It was on its last legs, but now Bloodhound is back to sniff out a land-speed record
There are lines in the desert. “Tell me what you see,” says Andy Green. I see a tall triangle, wheel tracks converging on the horizon, as pure a vanishing point as it’s possible to see. I know this isn’t what Andy is referring to because his brain doesn’t work like that. “You see how the two lines on the right are closer together than those on the left? What does that tell you?” Realisation dawns slowly. The wider rear wheels are out of line with the fronts. “Bloody hell, Bloodhound is oversteering,” I reply. “Well, carrying about two degrees of yaw” is Andy’s comeback, because that’s how his brain works.
Never let anyone tell you that land-speed records are a doddle. That you just point the damn thing straight and nail it. “It’s worse to drive than I expected,” says Andy. “There’s not a lot of grip, and above 200mph it’s like driving on ice – steering inputs are fairly constant.” I like to think I know a bit about driving, but I simply can’t get my head around what Andy Green is doing inside Bloodhound’s cramped, claustrophobic cockpit.
Words: Ollie Marriage / Photography: Jonny Fleetwood
Besides watermelon-size cojones, running a car designed to take the record beyond 800mph, maybe all the way to 1,000mph, needs a lot of stuff. The giant cones that line the track come from open cast mines, the Rolls-Royce EJ200 jet is borrowed from the MOD and, due to the sensitivity of some parts, requires me to sign an NDA saying I’m not spying for Syria, North Korea, Iran or China. The GPS tractor that draws the lines to an accuracy of 25mm across 20km has come from Cape Town, rocket engineers from Norway, and ethernet cables from Upington.
There are five of them on the broiling back seat of our Toyota Corolla Quest hire car, and they’re lucky to be there. We’d steered out of town an hour earlier, replete with crisps, bread, peanut butter, rusks and maize porridge. TG’s self-catering survival kit. Anyway, on what must have been the last faint beat of Upington’s 4G, and barely loud enough to be heard over the frantic aircon fan, my phone pings. Jonny picks it up.
“Er, we’re going to need to turn around.”
“What is it this time?”
“Ethernet cables. Five of them, three metres long.”
Upington, the only town of any size in South Africa’s Northern Cape, is not awash with places to buy ethernet cables. But to cut a long story short, one that features language misunderstandings and a query about whether it’s “worth trying a pharmacy, because we’ve tried every-damn-where else”, we come good and leave town muttering about the demands of TV crews.
The road that runs north is, with the right permit, unlimited. This is where car firms come to run fast through the desert. Straight, no traffic, big skies, flanked by sandy undulations and scrubby bush – best place on Earth for it. I hit… well, no matter what I extract from the Toyota. Just remember hire cars are the fastest cars in the world.
Maybe not today. It’s the next morning. Ethernet cables have been handed over, plus the mossie net we’d got for the BBC’s South Africa correspondent, who had been bitten to death during a power cut. Bloodhound is kept in a big white marquee on the eastern edge of the pan. Inside, it’s an air-conditioned workshop, a hushed bustle of activity. Mornings work best for runs, as the temperature is cooler, making starting the jet easier, and the winds tend to be lower. The plan for these runs is not to go fast – well, in the grand scheme of things – but, as chief engineer Mark Chapman describes it, this is all about “making it stop, getting up to speed and then testing the systems – air brakes, wheel brakes and parachutes – that slow us back down.”
There’s nothing gung-ho about this project. Bloodhound is taking a calm, measured approach to doing something utterly bananas: trying to keep a man safe and on the ground at beyond supersonic speeds. So in the tent it’s all very orderly: the engineers studiously tighten and check, the clipped tones of the operations people instruct everyone on the run profile. Today the aim is 550mph, with a single parachute release.
The car is slowly, carefully towed out to its start point at the northern end. Jonny and I ride shotgun with operations director Stuart Edmondson and Andy Green. I have Andy’s helmet on my lap, his race boots by my feet. He’s simultaneously taut and relaxed, joking about the 680 frames Jonny’s whirring Canon snaps as we head out on to this barren, perfectly flat alkali lake bed. It’s a disorientating environment. Your eye has nothing to rest on; everything, in every direction, shimmers with heat.
The car is unhitched and sits quietly. The start team bustle around, and I try not to get in their way. I stand behind BIoodhound, looking down the flank so I get a view as close to Andy’s as possible. It makes me feel oddly emotional. I’ve been following this project for 10 years, through highs and, more often recently, lows. Yet here it is, a streamlined dart lined up on a thin blue line in this giant, silent arena. It looks bloody magnificent. Quite a bit like Concorde, actually. But more importantly it looks at home, a racecar in its natural environment.
I’m allowed to stand a few dozen yards further up the track when Bloodhound leaves the line. The speed that sound travels at means I see the dust rise behind the car before I hear the change in tone as the roar deepens. Twenty seconds after that, I’m engulfed in a cloud of dust, listening to the gentle tinkle of dirt settling back on the ground. Then there’s only the tracks left, carved arrow straight, maybe an inch deep in this alkali pan.
What happens in between I will never forget. Bloodhound doesn’t jerk into life like something wheel driven, but instead smoothly departs the line. And then the speed ramps up. Fast cars explode off the line. Maybe you’ve experienced it, in which case you’ll know what happens next: once that initial burst of energy is over, the rate of acceleration slows. Bloodhound is exponential. Acceleration seems to breed acceleration.
The air cracks and pulsates and I feel the physical force of it – my ribcage rattles and pounds, my head vibrates
I’m not aware of any change in pitch or tone from the engine, so my brain reckons ears and eyes are out of sync. And then my ears are irrelevant because all I have is white noise. The air cracks and pulsates and I feel the physical force of it – my ribcage rattles and pounds, my head vibrates. Bloodhound’s on full reheat now. As it comes past, I’m aware of an orange glow at the back, but it’s now accelerating faster than my eyes would be able to focus, were they not shaking in their sockets. By the time my senses regather themselves, the orange glow is a fast receding dot, the flat horizon between desert and sky split apart by a wedge of dust, at its point a tiny white dot. The noise fades, the dust cloud engulfs us, my ears ring, my heart pounds.
Those were the 12 seconds from first puff of dust to car out of sight. We give chase. Bloodhound has come to a rest at the 8km mark. Earlier than expected. Fire crews encircle it and we’re kept a safe distance back. There’s been an issue. Radio chatter suggests a fire warning in the cockpit causing Andy to abort. 481mph. It’s not slow, but it’s not the 550mph they wanted.
Happily, there’s no fire. The team gathers around, hands are placed on the titanium cladding near the tailfin. It’s hot to the touch, the air in the narrow gap between jet engine and outer skin heated to boiling point, while the temperature sensor in that area registers 127 degrees. It’s not critical heat, so the suspicion is the FireWire cable might be to blame – pinched maybe. They have very clever electrical engineers out here, but proper diagnosis is only possible if they take the engine out.
It means Bloodhound won’t run for at least the next two days. I’m initially gutted. It means I won’t see it in action again. I wanted to watch from the side as it ripped past, causing heads to swivel like a tennis serve, from up in the shipping container control box where kilometre markers are painted on the glass, watch it with others, so we can marvel together. But I’ve seen it once, I’ve witnessed Bloodhound at full power, piling on 45mph every second, and that’s a massive privilege.
Actually, this is better. Live engineering in one of the world’s more remote places. No one looks downbeat, because first time perfection doesn’t exist. It would be dull, in fact. But having to diagnose and repair an utterly unique land-speed record car a hemisphere away from home and 260km from the nearest town? That’s a challenge. That’s an adventure.
So Bloodhound goes back into the tent and the spanners come out. It takes until lunchtime the following day to remove the tailfin, lift the super-structure containing the jet off, then drop the RollsRoyce EJ200 out onto its RAF trolley.
There’s time to fix a couple of other teething issues. The medical team run through extraction tests, hauling Andy out of the cockpit a couple of times; the chaps from Nammo (supplying the rocket that’ll partner the jet when they go for full record runs) discuss how they can integrate themselves in the team, the centre screen in the cockpit, the crucial one that shows speed, has been cutting out. In every area, in car and off it, there are things that can be worked on, honed and improved. This includes hand washing techniques and the placement of antiseptic gel. Not even kidding.
But here’s the thing to remember. There’s not hundreds of people involved in this project – there’s barely tens. Everyone has multiple roles. I love just sitting in the tent, because everywhere I look I see resourcefulness and creativity. This project is about so much more than the car, and in here you really see that. It’s engineering exposed, and it’s fascinating and clever and inspiring. The pursuit of speed, it could be argued, has gone out of fashion, a victim of its close association with fossil fuels, waste and high carbon. But look beyond that, look beyond the car itself and you see clever thinking and original ideas everywhere you look.
I’m told a story. When they were designing the cockpit they asked a design company to quote for a trigger mechanism on the back of the steering wheel to fire the rocket. The firm wanted £100,000. The solution? Andy Green went down to a hardware store and tried the triggers on various powertools until he found one he liked. It cost £6. Those ethernet cables. Turns out they weren’t for a TV crew. Back in the tent the cockpit engineer comes up, “Thanks so much for the cables – Andy’s centre screen has been flickering and glitching at around 300mph, so we need to redo the wiring. We’ll just strip them and put some motorsport connectors on,” he tells me. They’d cost me £2 each from a phone shop in Upington. Ingenuity, as much as speed, is what defines Bloodhound. This is about so much more than going fast across a desert.