Transcript for Richard Noble's dream to build the fastest car in the world podcast

Richard Nobel [RN]

We’ve now got to a point where we’ve got the basic design right, we’ve got a car that weighs about 7 tons, it’s powered by a jet engine and a rocket motor, it’s 13.5m long, it’s got a 125,000 horse power it’s the most powerful car that has ever been built. And the fascinating thing about it is it looks completely different to anything we’ve ever seen before.

Ben Evans [BE]

One of the goals of this project is to use this car, this hopefully iconic vehicle, to teach young people about science, to get young people excited about science and to encourage them to stick with science, technology, mathematics so that they can be the people of the future who become the engineers who are solving the problems that we have in this world.

[Rocket sounds and radio chatter between Andy Green and base]

[Interviewer]

In 1997, Andy Green set a new world land speed record reaching the super sonic speed of 763.035mph. The thrust SSC project was lead by Richard Nobel who himself had set a world land speed record in 1983. Now led again by Richard and piloted by Andy with aerodynamics research funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council they want to do it all again, but this time not only are they aiming to reach a speed of 1,000mph, they also want to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists. Richard explains the background to the project.

[RN]

This is a quite an extraordinary story. It was the idea of Lord Drayson. Lord Drayson was the Minister for defence equipment and support for the Ministry of Defence and he had a real problem. His problem was simply that there was a shortage of engineers and he realised that back in the last century when Britain did these fantastic aerospace projects like, for instance, the Vulcan Bomber, the TSR2, the lightening fighter and of course Concorde. He realised that during that period there were simply no shortage of engineers. Why? Well because basically all of the kids at school were very fired up by these tremendous programmes. Then of course Britain stopped doing these projects and so consequently the supply of engineers began to fall off.

So it’s a real problem because when we look forward to what’s going to happen in this country everything we know, everything we touch, everything we use has got to change. Our houses have got to change, our transport has got to change, our aircraft, our railways, our cars. We’ve got to move into a low carbon world and the reality is we haven’t got any engineers so how on earth are we going to do it?

So we set about doing the ultimate land speed record project. Now we’ve held the land speed records twice before with Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC but these were cars which we literally had to scrape around to get the old technology which is all we had access to. So for instance the thrust SSC engines were 1960s technologies now 30 years old. With this project, of course now we are able to use the most advanced technology we possibly can, and so we have got, for instance, the Eurofighter range and the EJ200, which is the most advanced jet engine anywhere, and we’ve also got a huge rocket motor. It’s an incredible programme and I think Lord Drayson is right. I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to really excite people, and as a result of this, we are going to be able to run our programmes through every single school in the country and the kids are going to be able to come down here and actually see the car being built and follow it all through.

[Interviewer]

Ben Evans is a Research Assistant at the School of Engineering at Swansea University. Ben is doing the computational modelling of the aerodynamics research for the project.

[BE]

Obviously a car that is travelling at faster than the speed of sound, and hopefully 1,000 mph, one of the massive things that we need to understand about how this car behaves is how does the air flow around it. And essentially the study of aerodynamics is the study of air flow, what does air do to objects that it is flowing around. Now traditionally this kind of research might have been done in wind tunnels. There are a number of problems with running this kind of application in a wind tunnel. One of them is that we are running across the ground and you can’t roll on the ground in a wind tunnel at 1,000 mph. But today with the advent of modern computing we can do the same thing that you would traditionally do in a wind tunnel, but on a big supercomputer.

[Interviewer]

What sort of research could come about as a result of this project that could make a difference to our lives in the future in other areas?

[BE]

That’s a great question. Computational modelling which is in the broader sense what we are doing at Swansea University, essentially we’re taking the governing equations of any physical problem, which in many cases is a set of partial differential equations. For example, I sit in an office at Swansea University and the researcher on the desk next to me is studying haemodynamics, so blood flow through the arterial system and one of her research projects at the moment is to understand valves within the heart and how they react to different haemodynamic blood flow scenarios. So the spin-offs in terms of the kind of things we are developing in the world of computational modelling are massive. Any system that you can describe essentially by partial differential equations can be solved using the methods of computational modelling.

We’re talking about something, a car, that looks a little bit like an aircraft travelling at the kinds of speeds that aircraft travel at. So the kind of technology that we are developing specifically for bloodhound, you know, trying to capture shock waves accurately, have direct implications to the aerospace industry - obviously that’s the kind of place you would expect to find objects travelling at these sort of speeds. But in the same research group that I’m working in, you know, we are developing codes to solve electromagnetic problems, so lightning strike of aircraft - things like that.

[Interviewer]

So what will it be like to drive the fastest car in the world? Richard Nobel has a pretty good idea from his own experience behind the wheel of Thrust 2 in 1983 when he set a world land speed record of 633.468 mph.

[RN]

You’re not there for any kind of excitement and basically if you’ve got a driver that gets all excited then you’ve got the wrong person. It’s a very cold blooded process.

[Radio chatter between Andy Green and base]

[RN]

You’re getting off the line at full power so you’ve got 35,000 horse power, between 0-300 mph the car is all over the place so you’ve got to work really hard to keep the front wheels in front of the back wheels and keep it all going. You’re driving down a lane which is only 50ft wide and then you get to what we call the threshold speed, which is about 300 mph, when it seems to stabilise, and then 300-550 which is boring because it’s more of the same really. But once you get above 550 it gets very interesting cause the air flow starts to go supersonic over bits of it and you start seeing the shock waves build up and the extraordinary thing too I found was that your mental process - I’ve been doing this for a very long time - so your mental processes speed right up and everything happens in very very slow motion so you can see every single detail on the ground come up and go underneath the car at 650 mph. And then you go through the motive mile and then you’ve got to think about stopping and this is where the fun starts. And you’ve got to allow the engine 3 seconds to cool at 98% and that seems like an eternity, and then and only then, can you fire the break power chute and when the break power chute comes out you get between 5 and 6 g deceleration so you are losing speed at about 130 mph per second, and the human body isn’t really capable of taking this. So you get an extraordinary effect called a somatogravic illusion and it upsets the inner ear and you think you are driving vertically downwards into the centre of the earth.

[Radio chatter between Andy Green and base]

And then you’re down to literally 400 mph or so and then you’ve got to bring the wheel brakes in at 200 - that’s the process.

[Interviewer]

So Andy Green is again the man this time - what sort of character is he?

[RN]

Andy’s very very cool. He’s an absolute first class mathematician. He’s got 2,000 hours of fast jet experience. He’s extremely good at this. He’s the best in the world - it’s really as simple as that and this whole car has been designed around him.

[Radio chatter between Andy Green and base]