Ed Foster

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Great British ‘bike off
A British team is out to break 400mph on two wheels – no easy task even with World Superbike Champion James Toseland aboard

Very few people have been faster than 400mph on land. The ‘Bonneville 400’ club lists the likes of Art Arfons (576.553mph), Donald Campbell (403.100mph), Andy Green (763.035mph) and Richard Noble (633.468mph), but there’s no one in the 14-strong list who has achieved the magical figure on two wheels. Not surprising really — it’s a ridiculous speed even with four wheels on the ground.

Rocky Robinson set the current motorcycle Land Speed Record of 376.363mph in 2010, and it’s this figure a British team wants to beat in 2014. They don’t just want to beat it; they want to break the 400mph barrier, as Donald Campbell did for the first time in 1964 with the four-wheeled Bluebird CN7.

“The fastest I’ve been is 214mph,” says the pilot for the record attempt, two-time World Superbike Champion James Toseland. “Anything over that will be unknown for me. The fitness won’t be a problem because I trained hard for the London Marathon last year and I’m doing it again this year. The speed doesn’t bother me too much either.., the main thing is to have a stable ‘bike. At the end of the day it only has two wheels and you are doing 400mph. You don’t really want to have a tank-slapper at 350mph.”

Two years ago, in March 2011, Toseland’s racing career was cut short after a crash in testing for the World Superbike Championship damaged his wrist. He was told that he wouldn’t race again. A tough thing to hear for someone whose life revolved around the sport. “I was never really interested in riding on the road,” he says of his prospects after the 2011 crash. “I was only interested in racing, in getting on the track, the lights going out and having a hard race. That was where my passion for motorcycle racing was. I can’t do that anymore — and then this opportunity arrived.”

The ’52 Express’ motorbike project is being lead by former GP and TT sidecar racer Alex Macfadzean — the first man to break 200mph on two wheels in the UK. “I’ve always been interested in Land Speed Records,” says Macfadzean, “and I was keen to do a motorcycle streamliner.” Macfadzean worked on the current wheel-driven car LSR holder, the Turbinator, with Don Vesco — a man who broke three motorbike Land Speed Records and inspired Macfadzean to follow in his footsteps. The Turbinator reached 458.440mph in 2001 with Vesco, aged 62 at the time, behind the wheel. Vesco was also working on a motorbike LSR breaker, but he sadly passed away only a year after the 2001 record. It’s this bike, designed by the late Bob Hodgkinson who also worked on the STP Lotus Indycar, that Macfadzean is using as a basis for the 2014 effort.

“Originally I thought about using a Radical V8 with a motorbike head on it,” continues Macfadzean, “but once you’ve increased the power by pressurecharging it, it’s actually quite a big engine. I had a rethink and decided to go down the gas turbine route that Don was going to follow. We’re now using a 1000bhp Rolls-Royce helicopter engine.

“We’ve completely rebuilt the bike, got the chassis done and put the engine and transmission in and we’ve now taken it to Derby University. They’re doing all the CFD work for us under the umbrella of [Bloodhound SSC aerodynamicist] Ron Ayers. Despite not having any two-wheeled experience, he’s willing to help us. The students showed him everything they had done so far and he’s very pleased with it.”

It hasn’t been an easy project, though, because Macfadzean has paid for it all out of his own pocket. “I’ve sold everything bar my BMW Rennsport that I used to race,” he admits. Toseland’s motorbike skills will no doubt help, but so will his profile when it comes to raising awareness and sponsorship. “I had to check that they wanted me to ride the bike for that reason and not because they weren’t brave enough or anything,” Toseland says with a smile. “The 400mph mark is the big one and when I was first contacted I did wonder how difficult a further 24mph [over the current 376mph record] would be! It’s fascinating how advanced the bike needs to be in terms of aerodynamics. It’s been a real eye-opener. On paper the bike will do 500mph, but we need to get the aerodynamics and stability right and make sure we can put the power down.”

“That speed’s also there to allow a good measure of contingency for safety purposes,” adds programme manager Robin Richardson. “There are always a lot of unknowns when you’re pushing boundaries. 450mph is the sort of speed that should be achievable on the right surface, with the right tyres. That’s not far off Vesco’s four-wheeled record so it’s still pretty quick…”

The plan was to do the record run on the Bonneville Salt Flats, where every ‘bike record has been set since 1955, but lack of traction could mean that the 1000bhp engine is next to useless. “It’s a semi-automatic ‘box,” says Toseland, “and that will make the run smoother, helping the grip levels. We’re now trying to design a torque curve on the engine that’s manageable. You could have 5000bhp, but there’s no point if you can’t put the power down.” The team is currently undecided on where it will attempt the record run, but Bloodhound’s Hakskeen Pan in South Africa looks likely. It’s also still keen to run at Bonneville to see what it can do.

The other issue for the team is finding tyres that will cope. Despite the power going to the rear wheel, it’s the front that usually causes the problems. “With a streamliner you’re basically lying on your back,” says Macfadzean. “In order to see where you’re going the front wheel has a very small diameter, so the rotational speed is much greater. A lot of people tend to lose their front tyre and aren’t able to complete a return run.” Macfadzean is pursuing a few different options, but the most likely is one that is as simple as it is ingenious. Sadly we’re not allowed to say what for the time being…

With the project costing Macfadzean so much it does raise the question of why he’s doing it. Richard Noble famously remarked that he made the 1983 LSR attempt “For Britain, and the hell of it”. Is this perhaps appropriate for this very British project? “Yes,” says Macfadzean, “he’s exactly right.”

New voice for race drivers
A new FIA commission promises to give drivers from all motor sport disciplines a say in the Place de la Concorde

What do Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell, Sebastien Loeb and Karun Chandhok have in common? They are all members of the FIA’s new Driver’s Commission. This initiative is intended to represent the rights and interests of professional drivers all over the world, whether they are from single-seaters, rallying, touring cars or even karting.

“I think there was a discussion last year about how the drivers needed to have a bit more of a voice,” says Chandhok, who is representing the single-seater category alongside Nigel Mansell and Maria de Villota, who lost an eye last year in a testing accident with the Marussia Formula 1 team. “The drivers are the ones in the cars, the ones in the limelight and we’re sometimes the ones that have to answer the awkward questions.

“The FIA wanted to have representatives from all the main motor racing disciplines and from all regions around the world. They also wanted to make sure there was a mixture of drivers from the past and present. They wrote to all the countries asking for nominations and I was put forward by India.

“We’re yet to have our first meeting, but I think if the drivers feel strongly about a certain issue or want to have their voice heard they can come to us. Right now if they’re not happy with something what can they do? They can send an e-mail to [the FIA Formula 1 race director] Charlie Whiting, or they can say something in the press in the hope that someone at the FIA reads it. It’s not the best way to do it, though. Also, Charlie is Charlie — he’s fantastic and understands the drivers’ perspective, but in the FIA there’s only so much he can do.

“We’ll hopefully be an official voice, especially for things like the proposed closed cockpit idea. Are they the right thing to have? What’s the best way to go about it? What are the drivers’ concerns in terms of heat and being able to escape if the car’s upside-down? We’ll no doubt be helping with things like that.

“It’s a very positive step by the FIA because they’re saying that the drivers matter. It’s never happened before. There’s the Grand Prix Drivers Association, but that’s just for Grand Prix drivers. I was a member of the GPDA and it has its place, but what about all the other categories in the world?”

The FIA Driver’s Commission is a worthwhile venture, but so was the Formula One Teams Association, and that is no longer the force it was after Ferrari, Red Bull and Toro Rosso all decided to go their own way. It’s unlikely that such political difficulties will divide the Driver’s Commission, but it will be interesting to see how much influence it has over the FIA’s decisions.

Defenders of the peace
Despite the most advanced car protection available, single-seater drivers are still subjected to the equivalent of a shotgun going off every time they reach top speed

If you look on a decibel chart you’ll find a rock concert comes in at 120dB, a jet taking off at 130dB and a shotgun blast at 140dB. Some F1 engines have barely lasted longer than a shotgun blast (ask Aguri Suzuki about his 1989 Zakspeed Yamaha), but the noise levels of both are the same when you’re approaching 200mph. The wind noise at that speed is like a continuous shotgun going off in your car.

Richard Attwood first drove the Porsche 917 at Le Mans in 1969 and told us in a Motor Sport podcast that the exhaust exits under the doors, not far from his ears, left him barely able to hear after 327 laps. Almost all professional racing drivers nowadays use car protection, but how much does this actually help?

“It’s a mistake to think you’re going to be blocked off from the world,” says Alfie Major from Ultimate Hearing Protection Systems, which supplies Lotus in Fl, the Bloodhound SSC team and Aston Martin in GT racing. “That’s impossible; your body absorbs vibrations through your head and into your ears. Our plugs are rated at a 30dB reduction and the thing with single-seaters is that it’s the wind noise that affects you, especially in a two-hour race. They won’t be doing 200mph for the whole race, of course, but for at least 10 minutes the noise will reach a peak of 140dB.”

Even with that 30dB reduction F1 drivers have to endure the equivalent of a car horn blaring in their car every time they reach top speed. And as soon as that stops their bodies will be subjected to the g forces of braking and cornering. Technology may have moved on hugely since Attwood’s 1969 Le Mans drive, but there’s no escaping the ferocity of an F1 car.

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