Hot Wheels: The race is on to create a car that can reach 1,000mph
February 2, 2011
Push the accelerator and the car starts moving—slowly, it seems, at first. But it’s deceptive because the desert ahead is flat and featureless, devoid of visual clues apart from a straight line marked on the ground. I’m soon at 100mph with the jet engine just behind my head winding up to full power. Careful, because the car is drifting away from the line. At just over 200mph, I pull the left trigger on the aircraft-like steering wheel to ignite the rocket; at 350mph I use the right trigger to fire it at full blast. Concentrate, steer straight. As the speedo passes 750mph, the car goes through the sound barrier. At just over 1,000mph, the marker posts for the start of a measured mile flash past. Don’t blink. In 3.6 seconds the posts at the end of the mile are in the dust behind me.
Then it’s all action. Foot off the accelerator, release the rocket triggers and, as the speed falls away, deploy the airbrakes and launch the parachutes from the rear. When the car slows towards 200mph it is safe to step on the brakes. But I seem to have overdone it, and dropping to a crawl won’t be able to coast up to the stopping point. Mark Chapman leans over with a word of advice: “You’re still doing 150mph.” I brake harder.
Setting a 1,000mph (1,609kph) land-speed record on a simplified computer simulator is difficult enough, but once Chapman and his team have finished building Bloodhound SSC (super-sonic car) it will be a thousand times more difficult. The person driving the car for real will be Andy Green. Besides the noise, vibration and stifling heat, his body will be pummelled by sickening G-forces.
Driving the car will have to be done subconsciously because his brain will be too busy computing information, especially from the cockpit instruments. But Green is relaxed: “I’ve had the best training in the world for this.” He is an RAF wing commander, used to having to stay cool and methodical while flying jet fighters fast and low. You learn how to prioritise, because there will not be time to think about everything. But one display will always get his attention, the one that shows the pressure the wheels are exerting on the ground. Green has to keep those wheels on the ground, not just to stay alive by preventing the car pitching violently upwards, but also because a land-speed record requires it.
No one really knows what a car will do at 1,000mph. But Green has some experience as the first person to drive through the sound barrier, in Thrust SSC at Black Rock Desert, Nevada, in October 1997. His record of 763mph still stands. Chapman watched him on television while working as an aerospace engineer and signed up as chief engineer after meeting Richard Noble, the Bloodhound project’s irrepressible leader. Many of the 30-strong team (not to mention numerous others helping out) came together through a common passion for motorsport. Mostly they are like Noble: not content with a normal job…