A loud hiss rips through the stillness of southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert. It sounds like a fighter jet flying low over the Hakskeen Pan, an isolated dry lake bed in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, near the Namibian border.
Then a thick cloud of sand appears on the horizon, growing steadily as it draws near.
In the blink of an eye, a racing car shoots by with a deafening screech and pelts toward the opposite end of the salt pan.
The “Bloodhound” is gearing up to try to break the current land speed record, which stands at 1,223.657kph.
There is still a way to go before the super racer is ready for that attempt, but today, driver Andy Green is pleased.
“We have reached 904kph,” he says, beaming as he lifts himself out of the cockpit, helmet in hand. “First thing in the morning, plenty of thrust, nice calm wind, so the car ran absolutely straight.”
The British-built Bloodhound stands sleekly behind him, dust still hovering in its wake. The white parachute that helps it brake lies crumpled on the cracked ochre soil.
“Good parachute deployment,” adds the Briton, as the vehicle is towed into a large air-conditioned tent nearby. “That’s pretty much the perfect run.”
The Bloodhound was designed exclusively for speed — the team hopes, if possible, to get up to 1,609.34kph.
The vehicle resembles a wingless jet on aluminum wheels, with a long white body topped by an engine and a stabilizer. Its design is way ahead of the bullet-shaped electric car in which French aristocrat Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the first land speed record on Dec. 18, 1898 — pushing the vehicle’s spoke wheels to 63.15kph.
“You can call it that, a jet engine with wheels, but it’s far more sophisticated than that,” Bloodhound operations head Stuart Edmondson said.
Chief engineer Mark Chapman described the racer as “part Formula 1” and “part jet fighter.”
“The car, as it is a car, has a steering wheel, has a throttle pedal, has a brake pedal,” he added.
The engine, built by Rolls-Royce, once powered a British Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoon fighter jet.
It was recycled from three decommissioned versions of the Typhoon’s engine, released by the British Ministry of Defense, “without the handbooks,” a Bloodhound team member said, chuckling.
“It’s a car designed to go at 1,600kph,” said Chapman, adding that at top speed, it would be almost 400kph faster than a Typhoon at the same altitude.
“The big issues were aerodynamics, keeping it on the ground,” he said. “You don’t want it to be a plane.”
As the engine’s nine tons of thrust are still unable to break the sound barrier, Chapman and his team plan to give it a boost with a rocket engine.
Green is not intimidated by the prospect. The 57-year-old RAF pilot has held the current land speed record since 1997.
“It’s a very different sensation,” to flying a fighter jet, Green said. “A very different environment ... [and] vehicle.”
The skills and the second-by-second decisions needed to stay in control are like flying a jet fighter “at the limits of its performance,” he said, adding that the main difficulty was keeping the land vehicle steady.
“The car starts to move around at about 300kph — at 350kph, it starts to almost skate on the surface,” he said. “It’s like driving on hard packed snow in a normal car.”
At such high speed, the slightest mistake or technical glitch can be fatal.
In August, professional racer Jessi Combs of the US was killed during a test-run for a land-speed record attempt in Oregon’s Alvord Desert.
Ian Warhurst is the racer’s proud owner. Last year, he saved the failing project by buying the Bloodhound, which was on the verge of being dismantled and sold as spare parts.
Ex-owner of a turbocharger manufacturer in Britain, Warhurst said that the amount was “nothing” compared with the money “you need to spend for projects like, say, Formula 1 teams.”
Warhurst, 50, who retired last year after making his fortune, defended his new carbon-intensive hobby as a source of “inspiration.”
Breaking the record “would obviously be an amazing thing, but it’s the journey to get there that is really exciting,” he said, adding that he hoped the team’s work would inspire others to advance new technologies, especially in becoming carbon neutral.
“So if we can help to inspire engineers to do that, then we’re doing our part,” Warhurst said.
This desert tryout, which took place from the end of October to the middle of last month, has seen the Bloodhound’s speedometer creep up to 1,010kph.
The car is headed back to its home base in Britain for more tweaking and the new rocket engine, before its expected return to the Kalahari by the middle of 2021 for another attempt.
Green is already excited at the thought.
“I’m very confident there is nothing on the planet with the capability that Bloodhound car has,” he said. “I’m confident we are going to break the record.”
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