It's early morning. I'm standing on a closed airport runway in Cornwall, England. The weather, foggy with a cold breeze biting at my jacket, doesn't bode well for what I'm about to witness. But in a few hours, a rocket-powered car will roar to life on a trial run in front of thousands of eagerly-waiting public and media.
The Bloodhound SSC is the car that in 2018 will hit speeds of over 1,000 mph, breaking the land-speed record. At least, that's what its designers hope.
The main attempt, already delayed by over a year, will take place in the desert of South Africa. This run, however, took place on the 2-mile runway at Newquay Airport, in the far southwestern corner of the country about a 6-hour drive from London.
A technical challenge
Built from a combination of titanium, aluminium and carbon fibre, the Bloodhound is powered by an EJ200 jet engine -- more commonly found inside Eurofighter Typhoon jets and a cluster of rockets. It's an imposing machine at more than 44 feet (13 meters) long, tapering to a dangerously-sharp point and adorned with stabilising fins. It looks more like a missile than a car.
Bloodhound Chief Executive Richard Noble says the £65 million ($85 million) project is an enormous challenge. "We had no idea of the workload that was actually necessary to get to this stage," he said. "You're asking people to sponsor a project where the outcome is not by any means certain, where the finances are shaky, where the technology wasn't even known."
The Cornwall run is designed to see how the car performs at speed. Various modifications have been made for it to run on tarmac, rather than the desert floor. Most notably, the runway configuration has rubber tires. In the desert, the car will run on solid aluminium tires because rubber will simply disintegrate at 1,000 mph speeds.
The Bloodhound gets going
Despite the remote location and the miserably cloudy weather, 3,500 people have turned up eager to watch. And by mid-afternoon, conditions are right for the run.
Public and press are carefully shepherded onto the airfield into the main viewing areas. The team has a tight window for the show -- it's an active airport, and all flights are grounded for only 90 minutes while the tests take place. There's no room for delays.
A team of engineers push the car into place at one end of the runway, and driver Andy Green gives it a final check. I hear on a nearby radio that he's been given the go ahead to start. I watch Green climb into the cockpit and hear the sound of jet engines starting up. The noise grows louder and louder, and the car slowly pulls away to line up on the runway for the speed run to begin.
There's a moment of quiet and then the rockets fire. A huge cone of flame bursts from the back of the Bloodhound, sending it hurtling down the runway. I try to keep up with its pace with my zoom lens, but it's tricky. I don't know how I'd cope photographing the 1,000 mph run!
The first run is over in a matter of seconds. The car is turned around and it runs again, flying past the crowd with just as much noise and excitement. And then it's over. A whole day's effort, a massive crowd in attendance, media from around the world, all for about 30 seconds of movement. But what a 30 seconds.
The 1.7-mile (2.7km) runway meant the car was only taken to a little over 200 mph, but Green, a Wing Commander in the Royal Air Force, said that was enough to achieve success.
"This is a car that's designed to cruise supersonic on a 12-mile track in South Africa," he said. "It is not designed to be driven like a drag racing car on a short concrete track at Cornwall airport. Despite that, the car just delivered in spades."
The Bloodhound achieved its 200 mph target speed in just 8 seconds, with an acceleration equivalent to doing 0-60 mph in a regular road car in just two seconds. To give that some context, a Ford Focus will do 0-60 in about 9 seconds, while even the $2.5m Bugatti Chiron takes 2.5 seconds to reach 60 mph.
For Noble, though, the Cornwall run wasn't about numbers. "What was so important about today was the people," he said. "We've got a fantastic turnout of people here and more coming over the weekend. That's all very important as the prime objective of the project is to create a new generation of scientists and engineers and this is clearly what this thing is doing."
It's a sentiment echoed by the aerodynamic designer of Bloodhound. "To see the crowd reaction, and seeing the kids get excited, that's very special," said Ron Ayers. "That is the object, not to break a record -- we already have the record (Ayers worked on the Thrust SSC car, which still holds the record at 763 mph) -- we're doing it to inspire young people and what inspires young people more than high-speed cars!"
Honestly, the day was exciting for me too.
When I first saw the Bloodhound three years ago, the team was still building it at their production facility in Bristol, England. Back then, the car was a collection of parts. The massive rocket safely stowed in one corner of the building, with the aluminium structures built to hold it laid out nearby. That's why, despite the grey day and a 5 a.m. start, it was amazing to finally see the car in action.
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