Early next month, the Bloodhound Land Speed Record car will be loaded onto an aeroplane and flown from the United Kingdom to South Africa. It'll then be transported to Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari Desert, right up in the country's northwest corner, close to the border with Namibia. The dried up (at this time of year, at least) lake bed is roughly the size of Bristol, where, appropriately enough, the Bloodhound project was originally homed. On a stretch of desert 12 miles long and 500 metres wide, driver Andy Green will steadily increase the speed of the jet-powered car from 100mph to as much as 600mph, before the team packs up and returns home in the middle of November.
That isn't even phase one. It's a shakedown run: not much more than a systems check ahead of the first of two phases, scheduled for 12 to 18 months from now. That'll be when Bloodhound will be pelted along the desert floor not only by a jet engine, but also by a concentrated hydrogen peroxide rocket as the team guns for a new Land Speed Record, somewhere north of the 763mph benchmark set by Thrust SSC and Green in 1997. Phase two and 1000mph will follow some time after that, as long as the project remains financially viable. (The car will run in a predominantly plain white colour scheme next month as an invitation to commercial backers.)
Not until the car registers that unthinkable speed in two directions will Bloodhound's stated objective be fulfilled. For now, though, the effort appears to be on the right tracks. It makes quite a change from just nine months ago when the project was in administration, strapped for cash and going nowhere fast, the car just hours away from being cut up for scrap.
Hours. That's all it was. Bloodhound's jet engine is an EJ200 from the Eurofighter Typhoon, on loan from Rolls Royce. Its electronic control systems are military-grade and extremely sensitive, so when Bloodhound appeared to be on the brink of oblivion the engine's owners wanted those components (and the EJ200) back. There wasn't a penny left to pay technicians to remove the parts delicately, the solution to which was to cut the car's chassis to pieces using angle grinders, liberating the components but butchering the car beyond any repair. British multimillionaire Ian Warhurst bought Bloodhound for an undisclosed sum and salvaged the project with only an afternoon to spare.
An engineering buff, Warhurst made his fortune through his business Melett, which manufactures turbochargers. He'd been following the project closely, even enrolling his children in the Bloodhound educational programme. It was Warhurst's son who first alerted him, via text message, that Bloodhound had fallen into administration and was up for sale. Warhurst arrived at its former home in Avonmouth with his chequebook in hand just in the nick of time.
Bloodhound now lives a few miles up the road on the banks of the river Severn, within the grounds of Berkeley Green UTC, a technical college that opened its doors earlier this year. Its 200 students roam around the grounds and are invited to engage with what should eventually be the fastest car on the planet. They're given CAD problems and asked to come up with ideas for what Bloodhound's ground support vehicles should look like.
The college is on the site of a decommissioned nuclear power station. For now the car lies motionless in a vast hall, four or five storeys high with a huge sliding crane up in the rafters and a hatch in the roof. It looks like a cross between a concert venue and a shipyard. In fact, this was once a training facility where power station employees would practise lowering fake uranium rods into a dummy reactor, through that hatch in the roof.
The EJ200 - all £5m of it - sits in there now, quiet and still, its two open ends covered by red plastic caps. Close to it is the bodywork that'll eventually sit on top, and from which the jet engine will actually hang, while alongside is Bloodhound's chassis. The front half is tucked underneath a tent made of translucent plastic sheeting.
In a corner of this facility - the facility where one of the world's most ambitious engineering projects nears completion - you'll find a pair of hulking 50-year-old machining tools. With this ancient lathe and milling machine, skilled workers craft intricate components from blocks of aluminium. On this day, it's part of the parachute release mechanism. To walk up to these machines you kick through aluminium filings strewn across the floor. It's engineering as engineering used to be. Remarkably, these tools will travel to South Africa with Bloodhound so replacement or redesigned components can be fabricated on the spot.
It's fascinating to wander around the vehicle and drink in the details, like the enormous rear wishbones, the arrow-headed nosecone and the empty cavity milled into an enormous billet of aluminium where the fearsomely powerful rocket will one day reside. For some reason I'm surprised to see so many brand names that are familiar from motorsport littered throughout Bloodhound, but I suppose it makes sense to use proven components even when you're shooting for 1000mph: Samco hoses, K+N air filters, a Willans harness that'll soon keep Green pinned into his seat, plus AP Racing brakes for the front wheels and enormous Eibach springs.
Within the cabin there's a steering wheel made from 3D printed titanium and moulded to Green's hands, numerous banks of switches, plus two pedals - left for the front brakes, right for the jet engine throttle - and a pair of levers for releasing the parachute. (Green will also have rear-mounted airbrakes to help slow him down from supersonic speeds. Hydraulic rams will shove the two flaps into the airflow, creating massive drag. The flaps aren't solid sheets of metal; instead, they have a dozen or so holes cut into them. Without the holes, the vortices the airbrakes would create would be violent enough to rip the rear wheels clean off. The holes create lots of smaller, less violent vortices.)
The main objective for next month's shakedown in South Africa is simply to understand the car. To get a handle on exactly how it behaves at very high speeds. Because even with the most advanced computer modelling, the engineering team can't yet be sure how the turbulent airflow will influence the car's attitude, nor how the bodywork will flex. Working with various universities the team has run five or six simulations, but each one spat out a different set of results. Only when the car runs at speed will the engineers know which model is correct. This is the reality of pursuing a new Land Speed Record - you can only simulate so much. Eventually, you just have to get on and give it shot.
I couldn't leave the college grounds without first doing my bit. During my visit, motorsport composites specialist Dave Haggas was fiddling with the carbon fibre panel that'll seal the hatch through which Green will lower himself into Bloodhound's cockpit. The panel has two metal handles on its underside, levers that Green will tug to lock and release the hatch closure. If left exposed these levers could catch on Green's helmet, at best being a minor irritation and at worst distracting him just at the point he ignites the rocket. So they need to sit flush with the panel. Haggas has had a number of light yet very strong fairings 3D printed from carbon. My job is to slap on the glue - a nasty looking but very tough black epoxy resin that'll take an hour to set - making sure to leave no gaps. I then press the fairing into position, hold it there for a moment and let go.
Mine was not an invaluable contribution, let's say. You couldn't measure it if you tried. But when Bloodhound does power its way through 1000mph, it'll do so with my fingerprints on it.