Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 12 November 2014

In the middle of nowhere: A 1,000 mph car and really fast internet

Every now and then one has the good fortune to live out a childhood fantasy. I got a twelve-year-old’s birthday wish in the middle of the parched Kalahari Desert in the Northern Cape, amidst Richard Noble, the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC) team, fighter jets, helicopters, ICT and blistering fast cars.

Dave Rowley, Bloodhound SSC’s South African Education Programme Director, says that the story starts approximately seven years ago. Like most men who have a world record, Andy Green – current land speed record holder and the only person to ever travel at supersonic speed on land at 1,149.303 km/h in the Thrust SSC – got the urge to top his personal best and went to see the then-British Minister of Defence in an effort to ‘borrow’ a classified jet engine meant for a fighter jet. The Minister responded with a much-expected “Buzz off!”

One of the Minister’s top officials, however, saw an opportunity and called Andy and Richard Noble back, telling them that they could have the jet engine, provided they inspired a new generation of engineers and scientists to build jet engines like the one they needed. For a nation like Britain, long at the forefront of military, aviation and marine technology, it is important to have young scientists that are able to build the best tanks, jets, missiles, submarines and battleships. Rowley thinks back to the days of the Cold War and the Space Race, an era that saw a spike in physics and engineering graduates because everyone wanted to either build the rockets that put men on the Moon, or walk on the moon themselves. Rowley himself was inspired by Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, and that’s what had him pursue his studies in Engineering.


Photo: The Bloodhound SSC at completion, the 1000 mph car that is set to smash the land speed record next year. Photo by Stefan Marjoram.

So in as much as the Bloodhound team have ambitions of building a 1,000 mile-per-hour car, they also have the task of inspiring a new generation of engineers, while building it. Six thousand UK schools are signed on to the programme, which bodes well for the Defence Official’s wish to have young scientists and engineers inspired to build him better military toys, but there’s an awesome spin-off for South African schools as well.

Rowley heads the education programme here in South Africa, where 700 schools will participate in the programme. Of these, 97 schools are situated in the Northern Cape. We visited one of these schools located in a town called Groot Mier – although we use the word “town” loosely, since the school and the church are the only two places that provide any sort of employment in the area.

MTN, through the MTN Foundation, have built a state-of-the-art computer laboratory for the learners of Groot Mier Primary, but according to Father Aloysius, a local priest and ambassador for the project, they repaired everything from the school roof to the signage. The biggest benefit to the school is best summed up by the principal: “Before 25 August we did not know what Google was, but now we do; ons noem dit ‘rol katrol’!” Now the children of Groot Mier not only have their horizons broadened by the internet, but they can link up to the school in Bristol, the school close to where the actual supersonic car is being built and exchange and share knowledge.

Contrary to the British way of doing things, the Bloodhound Project is in fact open source, rather than shrouded in secrecy: anyone throughout the world can learn and appreciate what it takes to build the world’s fastest car through the magic of the internet. But what makes this second leg of the SCC project invaluable is the linkage to the actual application of the Bloodhound build’s science and technology to learner’s curricula.

Some of the fastest internet in the country can be found in the middle of the Northern Cape; in fact the children of Groot Mier have faster connectivity than their counterparts in Bristol. Of course such breakneck internet speeds need to feed back into the world’s fastest car, and the do – and this is where the fun really starts; the reason I was on a pilgrimage to the desert of the Northern Cape in the first place.

Somewhere between the Namibian border and Upington lies a dried-up, ancient lake, named Hakskeenpan. Hakskeenpan – according to Martyn Davidson, Operations Director – is the only place out of 20,000 locations throughout earth, where the Bloodhound can be run. Geologically and climatically it is perfect, it floods once a year, is perfectly flat for more than the required 20km, but for a total height variance of 40cm. In fact, the project hired 300 individuals over a period of six months to meticulously clear the area of the pan that would be used as the track, as well as the run-off area of all rocks, pebbles and stones larger than a pea.

Sadly the Bloodhound SSC did not make an appearance on the flats of Hakskeenpan last week, but tests were run nonetheless, and these tests had a whole bunch of us media types descend upon the ancient, dried-up lake. The question is, can you use the internet at 1,607 kilometres per hour (South African speak for 1,000 miles per hour)? Now, of course, when the car runs at this speed, the land record would be broken, and you cannot possibly hope to answer the question then.

communications test

Photo: Communications Testing at Hakskeenpan in the Northern Cape for The Bloodhound Project. Photo by Kevin Sutherland.

So you compromise by unveiling a brand new Jaguar all-wheel drive F type and have it driven by the second fastest man in the world, Richard Noble. Into the mix you throw in a jet, similar to a fighter jet, used for training future aces, and you measure whether the internet is stable at a closing speed of 820 km/h. The Bloodhound Project team’s video better demonstrates the test.

According to Sarah Covell (Head of IT), who had the tedious task of being whisked about in the jet at 500 km/h and felt the full impact of G-forces squeezing her organs while measuring connectivity, the internet remained stable during the test. The reason why the internet needs to remain stable at these speeds is because a total of seven cameras will be live-streaming the action from the car as it hurtles across the desert.

So Covell and Noble had all the high-speed fun – what did I get out of this deal? Noble, OBE and land speed record holder from 1983 to 1997, when he travelled at 633.468 mph (1019 km/h) in the Thrust 2, drove me and a few fortunate members of the media at a teeth-rattling 220 km/h in the new Jaguar XF! The stability of this symphony of engineering gave one the impression that you had been gliding along the highway at no more than the maximum legal speed limit.

Richard Noble

Photo: Richard Noble conducting a press briefing before taking members of the media on a 220 km/h drive in the Jaguar XF pictured behind him. Photo by Gushwell F. Brooks

So, being something of a thrill seeker, my true desire was to feel what effect G-forces have on the body. Enter Terence Tracey, a good mate of mine, a man that drove his almost 50-year-old Hillman Imp, a car not much larger than the iconic 1960s Mini from Johannesburg to London. He organised me a suicide ride at Kayalami this past weekend, and my oh my, did I feel those G-forces.

Now if my adrenal glands were squeezed by a measly 87 horse power, imagine what Andy green will feel in the 135,000 horse power behemoth that is the Bloodhound SSC? That equates to 135 Bugatti Veyrons, the fastest road production car ever!

This is an epic moment in history and I would bare-knuckle box someone for the privilege to cover the actual land speed record attempt. Why? It is simple: at the heart of it we are all still little kids who get giddy at the thought of a car travelling at 1,610 km/h, fighter jets that can’t keep up and helicopters that follow the action form the skies. But the grown-up in me is very pleased with the fact that a bunch of kids in the Northern Cape, kids that hardly have access to water, let alone the rest of the world, now can see what the rest of the world is getting up to via the internet. DM