Supersonic Shakedown

A successful first test of the Bloodhound land speed record car did more than prove that 1000mph is within sight – it re-affirmed faith in home-grown engineering WRITER Simon de Burton

According to many pundits, Britain will go to hell in a hand cart post-Brexit; according to the naysayers, we ‘don’t make anything any more;’ and, according to a recent report in The London Times, the DVLA raked in £5.9 billion in vehicle excise duty between the end of last year and this.

That all crossed my mind on October 26, when the autumn sun was shining down on an object that has been specifically designed to demonstrate Britain’s greatness and that proves, unequivocally, that we certainly do ‘make things’ – and, that when we do, they’re really rather good.

So why, I couldn’t help wondering, has the Bloodhound SSC land speed record project been thwarted by cashflow problems when less than half of one per cent of that VED money would have seen Richard Noble, Wing Commander Andy Green and the team of incredibly talented engineers behind Bloodhound right through to the project’s fruition, and on to South Africa’s Hakskeen Pan to smash the 763mph land speed record set by Green in Thrust SSC 20 years ago?

The idea that the required £30 million – barely enough to keep a back-of-the-grid F1 team in corporate refreshments – should ever be dished out from civil coffers is, of course, laughable. And, without Chinese automotive giant Geely coming on board as lead sponsor, the project could have stalled altogether.

But such an act might have provided a heartening demonstration that the level of British government support for the Bloodhound project matches the commendable and encouraging enthusiasm of the British people, an estimated 3500 of whom happily paid for the privilege of being able to turn up at Cornwall’s Newquay Airport on that nippy October day to see the supersonic car’s first public shakedown. (The most generous private individual, I’m told, gave the project £25,000 simply because Bloodhound has fired such a fascination with engineering in his young daughter that she wants to make it her career.)

The atmosphere was truly remarkable, being the result of a combination of excitement that we were about to see the true beginnings of a land speed record in the making, and unspoken worries that everything might not go according to plan.

In the build-up to the post-noon run, crowds filled the vast hangar that had been adapted as a temporary education centre containing the scale model of Bloodhound, explanations of its propulsion systems and representatives of the many firms that are providing input – there was even a man talking excitedly about the soldering of the circuit boards his firm supplies to the project.

Outside, meanwhile, final preparations were being carried out on the car which, although it had been based at Newquay for a month of private tests on everything from the integration of the EJ200 jet engine to its steering, brakes, suspension and management systems, was still being thoroughly prepared for its public debut.

There was plenty happening to help pass the time, however – not least the opportunity to listen to the ever-engaging Green telling us what it’s like to have the responsibility opiloting Bloodhound in front of a global audience for the first time. During the past decade, he has proved the cool-as-a-cucumber credentials that make him world land speed record holder numerous times, without ever having to drive Bloodhound really quickly.

“It’s no different to the day job,” he said. “It will be just like flying a high-performance fighter jet. All I have to concentrate on is raising my driving game to the level of the world-class engineers who have built the car.” All quite straightforward, then….

According to Green powering-up Bloodhound to reach 200mph on the airfield would actually require more focus than driving it at 1000mph on the Hakskeen Pan, simply because the 1.7-mile runway offered no room for error in terms of run-off.

Indeed, he informed us, his game plan was to throttle-off at 130mph, after which the car would continue to accelerate to 200 mph and beyond in the 2.5sec required for the ‘slow down’ message from his foot to be transmitted to the engine – during which time he would also have to warm the carbon ceramic brakes to something like operating temperature.

Looking around the car was a revelation, too, as it was missing several bits of bodywork due to the fact that it was running ‘just’ its second-hand Eurofighter Typhoon engine and not carrying the single Nammo rocket and the additional three-chamber hybrid rocket that will, ultimately, push it to 1000mph in 2020.

It also differed from its final configuration in that, instead of the solid aluminium wheels it will eventually use, it was wearing rubber tyres designed for an English Electric Lightning – pre-owned jobs that, I was told by engineering lead and mechanical designer Mark Elvin, were found at Cape Town’s Thunder City aircraft maintenance facility and acquired in exchange for a crate of whisky.

And, if that sounds more akin to Malcolm Campbell and the 1930s than to Bloodhound, you might also be surprised to learn – again according to Elvin – that the hole which affords Green cockpit ingress was created after drawing around a dustbin lid. “It seemed about the right size,” he said.

Additionally, the massive amount of electronic data being generated by the car is collated using an Oracle system that relies on a SIM card bought from a local newsagent. “It’s all about keeping it real,” said one boffin. “Nothing we’ve fitted cost more than $500.”

While low in the scheme of things, such an amount of money would be life-changing to many of the people of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province where the Hakskeen Pan is situated The importance of the area being chosen as the site of the next level of testing (to 600mph-plus later this year) and the subsequent record-breaking attempts was evident in the fact that its Premier, Sylvia Lucas, travelled to Newquay for the test run with no fewer than 31 other people.

“We have seen the car in newspapers and on TV,” Lucas said, “so couldn’t miss seeing it run in public for the first time. The fact that the Northern Cape has been chosen as the most suitable place is amazing and it’s going to give an incredible boost to our area.

“This year’s testing and the record attempts in 2019 and 2020 will involve thousands of local people doing everything from clearing the surface of stones to providing food, accommodation and transport, and there will be numerous legacy projects.”

As Bloodhound was manoeuvred onto Newquay’s runway in autumnal temperatures, however, the scorching Hakskeen Pan could have been on a different planet.

But once Green was secured in the cockpit, the air compressor had spooled-up the EJ200 jet engine and the moment had arrived for Bloodhound to trundle off to the start line, a decade of waiting evaporated into a feeling of spine-tingling anticipation.

And then, from the most distant area of the airfield, Bloodhound hove into view accompanied by the sort of sound we usually only hear from vehicles that are taking to the air – but this particular one made the familiar, ground-level progress of a commercial airliner seem laboured and lumbering in comparison, passing by in a flash despite already being in the deceleration stage.

Another run a few moments later and it was all over – Bloodhound SSC had proved in public that it works by hitting 210mph in 8sec over a distance of 1300 metres , and surprised its engineering team by achieving full engine reheat in a much shorter time than expected.

But just as important, perhaps, was the fact that people at the scene and millions who saw it on TV know that Bloodhound’s 1000mph goal is a step closer. And that Britain can, perhaps, still cut the mustard, after all.