Meet Mark Elvin. He's a man who has the exact job that young children the world over dream of -- he works on Bloodhound SSC, the totally British and totally awesome project to make a car that goes faster than the speed of sound. The actual speed of sound.
In case you're not familiar with BLOODHOUND SSC -- and yes, it's officially ALL IN CAPITALS -- it's a project to break the landspeed record with a car that goes around 1000mph -- pretty nippy. The system uses a hybrid rocket engine to accelerate the driver and his over-powered steed up to the target speed of 1050mph. That's a pretty lofty goal, so it's no surprise that the engineers working on the project are the cream of good, old-fashioned British practicality.
As with all inspiring automotive stories, this one starts early -- when Mark was just three years old, in fact, he helped out trackside with the testing for Colin Chapman's latest and greatest. Of course, there were also the obligatory DIY grease-monkey antics, in this case building up an old Healey 300 in a friend's garage with his dad.
Clearly, this left a lasting impression on our budding engineer. Despite leaving school with a decidedly average set of GCSEs, he didn't give up on his ambition; rather, he decided on-the-job training was more valuable than all that fluffy academic stuff, and embarked on a four-year apprenticeship with Westland Helicopters, eventually graduating with a full-time job there as a detail design engineer.
The passion for cars, however, never seems to have left him. At the turn of the century, Mark moved into one of the most cutting-edge areas of design: Formula One, working as a design engineer for the Williams team, where he dabbled in cockpit design, hydraulics and the all-important aerodynamics, to name but a few.
A life on the frontline of the war on speed limits couldn't last forever, though. Swapping his F1-shaped 'baby' for two real ones, Elvin spent a few years designing mundane but useful vehicles -- mobile radio vans, race car transporters, the unsung heroes of F1, if you will. Of course, designing glorified Transits is hardly an F1 engineer's higher calling, and when the Bloodhound project rolled around, Elvin jumped on the opportunity -- after all, "who wouldn't want to be involved in a car that had a jet, a rocket and needed a Cosworth F1 engine just to power the fuel pump," as he told us.
Bloodhound engineers helping foster a new generation of tripod-builders
But for a father, the Bloodhound has another, deeper purpose than high-end cocking about. The project might be all about making a 1,000mph rocket with wheels, but the build is actually the secondary purpose on the endeavour. The organisation behind it isn't a car manufacturer or something -- rather, it's an "international education initiative," and the stated aim of the project (according to Mark, anyway) is:
"...to inspire the next generation of young engineers and encourage the uptake of STEM subjects within schools."
STEM subjects are science, technology, engineering and maths if you're wondering, and the folk behind Bloodhound believe that they're sorely under-represented on the syllabus in schools. Righting this wrong is, really, the whole point of the Bloodhound project -- wherever possible, members of the Bloodhoud team like Mark give presentations and demonstrations in schools. Elvin's passion for teaching was clear when we interviewed him:
"There is nowhere near enough STEM taught in schools, especially at Primary level; it's quite shocking. The kids love it, however, when they get the chance to do experiments; whether the experiment worked or not, they learn so much from not just sitting there being talked at. The response from the children when you show them the CGI videos of our car running is amazing."
Elvin has got fully into the educational side of the project, giving presentations like the ones outlined in schools and at Scouts meetings, and helping out with youth groups on the weekends. There's a real feeling that Bloodhound will "help to inspire more children to take up engineering in all sorts of fields"; for that to happen, though, Bloodhound's first got to succeed.
Some school field-trips are better than others!
The team behind the project is smaller than you might imagine. Given that Elvin reckons a Formula One team has twenty engineers working on mechanical design alone, you'd reckon that a car travelling orders of magnitude faster would have a whole team of people, beavering away to design the thing down to the last NASA-spec nut, with supercomputers in the back-room churning the numbers.
That's true to an extent -- the reliance on computers is something Elvin highlights -- but the original design work still consists of hand-drafted sketches with notes scribbled in the margin. From those, CAD designs are built up, and a lot of the aerodynamic and stress-testing work happens virtually. In fact, without a serious amount of computational power, Elvin reckons that Bloodhound would either still be a pipe dream, or require a design team of hundreds:
"The whole car has been designed using "virtual world" stress; computation fluid dynamics, and computer aided design. For example, with the aerodynamics, we can't put the car in a wind tunnel as the ground effect of the shockwave cannot be replicated due to the requirement for a moving ground plane; there isn't a tunnel in the world that has a ground plane that goes even a fifth of the speed we require, so we rely heavily on CFD."
In fact, the virtual stress test is at the centre of the whole project:
"It means that the car we design and run will have a high safety factor built in, and we will be confident that it will stay in one piece, pointy-end forwards."
Safety's obviously a key part of the project, and one that the engineers all take seriously. Elvin says that if one member of the team isn't 100 per cent confident in the design, the car won't run. That feeling of a team effort pervades the whole design:
"I often get asked 'you wouldn't drive it would you"'? To which I respond yes. If I'm not confident enough that the car is safe, then we have done something wrong and shouldn't expect [the driver] to drive it."
All in all, the sense you get from the project is that it's a classic example of British engineering at its finest. The team isn't exactly large by automotive-design standards --Elvin comments that he's had to work on areas of the car well outside his normal remit -- but by leveraging advances in technology (and yes, they do use tablets as part of their everyday work!), they've managed to design, from a clean slate, a safe -- and hopefully record-beating -- vehicle.
All images thanks to the Bloodhound Project.