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November 9, 2017

The long wait for a 1,000MPH car

by John_A

On October 28th, Bloodhound’s EJ200 jet engine roared to life. The needle-shaped car sped down a closed-off airstrip in Newquay, England, as 3,500 people looked on. At first, a cone of flame could be seen at the back of the vehicle, but it quickly faded as pilot Andy Green reached top speed and hit the brakes. From the roof of a temporary broadcast studio, I watched as a line of photographers rattled off shots and jostled for position. Within a matter of seconds, the blue blur had reached the end of the runway and veered left onto a parallel strip that led back toward the starting line.

It was a moment everyone present had waited nine years for.

The Bloodhound project was first announced at London’s Science Museum in 2008, when Green and project director Richard Noble explained their “three-year mission” to build a car that could break the world land speed record and reach a dizzying 1,000MPH (1,609KMH).

Noble, a Scottish entrepreneur and qualified pilot, had held the land speed record between 1983 and 1997 with the jet-propelled Thrust2. He relinquished his driving duties shortly after and became project director for the Thrust SSC, which Green drove to a record-breaking 763MPH (1,228KMH) in Jordan’s al-Jafr desert.

From the outset, Bloodhound had a second mission to inspire young children to pursue careers in science, math, engineering and technology. Today, the UK still has a shortage of skilled engineers. Back in 2008, Noble and Green hoped that a new car and record attempt, which the public could easily follow through blog posts and update videos, would show how exciting the industry can be.

There was, unsurprisingly, a wealth of interest and media coverage around the launch.

Tony Parraman, Bloodhound’s head of sponsor liaison, didn’t attend the announcement. He was hired before the London launch and desperate to go, but Noble refused his request, citing cost-saving measures. Having stayed behind, Parraman said, is one of his “biggest regrets.”

Tall and well spoken, Parraman had an extraordinary career prior to Bloodhound. Following a brief stint in the Royal Air Force, he took a course in engineering and worked for a company that built detectors for electron microscopes. He then moved to CAV, a subsidiary of the motor-and-aerospace manufacturer Lucas, before traveling around the world and teaching English in Japan for six months. The globe-trotter eventually returned to England and became a design technology teacher. After he stopped working to bring up his daughter, Parraman set up his own small building company.

“Lots of ladies at toddler groups had inept husbands who couldn’t do anything in the DIY field,” he explained. “So I decided to make a small business out of fitting kitchens, bathrooms and fencing. You name it, I did it.”

His extensive résumé couldn’t prepare him for the ‘rude awakening’ that occurred on his first day.

All of that experience made Parraman an ideal candidate for the sponsorship role. He was an excellent speaker and understood Bloodhound’s design challenges, as well as the impact the project could have on children. His extensive résumé, however, couldn’t prepare him for the “rude awakening” that occurred on his first day.

As a young lad, he had watched Noble talk about the Thrust SSC on Blue Peter. “I thought, ‘It can’t be that difficult, can it? You just build a car and then you run it in the desert. Where’s the level of complexity?’” The reality, of course, was quite different.

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Mark Elvin, Bloodhound’s engineering lead, standing by the incomplete car in September.

Bloodhound is an intimidating vehicle. It measures 13.4 meters (about 44 feet), which is more than two Formula 1 cars placed back to back. Along the top, behind the driver’s cockpit, is the EJ200 jet engine — the same one found in a Eurofighter Typhoon plane. Underneath is a largely vacant section that will eventually house three hybrid rockets developed by Norwegian/Finnish aerospace company Nammo. At the moment, the team is powering the rocket oxidizer pump, which pours peroxide into the rocket chamber, with a Jaguar Supercharged V8 engine. The jet engine on its own could take the car up to 650MPH (1046KMH) — close to the current land speed record — but with the rocket system the team is confident it can break 1,000MPH.

The front section, including the nose and cockpit, is made mostly of carbon fiber. The rear, meanwhile, is a mixture of aluminum and titanium, split into two distinct halves for the jet and rocket engines. A large orange fin sits at the back, keeping the car pointed forward as it speeds toward its goal. Without this, the car might turn or move unpredictably, like an arrow without any feathered fletchings. All told, Bloodhound is a carefully crafted Frankenstein machine, a patchwork of parts and materials designed with power and, above all else, Green’s safety in mind.

In 2008, of course, the vehicle didn’t exist. After the launch event, the Bloodhound team returned to Bristol and continued its work on the design. A few months later, Green visited Australia to search for a desert that could facilitate the record attempt, but he came up empty-handed. Design visualization company Visioneering provided parts for a basic chassis mock-up made of steel, wood and foam. As the pieces slotted into place, the team fine-tuned their CAD drawings. It was an arduous design process, a constant loop of balancing and refinement.

The mock-up was shown off to the public at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July 2009. The bodywork, paint and decals gave everyone, including supporters and potential investors, a much-needed reference point for the project and what the team was hoping to build.

Buoyed by the reaction, the team continued its design and testing work. Later that month, the Bristol crew conducted a “static test” of its monopropellant rocket system. The team is confident that this part, combined with the Eurofighter jet engine, can carry the car to well over 800MPH. With the first record secure, and plenty more data to pick through, they will swap the rocket out for a more powerful and trickier-to-operate hybrid system.

By November 2009, the team had gone through 10 design “evolutions.” It wasn’t until May 2010, however, that the crew announced its “holy grail” configuration. Since the project’s inception, the team had been battling a predicted variation in vertical load, or lift. At roughly 387MPH (617KMH), Bloodhound produced some downforce; however, that would flip to more than 10 tons of lift at 1,000MPH. Given that the car weighed close to five tons at the time, that was a huge problem. But the team found a way to redesign the rear of the vehicle to minimize the air compression that was causing so much lift.

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Mark Elvin heard about the Bloodhound project soon after its announcement in London. In 2010, he watched a related presentation at Farnborough Airshow. “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Look at this bunch of idiots. They think they’re going to build a 1,000MPH car.’” But Elvin, like many of Bloodhound’s critics, had only read a brief news article about the project. He would later dig deeper and understand just how much work had already gone into the designs. “The aerodynamic analysis that was done before the structures were even started is huge,” he said.

Suddenly Bloodhound didn’t seem so ridiculous. “You suddenly realize, ‘Hang on a minute — no, these guys have done an awful lot of what you would hope they had done.’ But that’s not what was sold in the BBC article I read. They had kind of glossed over all of that.’” With a newfound respect for the project, Elvin joined the 1K Club, an official supporters’ group that offered exclusive updates, an invitation to the car’s UK test runs, and more.

“I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Look at this bunch of idiots. They think they’re going to build a 1,000MPH car.’”

Like Parraman, Elvin has had an astonishing career. He started his working life with a four-year aircraft apprenticeship at Westland Helicopters before taking a job as a junior engineer at GKN Westland Design. Four years later, he was stuck in a queue at the NEC Motor Show, flipping through a free copy of The Daily Telegraph. By chance, he spotted a job posting for a design engineer at the Williams Formula 1 team. Candidates needed to be degree qualified; Elvin didn’t have a degree. In fact, he had been forced to retake his GCSEs in college. “I thought, ‘Oh, well, I haven’t got a degree, but I can’t lose anything, can I?’”

He started working at Williams in 1999. For six years, he helped the team create one of the fastest race cars in the world. “Knowing that you’ve designed components on that car, and been part of the team that won those races, it’s fantastic,” he said. In 2005, Elvin’s second daughter was born. He wanted to spend more time with his family, so he took a job as a senior design engineer at a railway signaling company. The work was ideal, but after six years Elvin felt brain dead. “Just doing an easy job day in, day out,” he recalled.

One day, Bloodhound emailed Elvin to ask if he could help run a merchandise stand at an upcoming event. Elvin couldn’t make it, but explained that he had “a bit of technical background” and wanted to contribute in other ways. “And they said, ‘Well what is your background?’ So I told them and they said, ‘Well, can you come in and have a chat?’” Elvin agreed, expecting to be pitched more voluntary work. He was surprised when the conversation ended with a job offer. “I just found the whole project interesting,” Elvin said. First, however, he needed to consult with his wife. “She said, ‘Well, if you don’t do it, you’ll regret it, so you’ve got to do it.’” So in 2012, Elvin left his stable railway job to break a world land speed record.

By this stage, it was clear that Noble and Green’s three-year timeline would need to be revised. Elvin’s guess was that everything would be wrapped up by 2014. “Obviously, that was… maybe slightly naive at that point,” he said with a chuckle. Initially, he joined Bloodhound “to do some drawing” over a three-month contract. “They had a load of schemes and just wanted parts chucked out,” he explained. But he quickly went from a design engineer to a senior engineer and, finally, the project’s engineering lead for mechanical design.

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Nick Summers / Engadget

Joe Holdsworth joined the Bloodhound team in 2012 too. His father had always been interested in land speed record attempts; he went to the al-Jafr desert, met Green and Noble and watched the Thrust SSC break the world land speed record in 1997. Holdsworth looked at photos of the trip as a child and, naturally, tried to build his own rocket cars, with balsa wood and Legos. “It never worked properly, and I never had any money to buy the rocket motors,” he said with a wry smile. “Which was probably a good thing.”

bloodaside.jpgJoe Holdsworth, system engineer at Bloodhound.

Holdsworth had gotten an aerospace degree at university but went into finance after his graduation. He worked in London until the financial crash of 2008, after which he was drawn back into the world of engineering. He was soon hired by a company researching unmanned submarines and their potential to look for untapped oil and gas reserves.

Before long, however, Holdsworth was pining for another move. He considered emigrating to Australia but ended up at a Bloodhound talk with his father, who, like Elvin, was a 1K Club member. In the end, Holdsworth handed in his CV just as someone else on the team happened to be moving on. He was soon hired as a systems engineer to oversee the integration of the jet engine into the car. Now he oversees all of the vehicle’s systems.

The Bloodhound project can best be described as a roomful of clever, crazy boffins. The team has a fairly flat company structure, and everyone has a broad range of skills that can be applied to different parts of the car. “It’s a massive learning exercise for everyone involved, no matter how old they are,” Elvin said. “Everybody comes here and learns a lot. I’ve probably learned more in the last six years of being here than I have done in the rest of my career put together.”

“He has probably forgotten more things than I’ll ever learn.”

For an outsider, it can feel a little intimidating. “You don’t want to look stupid,” Holdsworth said. “Obviously, you consider some of these people very good at what they do.” Elvin agreed. Ron Ayers, the team’s chief of aerodynamics, is in his eighties now. “He has probably forgotten more things than I’ll ever learn,” Elvin said. “But he’s sharp as a pin still. He’s fantastic.” Green, too, has “a computer-like brain” that earned him a first-class math degree.

But there are no egos, according to Parraman, just a single goal that everyone is pushing toward. Bloodhound’s size and structure means that no one is looking to climb up the corporate ladder or take home an unfairly large paycheck. “That’s why we call ourselves a team,” he said. “Not a company.” Because of this, Holdsworth quickly fit in. “My approach was just to observe and gauge the situation,” he said. “It was a bit daunting, but then, I guess you get into the swing of things and it becomes routine.”

In March 2013, Noble revealed that the land speed record had been delayed to the second quarter of 2014. “By the end of the year,” he wrote on the Bloodhound blog, “crucial components like the tailfin will still be in manufacture. It’s quite clear that we won’t be in South Africa for December as we had hoped.” It was better, he said, to “set an achievable date and deliver” than to pretend everything was fine and quietly fall into “deadline creep.” Four months later, however, the team posted another blog post admitting that the record campaign would now start in the summer of 2015. The delay, it said, was the result of an audit conducted by engineering review consultancy BMT HighQ Sigma.

Despite these delays, the team pushed on. In December, Nammo was confirmed as the project’s rocket partner. Three months later, Castrol came on board to provide high-performance lubricants and brake and hydraulic fluids. By June, the cockpit had been completed, and in October the jet engine was fitted for the first time. The team seemed to be making good progress and, in November 2014, announced a “12-month countdown” to its land speed record attempt. Later that month, Jaguar revealed an expanded partnership that included the pivotal V8 engine for the rocket’s oxidizer pump.

Even that time frame was ambitious, though. By the summer of 2015 it was obvious that the team wouldn’t be ready to travel to South Africa that year. In September, however, the team reached a different but still important milestone: It showed off a “dry build” version of the car, which contained most but not all of the parts, at London’s Canary Wharf. It was a glitzy event that provided a huge morale boost for the team. But the celebrations masked another agonizing delay: Now Bloodhound was aiming for test trials at “Easter” 2016 and a record attempt later that year.

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Nick Summers / Engadget

Bloodhound faces many technical challenges, but its biggest problem is funding. The record attempt isn’t a pet project of a larger company with near-infinite cash reserves. Nor is it being bankrolled by a billionaire like Tesla’s Elon Musk or Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The team relies on external sponsorship and fan donations to continue. Without these, it can’t pay staff, keep up with the rent on its Bristol warehouse or buy the parts required to complete the car.

It didn’t help that the project launched in 2008, just as the stock markets crashed. “We couldn’t have picked a worse moment in recent times to start a project like this,” Parraman said. “Whenever anybody asks me, ‘What are the biggest challenges?’ I always say ‘Raising the money.’” Companies can choose to sponsor Bloodhound with free product — crucial parts for the car, or free merchandise to sell — or with cold, hard cash. The product part isn’t a problem, according to Parraman, but extracting money was always difficult.

“Whenever anybody asks me, ‘What are the biggest challenges?’ I always say ‘Raising the money.’”

“Everybody is trying to squirrel some cash away,” he said, “because they don’t want to be exposed like they were in 2008. So even big companies have got a big mattress, and they’re storing a lot of cash underneath that. Getting that out of them is quite tricky.”

Advertising and marketing strategies have also changed since the last land speed record attempt. Companies have switched to targeted advertising online, where Facebook and Google promised to find their perfect customer. An enormous logo on the side of a fast car, while useful, is often seen as more expensive, or less effective. “Richard [Noble] can go knocking on all the doors he wants to raise money, but if nobody says yes, that’s not his fault,” Elvin said. “There just seems to be a general apathy through large chunks of not just the UK but the worldwide industry, in getting involved with something that’s seen as risky.”

The Bloodhound team has been forced to adapt to the project’s inconsistent funding. There have been months, for instance, when the company couldn’t afford to pay its staff. (Parraman said, however, that “nobody has never been paid.”) That might sound frightening, but it’s a way of life that most of the Bloodhound crew is used to. “If you look at the CVs of the majority of people who work on this project, there is a very particular, almost, type of person,” Parraman said. Most have been self-employed for large portions of their life, for instance. Many have worked abroad or in the armed forces. They are, therefore, used to earning money inconsistently.

“That allowed them to be able to go, ‘Well, actually, no, you don’t need to pay me for the next couple of months while we get more cash in,” Parraman explained. Everyone, of course, needed a certain level of security. But there’s an understanding among the team that the project always comes first, and fresh sponsorship was hard to come by. “It’s about achieving the goal, not about us earning the money,” Parraman added. “We all need the money, but that’s not what it’s all about. That’s not the driver.”

In addition, the team can scale up and down to match whatever funding it has left. If money is tight, employees are notified and some will leave temporarily to work on other projects, such as Formula 1 and Formula E.

The focus on sponsorship has affected the design and development of the vehicle. Every time some new funding comes through, Holdsworth thinks, “So what can I do with this that will give me the most chance of getting more?” It’s a peculiar way of thinking, but one that has proven vital to the long-term survival of the project. At all times, the team has to consider its end goal, rather than the part or vehicle section that it wants to complete next. If the money dries up completely, after all, the team will be forced to go on a permanent hiatus.

“I try not to acknowledge it too much, because if I thought about it for too long, it might do my head in.”

“I want to see [the project] continue,” Holdsworth said, “and, in a really selfish way, get a record. So what can I do to give myself the best chance of securing more funding and getting that record?”

Noble and Parraman have a responsibility, therefore, to bring in more funding at a steady clip. “I try not to acknowledge it too much, because if I thought about it for too long, it might do my head in,” Parraman said. But he remains upbeat. Bloodhound is a smaller, nimbler organization, so it can offer more creative and flexible marketing opportunities than, say, Formula 1. That’s alluring for companies in the defense industry, which are often tied up in secretive government contracts. If they contribute to Bloodhound, however, they can talk about their work and association quite freely.

Most Bloodhound sponsors are classified as SME (small and medium-size enterprises), though. Often, these companies decided to support the team “because of heart, rather than head,” according to Parraman. They have a general interest in cars and want to see a new land speed record, or they understand how important it is for young people to pursue careers in science, engineering and math.

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Funding was particularly hard to come by in 2015 and 2016. As a result, the team was small and progress was slow. In February 2016, Noble announced another delay, pushing the test trials to sometime by the end of the year and a “projected” record attempt in 2017. The reason, he admitted, was “a number of major funding deals that are still in negotiation.” It wasn’t until September that Bloodhound found its savior in Geely, a Chinese automotive goliath that owns Volvo, the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC) and flying car startup Terrafugia. The three-year deal was the largest in Bloodhound’s history and was, according to Elvin, “a massive kick up the backside.”

“Without them, we would have struggled to survive,” he said.

Almost a year later, Bloodhound was pushed out of an aircraft hangar in Newquay airport. The car was different from the one that will attempt the land speed record in Newquay. Nammo’s rockets were missing, for instance, and the vehicle was using tires suited to asphalt, rather than the dusty deserts of South Africa. But for the most part, it was a complete car. It had taken nine years and a demoralizing number of delays, but finally the team had reached this critical milestone.

The “slow-speed” tests at 200MPH provided valuable data for the team to analyze back in Bristol. They also revealed the practical challenges that come with moving the car and broadcasting such a technical event. In addition, the trials served as a marketing tool for further sponsorship deals. In Newquay, the Bloodhound crew announced new partnerships with the eyewear brand Belstaff, cloud services provider Oracle, engineering and technology firm Renishaw, and Cooper Tires.

These are valuable, but Bloodhound needs more cash to acquire, develop and integrate Nammo’s rocket system. Without the extra thrust, the team can’t beat the world land speed record, never mind reach 1,000MPH. That funding uncertainty, paired with the time needed to finesse the rockets, means the team is now looking at 2019 for its first record attempt. Should they make that timetable, it will be more than a decade since the project was announced back at the Science Museum in London.

It’s an agonizing situation for everyone involved. Ultimately, the team is restricted by funding, rather than technical innovation. Still, the team continues undeterred. Everyone knows that with enough perseverance, they’ll get their chance. “There’s a small part of history that I’ve got a chance to be part of,” Holdsworth said. “I want to take that chance.”

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