Rob Widdows

Desert warrior in village hall

“Richard Noble is a legend. If only there were a few like him in government.” I quote from responses to our recent podcast with the man who, 30 years ago, became the fastest man on earth.

On October 5 1983, Noble drove his Thrust 2 jet-powered car across the Black Rock desert in Nevada, clocked 633mph through the measured mile and put his name alongside the Cobbs and Campbells of this world. In October 1997 he tried again, this time putting RAF fighter pilot Andy Green behind the wheel of Thrust SSC . Green went through the sound barrier and created the first ever supersonic land speed record at a staggering 763mph. People said that could never be done on land, but Mr Noble has never been much bothered by what others think.

Last month he bustled into the sleepy Sussex village of Burpham for the Auto Historica show, immediately attracting a huge crowd around his latest venture, another jet-powered car but this time with a rocket attached. In his relentless quest to hold on to the world land speed record, Noble and Green are hoping Bloodhound will reach 1000mph on the Hakskeen desert, South Africa, in 2016.

Given star billing at Auto Historica, staged on the village green by Dominic Santana’s Burpham Motor Racing Club, the tireless Mr Noble did not disappoint. Charging around, shaking hands, signing posters and soaking up endless questions, he converted another few hundred curious onlookers to the cause, urging them to sign up to his crusade to create the British engineers and physicists of the future.

“I am amazed at his open response to questions. Not what you get in other forms of motor sport these days.” I quote again from responses to our podcast, which is still available on our website. Those who followedNoble into Burpham Village Hall for his Bloodhound presentation, breathless in his wake, will no doubt agree. For 90 minutes he had them spellbound.

“I get to see the Prime Minister every now and then,” he told them, “and that’s fun because now the government is beginning to understand what we’re trying to do. At last count we have more than 5000 schools and colleges signed up to our campaign to get more young people studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Thanks to Bloodhound the subject is sexy again. They can follow the project in detail, day by day, as we gear up for a test run in 2015.”

Outside in the late summer sunshine, the Sussex Ferrari Owners Club revved up their red machines, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight rumbled overhead – and Noble just raised his voice. Nobody even looked out of the window.

“This is a monumental project,” he went on, bouncing from one foot to the other, “and now, after battling with the board of Rolls-Royce, we have them helping us with the jet engine. It took months to persuade them, but once you have Rolls-Royce then people start to believe. And Swansea University has done a vast amount of work on the aerodynamics with our man Ron Ayers, using Europe’s most powerful computers from Intel. This is British engineering at its absolute best.”

On a patch of grass nearby, children were already building model rocket cars, under the guidance of Bloodhound technicians, before blasting them down a test track laid out for Auto Historica. The record for a rocket car built at school, and run in the playground, stands at a tad over 200mph. I wondered how they stopped. “No problem,” said Noble, laughing heartily, “they just pile up mattresses at the end of the track...”

Rob Widdows