In between sipping cups of Earl Grey tea and producing oddly prescient dystopian satires, the British like to set land speed records. Back in 1997, a group of enterprising British engineers established the current record at 763mph with the jet-powered Thrust SSC, driven by Andy Green. The core of that same team is now back with a new, leaner, more technologically advanced vehicle that promises not only to go supersonic like its predecessor, but to speed past the 1,000mph milestone. Meet the Bloodhound SSC.
Measuring in at 13.5 meters (44 feet) in length and 7.5 tons in weight, the Bloodhound SSC is capable of producing 135,000bhp. This is all still theoretical at the moment, since the car hasn't gone anywhere under the power of its own (jet) engine, but the numbers are still staggering. It accelerates from 0 to 1,000mph in 55 seconds, covers a mile in 3.6 seconds at top speed, and then takes a further 65 seconds to decelerate. This generates 2G of sustained acceleration on the way up the speedometer, and 3G of deceleration when slowing down. That's the sort of force you'd experience if going from 60mph to a standstill in a second, which is encapsulated neatly by the Bloodhound's press release: "most people call this a crash."
The Bloodhound SSC is making its grand debut in London today, and I was given a guided tour of this vast and extraordinarily powerful car by a member of the team making it. Martin Roper is the events manager at the Bloodhound Technical Centre and also one of the Fire and Rescue officers. The latter role means he gets to drive a bespoke Jaguar Rapid Response Vehicle, which will chase the Bloodhound as it tries to make its record-breaking runs and carry emergency equipment, primarily for putting out fires. Martin opened by telling me that the goal with the Bloodhound was to "build a car that would push the record so far out of sight, that no one would ever even attempt to beat it."
Besides Andy Green, the driver, the Bloodhound SSC (supersonic car) also shares the same project director, Richard Noble, and chief aerodynamicist, Ron Ayers, as the Thrust SSC that holds the current record. They'd all "pretty much hung up their boots" after completing the 1997 run, however a decade later, in 2008, they were prompted to start up the current project by rumors of a potential American competitor. Ayers is now an octogenarian and Green is in his 50s, but there's no loss of enthusiasm from anyone on the team. On the contrary, there's an air of pride and joy surrounding this car that extends beyond the technical achievements it contains. The Bloodhound is the product of a collaboration between more than 280 global companies, and it's intended as "a showcase of science and engineering capability." It benefits from a government grant — part of the Great Britain initiative — but is a private company and most of its funding and resources come from sponsor companies.
Jaguar has provided a supercharged V8 engine to drive the pump delivering fuel to the rocket — it's just one rocket for now, but the eventual 2017 Bloodhound is expected to have a cluster of three — while the UK Ministry of Defence has donated the Rolls-Royce EJ200 jet engine providing the rest of the car's power. The realities of working within a budget, says Martin, have meant that the Bloodhound is something of a jigsaw of available and donated parts. The front of the car, including the nose and the cockpit, is built out of carbon fiber — much like a Formula 1 car, though it uses 13 layers of the stuff and is therefore significantly thicker and heavier. The rear and lower chassis is made out of aluminum and steel, and the top parts — everything behind the driver's head — are a mix of aluminum and titanium. Martin equates it to a Formula 1 car at the front, a train at the bottom, and an airplane at the top. Members of the British Royal Air Force were involved in the design of the titanium fin at the rear, which is critical for lateral stability.
"The Thrust SSC wanted to turn left at 600mph," says Martin. "It was quite dangerous." Addressing safety concerns is a big theme of the Bloodhound's design, though there's still a level of unavoidable uncertainty about how it will interact with its environment when it scales the heights of 800mph and beyond. The new car has been designed primarily using computational fluid dynamics, and it's about as aerodynamic as it can possibly be, though extensive testing will still be carried out before it's thrown out on the desert in South Africa.Some of the issues that have already been accounted for include the ridiculous 10,200RPM of the wheels — 170 rotations per second — which has necessitated a special aluminum alloy for the wheels. Creating these has been another collaborative process. German engineering firm Otto Fuchs, which also manufactures wheels for Porsche, provides the aluminum block, which is then shaped by Castle Engineering in the UK. Conventional rubber tires will be fitted to the Bloodhound while it undergoes testing in the UK at the start of 2016, but that will only extend to 200mph. For speeds of 800mph and beyond, the car will make the trip to the Hakskeen Pan in Northern Cape, South Africa. The first record attempt is expected to come in the latter half of 2016, aiming to clear the 800mph mark, and then, if all goes well, the upgraded Bloodhound SSC will be aiming for 1,000mph in early 2017.
Among the many cool things about this car is its special air intake system, which is designed to slow down the air that goes into the Rolls-Royce engine. The EJ200 comes from EuroJet fighter jets, whose intake systems are completely different, not having to deal with the same air density or speed. There are also three separate braking systems — air brakes, friction brakes, and parachutes — and Castrol is providing "a number of high-tech lubricants including a specially blended engine oil." The driver's seat is made out of carbon fiber, and there's no padding to be seen. Martin tells me that padding would make things more dangerous, not less, as it would compress in the event of a crash and thereby create slack in the straps holding the driver down. The Bloodhound SSC has seven built-in fire extinguishers and a set of custom Rolex instruments that provide redundancy in the event of the digital read-outs failing.
To achieve its goal of setting a new land speed record, the Bloodhound will have to complete one measured mile in one direction and, within a time limit of one hour, turn around and complete the mile in the opposite direction. The average speed of its runs is then recorded and, should it be high enough, bottles of champagne will be uncorked and imbibed along with celebratory cups of tea.