The last land speed record attempt?

by Andrew Frankel on 1st November 2017

Land speed record-breaking attempts don't come around often, which makes Bloodhound SSC's attempt all the more impressive, says Andrew Frankel

We stood five deep at the edges of Newquay airport’s runway. On the taxiway, we could see the car gliding slowly past us and hear the whistle of its EJ200 Eurofighter engine at idle. At the far end, Commander Andy Green turned hard left and waited while Bloodhound SSC described an agonisingly wide semi-circle. He then paused for no more than 10 seconds before coming off the brakes and hitting the gas. Hard.

Within a second or so the engine was at full reheat, a perfect, glowing, golden gout of flame at least as long as the car shooting out of its enormous exhaust. There was time to realise that, even at this distance, you needed to jolt your head to its destination just to keep up with it, and that was about it. The jet of fire was gone and Bloodhound was already far away. In the first eight seconds of its first public run, Britain’s latest land speed record contender had gone from rest to something near 210mph in less than eight seconds.

In land speed record terms, this is barely getting out of bed. To slow down, Bloodhound didn’t even need its parachutes let alone its air brakes but relied on massive AP Racing carbon discs. On tyres that came from the 20-year-old Thrust SSC programme and an English Electric Lightning before that, Bloodhound’s brakes can slow at only 0.3g, and you could beat that in your road car using the handbrake alone.

For those watching, it was a moment many feared might never come.

Bloodhound has been a project 11 years in the works and that’s not just because a hybrid jet/rocket car of over 3000 bespoke components designed to go over 250mph faster than any car before is quite a tricky thing to create. Compared to raising the funding required, it’s really rather easy. That job belongs to former land speed record holder Richard Noble who is honest enough to tell me the process has been "extraordinarily tough."

Noble, who is no stranger to such ventures, has seen a dispiriting change in the way investors view such projects. “We live in a completely risk-averse society,” he tells me. “We have to become a nation of risk-takers again,” he adds. And we may have no choice, as, for good or ill, he thinks Brexit will force that upon us.

There are other reasons it’s been tough. Green and Noble had the idea for Bloodhound in a Whitehall pub in 2006, nine years after the former broke the Sound Barrier on land, because they fully expected not to be land speed record holders for long. “Steve Fossett had declared his intention to take the record back to the US and we decided we weren’t going to take that lying down,” he said. But then Fossett died while flying a light aircraft in Yosemite National Park and though there were other challengers in the US and Australia, Bloodhound was (and remains) far and away the front-running project to raise the land speed record. And breaking a record you already hold is just not as easy to sell as taking it back from someone else.

The car itself is surely the most astonishing land-borne vehicle ever created. I could fill the rest of this column with jaw-dropping statistics, but will instead provide just three. First, when Andy Green fires the Nammo rocket at 500mph, it will gain another 500mph in just 17seconds. Second, the greatest g-forces he will feel comes under neither power nor active braking: at 1000mph the drag on the car is so great that just lifting off the throttle will subject him to forces of 3g, losing 60mph every second. And finally, the area around Green’s cockpit has to be armoured just in case a fragment of forged aluminium wheel breaks off under the 55,000g its rim experiences at 1000mph. The carbon fibre armour has been tested and proven to withstand an impact equivalent to that of a cricket ball bowled at 2000mph.

Green is still talking in incredibly matter-of-fact terms about the challenges he faces. He runs through the procedure required even for a ‘low speed’ 200mph run and it’s so complicated I can feel my brain struggling to cope, but essentially he has to start slowing the car while it is still accelerating because the discs take an age to reach operating temperature. At present, it takes 2.5sec between instructing the engine to shut down and it starting to do so, which is why to do a 200mph run involved jamming on the brakes and shutting off the jet at just 130mph.

Those hoping the successful Newquay runs mean a new land speed record is imminent will need to be patient. Noble believes the project has turned a corner and with fresh investment, from the likes of Chinese automotive behemoth Geely and American computing company Oracle, it’s not hard to see why.

Cash flow issues before these latest signings mean that now the car will merely go “really fast” next year, by which he means around 650mph ­– Bloodhound’s top speed without the use of its rocket. That means a new land speed record is currently on the cards for 2019, leaving the final 1000mph barrier to be broken in 2020. By then, it will have been a neat half-century since anybody but Noble or Green broke the record.

Given how long it has taken to get Bloodhound to do 200mph – with its aim to go five times faster by 2020 – will anybody else be able to beat it?

By then, Andy Green will not only be the only person to have driven at 1000mph on land but 900mph, 800mph and 700mph too. The gulf, measurable in both time and speed, between what Bloodhound will hopefully have achieved and what anyone else has ever approached in land speed record-breaking history would appear so wide as to be effectively unbridgeable.

So ask me whether Bloodhound’s record will ever be broken should it break 1000mph, and I’ll say ‘never say never’. Ask me whether it’ll be beaten in my lifetime or, indeed, the lifetimes of anybody reading these words now? That I doubt.

I reckon we all have just one really good chance of seeing a new land speed record being set in our lifetimes and you’re looking right at it. I wish Andy Green, Richard Noble and everyone else involved in it in any way every success because I know how much they deserve it. Let’s just hope fortune really does favour the brave.

 

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