Noble quest to bring young folk up to speed

Land speed legend Richard Noble is back – this time to break the 1,000mph barrier – and he hopes his bid will re-ignite interest in engineering and science among students

Full throttle: Richard Noble, whose team set the first supersonic land speed record in 1997. Photograph: Stefan Marjoram

Full throttle: Richard Noble, whose team set the first supersonic land speed record in 1997. Photograph: Stefan Marjoram

Wed, Mar 12, 2014, 01:00

Richard Noble set the 1982 land speed record at 627mph (1,009kmh), and followed that dramatic feat by organising the team which built Thrust SSC, the jet car that in 1997 took the world’s first supersonic land speed record, with RAF Wing Commander Andy Green at the wheel. Since then, land speed record-setting has been something of a quiet world.

Somehow, though, you just knew this man wouldn’t let things stay quiet for long. Noble and Green are now back, and this time they are planning to push a car to 1,000mph (1,609kmh) on land for the first time ever. Dubbed Bloodhound SSC, the car is currently being built and is scheduled to begin test runs next year on the vast, flat Hakskeen Pan in South Africa’s Northern Cape.

I caught up with Noble recently at the RIAC National Classic Car Show at the RDS, and asked him why, after all the years of hard work, was he back at the land speed record coalface again.

“It’s frankly the most exciting thing you can do on God’s earth – there’s no doubt about it,” he replied. “If you love the technology and the subject and the teamwork, it’s obsessive, absolutely obsessive. We also felt that if the Americans were going to come back, which they have failed to do in the end, but if they were going to come back and essentially buy themselves a supersonic record, we thought we ought to give them a good run for their money.”

If that all sounds like so much Bentley Boy bravado, it shouldn’t. The idea behind Bloodhound is to pull a future generation of engineers, mathematicians and scientists along in its 1,000mph wake. Noble wants this project to be equal parts inspiration and derring-do, to act like a modern-day Apollo programme and plant the ideals of engineering and science in the minds of today’s school children.

Hard grind
“The fundamental difficulty is that with education, as long as you’re just giving the kids – and remember we’re in the game world at the moment – if you’re giving them just a conventional classroom-type education without anything to really excite them, it’s a pretty hard grind.

“You’re asking them to more or less learn by rote. If you’ve got something, though, which is inspiring and interesting, then you can change all that. The interesting thing is that not every family has a lunar module or a fighter jet on the driveway. But pretty much every family has got a car, and because they’ve got a car, they know what it is, and then this is just an extension of that. It really works.”

The numbers behind Bloodhound are little short of staggering. The car itself will be 7.7 tonnes at fully-fuelled weight. It is powered by a massive Rolls-Royce EJ200 afterburning jet engine – essentially the same power unit you would find in a current Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet. That would sound as if it were powerful enough to do the job on its own, but it’s not. The jet is really just to get the car up to around 600mph. At that point, Green will press his throttle pedal through a detente and fire up the Falcon hybrid rocket engine. That will deliver an astounding kick in the pants to Bloodhound and should, if all goes to plan, accelerate it to 1,000mph in just 55 seconds.

There is a third engine on board. It’s a racing engine, designed and built by Formula One experts Cosworth. It has the same power as a Formula One car (about 800hp, compared to, say, 105hp for a VW Golf 1.6 diesel) and it’s there purely to act as a fuel pump, sending 800 litres of High-Test Peroxide (HTP) rocket fuel into the Falcon’s combustion chamber in just 20 seconds.

Education angle
“The fundamental thing about is that everything’s got to come together for us to succeed. The education angle has to come together, because it’s the education that gives the sponsors their corporate social responsibility benefits. The desert’s got to be OK, the rocket motor’s got to be OK, the rest of the car’s got to be OK. You’re pushing the boundaries everywhere, but this is the only way we believe it can be done. We need the big budgets to fund all the engineering etc. It’s a £40-million [€48m] programme, which is a hell of a difference to Thrust SSC, which was a £2.4-million programme.

“I really hope we can get some Irish schools and colleges on board. Obviously, we’re a tiny organisation, but this thing has gone global now, it’s in 220 countries. If the Irish schools would like to make contact, we would love to talk to them. We have a 12-person education team and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be just as effective a teaching tool for Irish schoolchildren.

“And remember, all the data coming off the car is going out on the internet all over the world.”