A Bonneville triumph

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It seemed simple: set the fastest ever speed for an F1 car, at the spiritual home of straight-line record breaking. Honda achieved its aim – but no one had predicted it would take two years instead of the planned 10 days

By Ed Foster

“You go to Bonneville and you take a really heavy car with narrow wheels. We turned up with a really light car with big balloon tyres,

and the first time we wheeled the car out the Americans started laughing…”

Alan van de Merwe didn’t even know where Bonneville was before 2005, when he was asked to head out there with BAR-Honda’s Formula 1 challenger and set the first official Land Speed Record for an F1 car.

“I had just been taken on as one of Honda’s development drivers,” says the 2003 British Formula 3 Champion, “and the guys at Lucky Strike [which was sponsoring the team at the time] called me into their offices. ‘We’ve got a project for you,’ they told me. ‘It should only take 10 days of your time. You’re going to Bonneville. We’re sending an F1 car, we’re going to run it up and down, take some photos and that will be it’. Two years later we were still trying to set a record.”

British American Tobacco was keen to get some publicity and to become a member of the ‘Bonneville 400’ club — an elite group of men or women who achieve more than 400kph (248mph) on the famous salt flats. “I think the whole thing was dreamt up by a marketing team,” says van de Merwe. “In fact they might have come up with 400kph before they had even spoken to anyone technical about it.”

No matter, F1 cars were reaching speeds of 360kph (223mph) on the straights of Monza. How hard could it be to eke out another 40kph? As it turned out, no one had a clue just what they had taken on by running a thoroughbred F1 car on the unpredictable salt flats. It was a long way from Monza, and not just in miles. The project would continue into 2006, switching to a Honda RA106 after the Japanese manufacturer took over the team.

“We ran at various airfields before going out to Nevada,” says John Digby, the project’s team manager, “and we were doing 415kph in both directions. We knew we had a good car — Honda had given us a great engine [which was producing close to 1000bhp1, we had it geared right, but it simply wasn’t heavy enough when we got to the salt. We were breaking traction all the time and measured some jumps the car made at 22ft. It was literally launching itself off the ground.

“What’s more, down between mile markers seven and eight there was a small valley that hit the speedway at an oblique angle. The wind blew through there and it would push the car 40ft sideways when it was doing well over 200mph.” Van de Merwe hasn’t forgotten the effect it had. “I quickly gained a huge amount of respect for the guys who raced on the salt flats,” he says. “You’re driving flat out and using the whole track, which measured about 40 car widths. It was huge, but we were drifting for 300 or even 400 metres. It was pretty different to what I was used to… You’re in control the entire time with an F3 or an F1 car. You feel it sliding, but we’re talking inches. When we went to look at the tyre marks after one run, we just couldn’t believe it.”

So why was it so difficult? As van de Merwe says, “It was the wrong tool for the job.” That year the minimum FIA weight for an F1 car was 605kg, too light to dig through the salt and find some grip, especially with the large tyres. “The car had a lot of weight added to bring it up to 640kg,” recalls Digby. “We changed the aero on the car, smoothed the sidepods and, because we were running in top gear for a long time, we had to modify the gearbox.” There was a longer top gear, but the team wanted to achieve the record without a ‘push’ so the rest of the gearbox stayed the same. Digby adds: “They call them `dualies’, big twin-wheeled Ford trucks that would help push people up to 100mph before the record car would even run. We didn’t do any of that — we drove our car out of the awning, to the measured mile and through it. I only ever had eight people out there. As soon as the car set off, we had to jump in a rented truck and follow it in order to get to the other end of the course with the starter motors, cooling fans and all the rest of it in order to turn it around and send it back.

“We made some heavy parts for the car, but once we were out there each time we had to develop stuff on the spot. The parachute deployment system was one of those and when we were testing in the Mojave Desert it deployed itself at 200mph. [Top fuel dragster racer] Andy Carter lent me some parachutes and I learnt how to pack them from his crew chief.”

Fitting a parachute is a requirement for Bonneville records, though not everyone adheres to it. Van de Merwe seemed unfazed about small parachute trifles, but remembers the weight problem well. “We were literally taping things to the diffuser on the back of the car. There was a feeling of ‘this is the tool that we have, we have to make it work’. It was extremely satisfying when we did. I had complete trust in what the team had done with the car. I was never worried it was going to break or that it was going to flip, it just wasn’t a thought for me.”

Watch any of the YouTube footage of the runs, though, and the most striking parts are the 200mph spins. That’s why the rudder was introduced. “Yes, we had to add that as a yaw control element,” admits Digby. The system was linked, via the ECU, to the steering so that it could ‘see’ van de Merwe’s steering inputs and judge how much rudder he needed. “It really wasn’t that hard to get used to,” says the current F1 medical car driver. “The problem was that in the measured mile you wanted the rudder off as it would create drag. I ended up using it in third, fourth and fifth, when the car didn’t have that much downforce. The way it was set up, if I wasn’t correcting the steering it wouldn’t move, though. It was very intuitive except for the first time that we ran it when it had been put on the wrong way round. I remember coming back from the run thinking ‘the car’s really bad now, I don’t know why!”

The wind and the unsuitability of the car were just two of the many problems that the team faced, as the salt flats threw up their own set of issues. “The salt is like a living thing out there because it’s always changing,” Digby says. “The sun goes down and the salt starts to harden through the night and almost turns to concrete. The water table drops and the salt becomes crystallised.

“When the sun comes up in the morning, which in July is at about 4.30am, it starts to draw the water up through capillary action, the salt starts to soften and by llam you can’t run on it. We were running before the sun even came up on most days.”

Despite the parachute deploying at the wrong time and some very high-speed spins, van de Merwe was not bothered by the precarious nature of the whole project, even if Digby admits that he must have had “balls of steel”.

“It’s weird,” van de Merwe says. “It’s like the state of mind you’re in when you know that you need to win a race in order to wrap up a championship. When we were in Bonneville we waited so long to run the car [the team would be out there for three or four weeks at a time waiting for the right weather] and we knew that when we did, ‘this was it’. I had realistic expectations about how difficult it was going to be, but at the same time when I did spin I didn’t think ‘Jesus Christ, I’m done now, I don’t want to do any more’. I just thought ‘OK, so we’ve learnt from that. I can now go a bit quicker…”

And quicker they went. On every trip to Bonneville during that two-year period, the car crept up towards the 400kph mark, but modifications were made even harder by the remoteness of the salt flats. “There’s really nothing,” says Digby of the area. “There’s nothing in Wendover, the local town. The closest city is Salt Lake, but that’s 120 miles away. If you need something then you’re in trouble. I actually made a bet with the lads — after putting $50 into an envelope I said ‘if anyone can buy a pair of socks while they’re here they can have the 50 bucks’. They tried really hard, but nobody could. It really is a wilderness and quite hostile.

“On the day that we got the record [of 397.481kph] there were eight of us out there. I had two people in hospital, one person in an ambulance on the way to the hospital and another guy sat in the truck plugged into a saline drip and oxygen. The two people in hospital were exhausted, the guy in the ambulance was exhausted and the other guy had just collapsed. That’s why we had to stop at 397kph; we were just exhausted.”

With attempts foiled by flooding on the salt flats and constant reiterations of the car the ’10-day project’ became a long slog, but despite missing out on the 400kph mark by less than 3kph both Digby and van de Merwe remember it as a career highlight. “I’m really proud of it,” says Digby. “It was a huge challenge, especially when you were trying to do it next to your day job. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Van de Merwe: “I do remember it fondly. From a sporting point of view it would have been great to go out there with a more suitable car and set a record that could really make you proud. To me it’s not really about the number as it was one of the best things I’ve done. Obviously the first time I drove an F1 car was probably more of a highlight, but the whole experience gave me a new appreciation for other forms of motor sport. Oh, and I did meet my current girlfriend out there so I can’t complain about that either… We’ve all taken something away from it — I met some incredible people and we still talk about it.”

At the time the project failed to capture as many hearts and minds as perhaps it should. Was that because it seemed too easy? Quite possibly. Whatever the case, it’s hard to imagine another Formula 1 team heading out to the salt flats any time soon to try and break the record, even though it was set back in 2006. Red Bull is famous for taking on a challenge and the fact that even it hasn’t ventured out to Nevada is surely a sign that Honda and its small team of speed hunters achieved something special on that day seven years ago.