Speed goes to the back of the class - an interview with Bloodhound's chief engineer, Mark Chapman

In terms of objectives, breaking the world land speed record is only third on the list of priorities for the Bloodhound SSC team. Tim Fryer asked Mark Chapman, the project’s chief engineer, to explain what could possibly be more important than speed?

Chapman stands beside the EJ200 ex-flight jet-engine, used in on test programme to develop the Eurofighter Typhoon. The engine will provide only part of the power when Bloodhound SSC makes it initial run in South Africa in the autumn of 2017 where it is hoped that the current record of 763mph will be exceeded by around 40mph. An upgrade then aims to take it over the illusive 1000mph mark the following year.

The jet engine will take Bloodhound up to 600-650mph, but to reach record breaking speeds the driver, former RAF fighter pilot Andy Green, will have to fire a rocket when he is ambling along at just 300mph.

The rocket fundamentally uses the same technology as the Black Arrow that launched the Prospero satellite back in the 1970s, when the UK had its own space programme. And, it is the rocket that will be beefed up when the team vies for 1000mph in 2018. The rocket and its fuel tank, incidentally, sit just a few inches behind Green’s head.

Green, observed Chapman drily, is on the design team. “Andy wouldn’t do this if he wasn’t confident in the skills that have been brought to bear on it. He doesn’t just get in the car, right foot down, press the rocket, 800 miles an hour, job’s a good’un – it’s a learning experience. It’s 100 mph, 200 mph, doing the rocket firing while the car’s stationary, doing a gradual increase of the speed, so it’s only when he’s actually trying to break the land speed record that he’s going to be doing it in the correct sequence.”

Over the next year the car will run about 30 times, starting from with tests in Newquay in the spring.

Surely, you’d think, this programme to reach top speed is the all-consuming objective of the team? Not so, according to Chapman, and in fact it is only third on the list. “The first thing for the car,” said Chapman, “is to inspire a generation of children.

“When we fired the rocket in Newquay it was 186 dB, the only things that will be louder are things like space rockets or the RAF taking off. If it’s a normal day, it will be the loudest noise on Earth. And it’s got a 60-foot flame. Our target audience is 8 to 12-year-old children, and that’s what gets them excited.”

Chapman thinks that adults will ask what they think are intelligent questions. Children, on the other hand, ask interesting ones. For example, while addressing a school assembly, someone asked, ‘if it was vertically, how high would it could go?’

“I didn’t know the answer,” said Chapman, “so when it came to their physics class we sat down and worked it out using Newton’s Laws. It was the first time they’d realised that equations were good for finding stuff out.”

Second on Bloodhound’s list of priorities is to share as much data as possible. Chapman claimed that the project was in an unusual position regarding sharing information.

“There is very little on this project that you can’t ask questions about,” he explained. “There’s some great technology on the car that a lot of people don’t have access to. The suppliers are involved in defence projects or motoring projects, and they aren’t allowed to share that information because they’re controlled by non-disclosure agreements.

“For example, the last frame on the car was actually carbon fibre and its covered in a ceramic coating from Zircotec, which is used on a lot of military applications. They are now able to actually showcase how good it is on the back of this.”

Given the military grade jet engine, it is not surprising that much of the technology being applied is normally kept under wraps. The other obvious sector, Formula One, is equally sensitive to competitive issues.

“So we’re kind of a melting pot of loads of different technologies and we can showcase them all,” said Chapman. “We can share information with the media, with the public, with education. If you walked into McLaren you wouldn’t be sat next to their latest car and you certainly wouldn’t be allowed to take photos of it and have a really good look. But we share everything.”

And finally, down at number three, is the goal to break the land speed record. But what if Bloodhound SSC fails to get to 1000mph, or even 800mph – is the project a failure? Far from it claimed Chapman, as long as you succeed with the first two.

“We don’t necessarily need a generation of land speed record holders, but we need a generation of children that aren’t turned off by science. Hopefully we can help get them into the science and technology subjects. We need a population that’s educated, which doesn’t think science is rubbish and boring; a generation that can challenge politicians and economists over the next five, ten, 15 years and ask those difficult questions about where we need investment in the infrastructure. Do we need HS2 for example?

“Science is one of those subjects where it’s kind of cool not to understand it. If you can’t read or write, everyone goes ‘that’s wrong’. But with maths people go ‘he’s not good at maths’. Science and technology are key for this next generation. Everything is going to be technology-based. You’ll see a population that is excited by science and can ask those challenging questions. So that’s what we predict this is all about. It just happens that going really quickly in an exciting way and showcasing its advantages, is a great way of getting there.”

Very fast facts

  • Design speed:1690kph (1050mph)
  • 0 – 1000mph:55 secs
  • Wheels rpm:10,000
  • Length of track: 19km
  • Current record: 1228kph (763mph)

Mark Chapman:

Since graduating from The University of Bath in 1992 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering, Chapman has worked on a wide range of projects from designing the rotor control actuators for the AB139 helicopter to a sewage works in Totnes.

He has largely been involved with aerospace projects including a couple of years in Seattle for Boeing with its Propulsion Systems Division and Rolls Royce in Bristol. Most recently he spent nearly four years as part of the design team on the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) system for the F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Bloodhound is his first venture into what might be broadly called motorsport.