FEATURE: The people of Bloodhound

Joseph Flaig

Prince Philip meets the Bloodhound team at the technical centre in Bristol (Credit: Stefan Marjoram/ The Bloodhound Project)
Prince Philip meets the Bloodhound team at the technical centre in Bristol (Credit: Stefan Marjoram/ The Bloodhound Project)

On a mild October afternoon, crowds massed at a Cornish airfield to watch the Bloodhound SSC’s first major public step towards the land speed record.

After a decade of intensive planning, the car leapt to 210mph (338km/h) in less than eight seconds. The team hope it will eventually hit 1,000mph (1,609km/h) in the South African desert, showcasing the best of British engineering, securing a place in the history books and inspiring a new generation of engineers.

But who are the people of Bloodhound, how did they engineer this ambitious project and what does it mean to them? Joseph Flaig finds out…

The driver

(Credit: The Bloodhound Project)

(Credit: Stefan Marjoram/ The Bloodhound Project)

As the fastest man on Earth, Andy Green has to be as much an engineer as a driver. Ask the current land speed record holder how it feels to drive Bloodhound, and after a quick “great” he will tell you about the car’s unique blend of aerospace and automotive engineering. 

Pressed on the question, he gives an answer as forensically measured as the surface of the Hakskeen Pan desert track on which the car is set to race: “My job is to drive this car as accurately and precisely as possible. At idle, without touching the throttle, the car was stabilising… at 50mph on the taxiway.”

This immense power – achieved in Newquay with “only” a Eurofighter Typhoon Rolls-Royce EJ2000 jet engine, not the additional Nammo rocket and Jaguar Supercharged V8 power unit – means a complete reinvention of supersonic driving since Andy claimed the current speed record of 763mph (1,228km/h) in Thrust SSC 20 years ago. 

The Bloodhound is “brand new from start to finish,” he says. “It’s a full carbon-fibre tub, the strongest safety sail in the history of motorsport, it’s a full three TV screen display which is completely configurable to whatever we happen to be doing at the time.” 

That combination of aerospace and automotive technology, he adds, has created something entirely unique. “There’s more information packed in that car, in a more usable form in a more flexible way, than has ever been done before.”

The effort put into blending the best of the two sectors has created a vehicle with not only the highest performance and reliability levels, he says, but also fantastic suspension and precise steering. It is the best of Great British engineering on a global stage, already inspiring a new generation. Almost 10,000 people, including droves of schoolchildren, watched Andy over the weekend of public testing. 

Looking ahead at faster trials next year, he also considers the positive impact already achieved. 

“We have now had a chance to look back and realise what an astonishing job the team achieved at Newquay,” he says. “The feedback has just been universally astonishing in terms of creating that global effect and excitement about science and engineering… we are really, really pleased with that, it was exactly what we were after.”

The chief engineer

(Credit: The Bloodhound Project)

(Credit: Stefan Marjoram/ The Bloodhound Project)

Bloodhound is the “ultimate project,” says Mark Chapman. Passionate about the enterprise since receiving a headhunting answerphone message in 2007, the chief engineer delights in the mammoth challenges involved with the 13.4m-long supersonic vehicle.

At 1,000mph, even the most fundamental aspects of car design must be re-examined. Want tyres on your wheels? Think again, says Mark. At top speed the wheels will turn at 10,500rpm – 174 rotations per second – subjecting the rims to a G force of 50,000g. Rubber tyres peel off at about 400mph (640km/h), so instead Bloodhound will use solid 95kg wheels forged from an alloy of aluminium and zinc, with tolerances of just a few thousandths of a millimetre to prevent dangerous vibrations on the axles.

Although it weighs eight tonnes, it is still a challenge to keep the car on the ground, and even on a flat desert track the suspension needs fresh eyes. “It’s those little things that trip off the tongue as being simple, but actually are quite challenging,” says Mark. “There isn’t a solution, you’ve got to look at first principles, you’ve got to look at different technologies.” 

Despite following in the tracks of Thrust, Blue Bird and many other record-breaking cars, Mark insists that Bloodhound is an entirely different proposition because of the speed involved. “In my engineering career, there is always somebody who has done something similar to what you are trying to do... Bloodhound isn’t that. Bloodhound is ‘Here is an idea… 1,000mph, we don’t know if it’s possible’. And we’re really honest about that, we say this is an adventure. This is what engineering is all about.”

The ‘chief inspirer’

(Credit: The Bloodhound Project)

(Credit: Stefan Marjoram/ The Bloodhound Project)

“This is Rob – he’ll stop you going to prison.” 

It was, admits Rob Bennett, an “interesting” introduction to project director and previous land speed record holder Richard Noble, but an accurate one. Part of sponsor liaison from another company, Rob was taken on to work on the project’s health and safety seven years ago.

Within a year, however, he says he was drawn into the education side of the programme and has since enjoyed “the most exciting thing he has ever done”. With previous work in a band doing youth engagement in schools, prisons and youth custody centres, Rob quickly realised he wanted to spread Bloodhound’s fascinating story in the same way.  

“The Bloodhound story for me was not the car itself but the idea of the car,” he says. “The idea that you could take an amazing piece of cutting-edge technology, state-of-the-art design, and tell that story to 10-year-olds and engage and inspire them to make an emotional connection to say ‘Yeah, I could do that. I could do more than that’.”

Now, Rob visits schools and gives educational talks around the country, spreading the word about what engineering can achieve. Despite his musical past, he says he has not yet written a song about the project – but, he points out, with the central refrain “Build a rocket, boys!”, Lippy Kid by Elbow was partially inspired by Bloodhound, and the song features on one of the project’s official videos. 

The school pupil

(Credit: Joseph Flaig)

(Credit: Joseph Flaig)

“It was amazing,” says 15-year-old Amelie de Lara, still excited after Bloodhound’s first tests just half-an-hour ago. 

The car has fascinated Amelie since she first heard about it six months ago through her Dad Andy, who works at the project’s cloud computing partner Oracle. Since then, she has delved into its history, watching documentaries about the “incredible” previous record-breakers. 

Studying triple science at GCSE, Amelie says it was interesting to see the effects of physics lesson phenomena in real life. Bloodhound has also revealed the rich choice of future career options, and she enjoyed speaking to aerodynamicists and other researchers about the breadth of engineering jobs available.  

“It’s really opened my eyes that, if you take maths or science at higher education, it’s not just about being a mathematician or a scientist,” she says. “There are so many different roles that you can do.”

The young engineer

(Credit: The Bloodhound Project)

(Credit: Rolls-Royce)

At school in 2008, Jess Herbert was not interested in engineering. “If you had told me in a few years’ time you’ll be a proper engineer with all your qualifications, I’d likely laugh at you,” she says – although that is exactly what happened. 

Now a manufacturing engineer at Rolls-Royce, Jess can trace her passion for the sector all the way back to the start. The Bloodhound team visited her school, giving presentations and speaking about the aims of the project.

“Something just clicked,” she says. “I just went ‘Wow, this is really cool’. There were so many questions that I wanted to investigate and get answered and so many things I wanted to do, like what happens if you stick it up on end? What happens if you point it straight down? Why can’t they do it in this way? All of these things that I wanted to go and answer, I did.”

Following the visit, Jess contacted the team, who supported her application for an apprenticeship with her current employer. She became fully qualified last year and is also an ambassador for the project, spreading inspiration to more young pupils. 

“The main message that we want to get across is that engineering isn’t the stereotype you always think of,” she says. “It’s not all oil and overalls. If that’s what you like, then great… but there are still so many things you can do and so many different things you can get involved with. It’s this incredible space where you can push boundaries and constantly try to do the next thing.”

After all, she says, if a 1,000mph car does not get you excited, then what will? 

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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