Five years ago, I stood on one of the most barren stretches of land in the north-eastern corner of South Africa waiting for a small turbo-prop passenger aircraft to land.
For almost two years (and allowing for a number of weather breaks due to flooding), hundreds of the local inhabitants had been clearing the runway by hand… picking up stone by stone in the searing heat.
For the vast majority of these hardy Northern Cape folks, it was their very first job in life. There is not much in the way of commercial development surrounding the flat and seemingly endless stretch of baked mud and salt called Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari desert.
But if all goes according to plan – or pan as it happens – a massive dust storm across those golden-brown sands will suddenly become the focus of the world’s media.
The satellite images will show a yellow column moving at more than a thousand miles per hour and at the center of it what looks like a very low-flying aircraft catapulted by rocket and jet engines.
This 7.5-ton supersonic Tessie will skim across the pan at such a speed that tyres would be shredded by the G-forces. So each wheel will be engineered from 100 kilograms of aerospace aluminium.
You’re right… the fastest wheels ever created!
Around midday there was the sound of whining engines and the incongruous sight of a Beechcraft King Air touching down with a veil of billowing dust.
The Bloodhound Project team, headed by former land-speed record holder Richard Noble, climbed down the folding stairs to explain why they had selected this remote location for one of the most ambitious endeavours of our time.
To annihilate the world land speed record with the Bloodhound SSC (supersonic car), driven by current holder Wing Commander Andy Green, reaching 1,000 miles-per-hour on that scorched earth. Think about that for a second… 1,600 kilometers-per-hour, Mach 1.4, faster than the low-altitude record for aircraft.
It is 20 years since the 55-year-old British Royal Air Force pilot set the mark of 1,228 km/h at the controls of Thrust SSC in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. If successful, it will be the biggest leap in land speed history.
According to the Bloodhound research team, if you fired what used to be the most powerful handgun in the world, Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum, at the tail of the pencil-shaped car as it passed and Green toggled the hybrid rocket as the revolver went off, the bullet would never hit the car.
They originally looked at Verneukpan to the south which has lured speedsters for many decades. The most famous was Sir Malcolm Campbell who set out to break the record of 350km/h way back in 1929 in his Bluebird.
The track that he compacted on the pan is still visible today. But it was not a glorious escapade for Campbell. He lost his briefcase with vital performance data, his aircraft crashed into a tree near Calvinia, dust devils were a major hazard and the 26-kilometer track looked directly into the rising sun. But it was the sharp stones and thorny brush that were his final downfall and tyre damage forced him to abandon the attempt.
Recent inspections revealed that the shale bed of Verneukpan was breaking up. So Hakskeen Pan it is and we wait for Bloodhound SSC (which had its first outing at Cornwall Airport recently) to set the world alight with this “engineering adventure”.
On the sidelines will be the people so removed from the fast lane of modern motoring technology who played that vital role of clearing the undefined ‘track’ so Bloodhound does not end up in the same dire situation as Bluebird.
Building a car quicker than a fighter jet is not, however, the main aim of the project. It is rather to inspire future generations to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Unlike all other forms of motorsport – especially Formula One (F1) – there are virtually no restrictions on the design of a land speed challenger with all developments and research being shared on a public platform.
Many manufacturers claim to feed off F1 technology but few have embraced and refined it to the extent of Mercedes-AMG Project ONE.
Construction of the first all-wheel drive Project ONE hypercar is still almost two years away and much is being kept under tightly bound wraps, despite the international launch at the Frankfurt motor show.
But it is projected that one of these magnificent machines will set you back around $2.8 million and less than 300 of them will be produced.
In line with the engine downsizing of the decade, the powerplant is a 1.6-liter V6 hybrid which incorporates the best of AMG plus the finely tuned hi-tech of F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton’s racecar. Sounds like a difficult act to follow – quite literally!
And that muscular mill works in tandem with four electric motors, two to drive the front wheels when you are cruising.
This mid-engined Merc monster is being designed to rocket to 200km/h in under six seconds. And quite easily breeze past the 350km/h that Malcolm Campbell was chasing on Verneukpan.
Overall design elements are also being influenced by the racetrack. Aerodynamics are a given but it also needs a plethora of air intakes for cooling and generating downforce along with a massive wing which arises above the squat and threatening rear end.
The similarities with Hamilton’s F1 don’t end there. The Project One steed will have to go in for a “mechanical revision” at 50,000 kilometers. At least it’s a longer cycle than the Petronas racecar’s 20,000 kilometer upgrade.
“Motorsport is not an end in itself for us. Faced with intense competition, we develop technologies from which our production vehicles also subsequently benefit. We are drawing on our experiences and successes from three constructors’ and drivers’ world championships to bring Formula One technology to the road for the first time,” says Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.
One of the biggest challenges for the Project ONE team is decibels. The scream of the high-revving engine may be a welcome feature around Spa-Francorchamps but maybe not so popular around the suburban shopping center.
It’s envisaged that the idling speed will be around a quarter of F1’s 4,000 revolutions per minute!
The timing is synchronized with AMG’s 50th birthday – definitely an occasion to make some noise about.
Bloodhound and Project ONE – two brave ventures to steepen the parabolic curve of technological advancement even further.
According to that famous quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, “Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.” – Written by Derek Watts
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