water speed records. Unusually for one caught up in this hazardous business, Campbell survived his adventures and ultimately died of natural causes in his 60s. However, tragedy struck his equally famous son Donald, who in 1964 took the land and water speed records, both times in machines named Bluebird after his father's various crafts.

In 1967, while trying to regain his water speed record, Campbell died when his boat, Bluebird K7, launched from the surface and smashed back into the water at more than 300mph. By this time, turbojets had replaced internal combustion engines as the means of propulsion for the land speed record holders and the maximum velocity surged from 408.312mph in 1963 to 600.842mph in 1965. The move to jets and rockets, as well, represented a transition from souped-up car to land-going aeroplane.

Bloodhound certainly falls into the latter category, and this explains why those behind the project, including the designer Richard Noble, a former land speed record holder also behind the 1997 attempt, have again recruited the pilot Green rather than a racing driver. But even Green's undoubted skills at managing high speed machines, and Noble's unrivalled experience with land speed records, may not guarantee success.

Forget the engineering and piloting challenges - first the team behind Bloodhound need to find the sponsorship worth £10 million (Dh57.7m) to build their craft. dbardsley@thenational.ae