Driving At 1000 mph, Wearing A Rolex

In 1935, British speed legend Sir Malcolm Campbell entered history by clocking 300 miles per hour (484 km/h) at the wheel of his world land speed record car, Bluebird, at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the American state of Utah. Sir Malcolm had been wearing a Rolex Oyster since 1930 and the watch was on his wrist on the big day.


Considering Rolex’s long association with land speed records it is not surprising that the brand is the sponsor for the Bloodhound SSC, a British project to build the fastest car ever built. The cutting-edge, jet- and rocket-powered supersonic vehicle will be capable of achieving the astonishing speed of 1,000 mph in an attempt to break the world land speed record over two years starting 2015. Leading the project are two of the fastest men on land, Project Director Richard Noble, the Scottish entrepreneur who held the land speed record between 1983 and 1997, and driver Andy Green, who broke Noble’s record in 1997 and continues to hold it. Says Arnaud Boetsch, Communication & Image Director of Rolex SA, “As the leading luxury watchmaking brand, Rolex felt the nature and the global appeal of the partnership with Bloodhound SSC was of clear interest and in line with Rolex’s strategy to partner with projects that have strong symbolic value.”


While the Bloodhound Technical Centre is based in Bristol, England, the record itself will be attempted at Hakskeen Pan, a desert on the North Western corner of South Africa. It is the same track where Sir Malcolm Campbell first attempted his record way back in 1929, except that at a length of  20 km (12 miles), the specially cleared strip for Bloodhound is about 40 times bigger. “If people ask what’s the biggest limit on the land speed record, it isn’t power, it’s slowing down because you simply run out of land,” says chief engineer Mark Chapman. The Hakskeen Pan desert was chosen after a painstaking, worldwide search, mainly because it was the only one that could provide an accessible, flat, smooth surface of sufficient hardness and length.


The supersonic car will be propelled by three of the most powerful technological innovations of the 20th century – the car engine, jet propulsion and the rocket motor. In less than a minute, Wing Commander Green will accelerate into an environment where the aerodynamic and physical forces have been explored only in the virtual world of computer modelling. Even supersonic aircrafts have never achieved such speed at low altitudes. And he should know.


The Oxford-educated speed maniac is a serving fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force. On October 15, 1997, 50 years after the legendary American pilot Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier in an airplane, Green did the same on land when he drove his British developed Thrust Supersonic Car at 763.035 miles per hour (1,227.986 km/h). He is still the only man to have driven a car at supersonic speed. “It’s part of human nature to push boundaries,” Green says, comparing the 1,000 mph barrier to the challenge of climbing Mount Everest. “It’s part of making life more exciting.”


Green will quite literally be strapped to the front of a 14 metre-long missile that he will guide and subsequently need to stop as fast as he accelerated. Two runs, in each direction, are required to enter the official record book. Under the rules overseen by motor sport’s governing body, the FIA (FédérationInternationale de l’Automobile), a mile-long (1.609 km) stretch in the middle of the course is timed, and the average speed is calculated from the two readings. Adding to the technical hurdles, the two runs must be completed within one hour of each other.


An ideal run would last just two minutes. After accelerating from standstill for about 55 seconds, Bloodhound should take just 3.6 seconds to complete the measured mile at top speed, leaving Green slightly more than a minute to stop and make a U-turn before the end of the track. Paradoxically, stopping is the key to success. “We’ve always known that it’s the most tricky, challenging part of the run,” says Chapman.


Immediately after Bloodhound passes the measured mile, the engines must be shut down. Green will then deploy three different types of braking systems at precise speeds from 800 mph downwards: air brakes, a parachute and disc brakes. Too fast and they might be destroyed with catastrophic consequences. However, if Bloodhound’s driver is too late with one of those braking points, he will run out of track. “Two seconds is another kilometre,” he says. “Speed, like everything else on this car, defines what we do and that includes slowing down.”


Rolex’s main technical contribution to the project are two critical cockpit instruments, an analogue speedometer and a chronograph (both with distinctive polished bezels carrying Rolex logos) that will sit on either side of Andy Green’s hands on the dashboard and its aviation-style steering wheel. They will independently complement the central electronic screens that will display data during Bloodhound SSC’s runs. They will provide a necessary visual reference and fail-safe back-up for some of the on-screen readouts during the two critical phases in the record bid: assisting precision braking from 1,000 mph on the 20-kilometre track and for timekeeping during the turnaround in-between the two mandatory record runs.


Both instruments run off satellite GPS and have their own back-up power supply in case of emergency. Says Green, who owns and wears a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, “Analogue displays are just easier to read. It’s a fact. I can look at a watch that quickly. When I put it down, my brain is processing the picture of where those hands were and I know it’s ten past four. If that was a digital display, I wouldn’t have time to read all those numbers or know what the time is. We are naturally analogue creatures.”


After four years of research and design, the 7.8 tonne Bloodhound SSC borrows and adapts some existing cutting-edge technology, such as the Rolls Royce EJ200 jet and the Cosworth racing car engine. At ground level the jet engine will be pushed even harder than in a Eurojet fighter. “We have pushed the boundaries in so many ways. These will be the fastest wheels ever made,” says chief engineer Chapman.

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