Going where none has, at 1,000 mph

The ambition to be the fastest man on four wheels had modest beginnings in 1898, at a village on what were then the outskirts of Paris.

Published: March 9, 2014 12:40 am

The drive to be the fastest man on land takes shape, powered by $70 mn, supercomputers, and six times the power of all F1 cars in a Grand Prix.

The ambition to be the fastest man on four wheels had modest beginnings in 1898, at a village on what were then the outskirts of Paris.

A Frenchman, Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, driving what was little more than a streamlined horsecart with an electrically powered motor, achieved 39.2 mph. Chroniclers in the Paris newspapers wondered if he had gone “fou furieux”, or raving mad.

Richard Noble, of Avonmouth, England, knows all about de Chasseloup-Laubat and others who have followed in the quixotic and sometimes deadly annals of the world land speed record. Noble raised the record to 633.4 mph with a jet-powered car, Thrust SSC, in 1983 — he has bankable credentials in his bid to raise the record to 1,000 mph by the end of 2016.

Noble’s plan involves a dart-shaped missile of a car called Bloodhound, named for a British-built missile, which comes with a $70 million price, by far the most costly attempt on record.

At times, Noble, 67, seems puzzled by the crackpot nature of it all. After decades of chasing the record, and starting again when some usurper — especially an American — hijacks the mark, he admits to an element of exhaustion.

“People often say to me, ‘It must be exciting’, and I tell them, ‘It’s a bloody nightmare’,” he said. Quickly recovering his passion, he added: “You know, we Brits have always been good at this kind of caper. And it’s the most exciting thing you can do on earth.”

An English-educated Scot with a taste for London’s most upscale clubs, Noble has been compared by British commentators to polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Everest mountaineer George Leigh Mallory.

The Bloodhound team declared its undertaking to be primarily motivated by a desire to inspire a new generation of engineers. The approach helped secure the government’s backing — crucial in acquiring the state-of-the-art combat jet engines indispensable to the project.

Science classes at more than 5,000 British secondary schools are now linked into the project via the Bloodhound website, BloodhoundSSC.co.uk.

Since setting his record two decades ago, Noble has handed the driving responsibilities to a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, Andy Green, an Oxford-educated mathematician and wing commander.

Green, 51, holds the current speed record, 763 mph, making him the only man to exceed the speed of sound on land. He set the mark aboard Noble’s second jet-powered vehicle, also called Thrust, in 1997. Now he has teamed with Noble to raise the record by 250 mph, which would be by far the biggest single jump in the record’s history.

Green will make the bid without an ejector seat, or much else in the way of inbuilt survivability; the engineers have decided that a catastrophic failure at 1,000 mph would be inescapably fatal.

Instead, they decided that Green’s safety will be assured, as far as it can be, by the design of Bloodhound and hours spent on computer simulations.

Still, he acknowledged, “Not everything works in the real world exactly as you expect it to from computer simulations.” That, he said, was one of the lessons emphasised by Neil Armstrong when he visited the team in 2012.

The Bloodhound team aims to achieve the 1,000-mph target in August or September 2016 at the Hakskeen Pan, a vast, dried-up lake bed in the Kalahari desert in South Africa. Hundreds of villagers recruited by the local government have been readying the stretch, 12 miles long and nearly 600 yards wide, by removing more than 6,000 tonnes of surface stones.

The 7-tonne vehicle, 44-feet-long and 6-feet-wide, will be powered by three engines: a Rolls-Royce jet engine developed for the RAF’s front-line fighter; an adapted version of an American-made Nammo rocket engine; and a V8 Formula One engine. On the record run, the jet and rocket engines are expected to generate 21 tonnes of thrust, more than six times the power of all the F1 cars that line up for Grand Prix races.

Noble is confident that his team of 60 designers and engineers working at Avonmouth, just south of Bristol, will meet the 2016 deadline.

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