Mike Gascoyne: 'I wish I'd designed... the Thrust SSC'

From the white-hot F1 paddock, old racing cars are just out-of-date machines to this designer. But he is full of admiration for the single-minded team that broke the sound barrier land

3 Andy Green Thrust SSC

Thrust SSC – breaking boundaries in more way than one

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There have been a lot of great racing cars, but I don’t really get very excited about things like the Lotus 72. Every time I look at an old car, I just think how dated they seem. Nothing ages as quickly as a racing car. Even when I look at one of my own designs, like the Tyrrell 022, I think, ‘How did we do things like that back then?’ So I don’t get that emotional about them.

However, I do admire the Thrust SSC. I have an interest in the Land Speed Record partly because Renault’s deputy technical director Bob Bell designed the McLaren LSR car, which never actually ran. I remember speaking to him when he was doing the project. I was thinking, ‘I’d love to work on it’, but the implications of getting it wrong are so enormous I don’t think I’d have the bottle. So I’ve got every respect for designers who give it a go.

I think any project like that is a huge undertaking, and you’re obviously going into the unknown in some respects. The Sound Barrier was a very distinct target, Richard Noble’s team were going where no-one had gone before.

Andy Green Thurst SSC

Andy Green took on an “agricutural” design, but the engineering for those mind-boggling speeds was sound

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The thing that I liked about Thrust SSC was that it was done in a good spirit. It was a group of blokes in a garage — not a big corporation. The McLaren would have been the all-singing, all-dancing machine, and Ron Dennis would have been throwing money at it.

Having got the Land Speed Record himself, for Richard Noble to stitch that team together, do it on a shoestring, and actually achieve it, is a fantastic story. It harks back to the 1930s, the heyday of that sort of project, which is why I think it was a tremendous achievement. Sometimes I think I would love to have worked then, or in the ’50s, when they were doing all that pioneering research into jet aircraft and so on. The approach was just ‘let’s build it and see what it does’.

As soon as you get into transonics and shock waves, it gets very complicated, and you’re doing things that are very difficult to predict. Theoretical methods do break down in that area. You’ve got huge shock wave reflection with the ground, and that’s one of the most difficult things to resolve.

Tiny errors in, for example, a computational solution where you have things bouncing backwards and forwards could mean that you are totally out at the rear of the car. The implications of it lifting up or whatever are pretty serious — you’re not coming back from that! So it was a very brave thing to do.

Andy Green Thrust SSC

Taking on an LSR in Jordan in late ’96

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The risks involved are huge, but the Thrust SSC team approached it with a fantastic spirit, and good, sound engineering done on a budget. I remember following the project’s progress on the Internet at the time, and they were asking people to send in donations! It’s the sort of thing that would make a great film.

The SSC was at Goodwood last year, and it was great to go and see it. It’s a beautiful thing, though if you look at it closely, it’s quite agricultural — a load of girders with two huge Rolls-Royce jets strapped to it! But it was built to do a job, and they achieved it, and they achieved it safely, so that’s not to say the engineering wasn’t good. I’m sure the McLaren would have been carbon-fibre and everything else. Thrust was basic, but that’s all it needed to be.

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The guy who designed it had a lot of experience. The layout was very different from some of the other record cars, which had a trike-type design. But clearly they got it right, with the engines at the front and a long tail to stabilise it, with rear-wheel steering that they tested on the back of a Mini!

Just consider things like the stresses on the wheels.

All of that would have scared the hell out of me. You don’t need the wheels to be exploding, or the ride height to be wrong. Every little bit was performing, and they got their sums right. They considered driver safety when they placed him in the middle of the engines, but how can you protect a driver at 800mph? You’ve got to have it not go wrong.

Thrust SSC is a pure thing, a vehicle for just one purpose — to beat the Sound Barrier on land. It won’t go around a circuit or anything like that, it’s just built to go in a straight line very quickly. And because there are no rules, the solution could be anything.

2Andy Green Thrust SSC

Thrust SSC was powered by two formidable Rolls-Royce jet engines

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A record car is going to be limited by aerodynamics, and not by how heavy it is. As long as you have enough space to get up to speed, it doesn’t need to be light and elegant, it needs to be strong and butch. I read that it was as powerful as 145 F1 engines, and I’m surprised it wasn’t more than that.

Driver Andy Green was a very brave man, because when you venture into areas where nobody’s gone before, and something goes wrong, you’re not coming back. When you read that he had 45 degrees steering lock on because the car was drifting at 745mph, it’s pretty scary!

I don’t think there will be anything else like it again. Once you’ve broken that bather, where are you going to go? You’ve got to go too far to get another significant breakthrough. Someone might say that 1000mph is the next one, but you’d probably need a big corporation to do that, and a big corporation is unlikely to get involved because the risks and implications of getting it wrong are so enormous.

Mike Gascoyne was talking to Adam Cooper

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