LONDON -- In factories and workshops in Britain, the ultimate in souped-up cars is now taking shape.
Incongruously labeled the Bloodhound, it's a mongrel mix of technology. It will have one engine borrowed from a fighter jet, another normally used to power Formula One race cars. And for extra zip, it will boast a rocket that will emit a fiery plume 25 feet long.
The car's purpose is as vaultingly ambitious as its design: to be the first land vehicle to break 1,000 mph.
"Nobody's done anything like this before," says Bloodhound project director Richard Noble. The car's target speed is 30% faster than the current land speed record of 763 mph -- also in a car built by Noble's team -- but Noble dismisses the idea of aiming for incremental improvement. "If you're going to do something like this, you've got to … set a high bar."
A key milestone will come Wednesday, when Noble's team runs the first test of the rocket and its supporting gear, from software to fuel tank. The rocket will burn for roughly 10 seconds to check whether all the components perform as expected. The test, scheduled for 8:30 a.m. ET, will be webcast live at http://www.bloodhoundssc.com/rocket/
If all goes according to plan, the car will make its first record attempt next summer on a specially built track on a dry lake bed in the desert of South Africa. The goal will be to reach 800 mph, and then try for the 1,000-mph milestone in 2014.
The Bloodhound may sound like a Frankenstein contraption, but Noble and his team can't be lightly dismissed. They built the ThrustSSC (the "SSC" stands for supersonic car) that was the first car to go faster than the speed of sound. It is the current record holder as fastest land vehicle for the 763 mph it achieved in 1997.
Getting official credit for the Bloodhound exceeding 1,000 mph won't be straightforward, however. Under the rules of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, which governs motor sports, the car must be timed over the course of a mile and then, within an hour, must turn around and be timed over a mile in the opposite direction. So the main challenge is not in speeding it up but in slowing it down for the second pass.
"This is a heavy, heavy machine going very, very fast," Noble says of the 44-foot, 7-ton car. "If we're not smart about this, it's going to end up in Botswana."
The team didn't want to rely on parachutes, which caused problems on ThrustSSC. Instead, Bloodhound has giant door-like flaps that will gradually emerge from the sides of the car to slow it before hydraulic disc brakes finish the job.
The other major challenge is making sure the $10 million car can handle the enormous aerodynamic stresses of going supersonic. To keep the car from lifting off the ground, computer modeling was used to precisely hone the Bloodhound's shape, says chief engineer Mark Chapman.
In the design process, engineers made "quite subtle changes around the back of the car," he says. "Where it starts to curve varied by 6 inches, and that made all the difference."
Competitors say the Bloodhound team has the cash -- which comes from both corporate sponsors and the British government -- and the know-how to break the record, if anyone can.
"Those guys are well-funded, well-organized, experienced," says Ed Shadle, the primary owner of the North American Eagle, a U.S. car that also aims to break the speed record.
But he and others express concerns about the car's complexity. In the engine combination, the rocket, essentially an on-or-off device, provides raw peak power, while the jet engine can be throttled and controls total power output. The 800 hp racing motor provides auxiliary power for hydraulics, such as brakes, and also pumps oxidizer under very high pressure to the rocket to burn its solid fuel.
"You increase the risk of failure when multiple engine/components all need to work together at their limits," says Mark Read, who is working on the Aussie Invader 5R, another car taking aim at the world record, via e-mail.
Noble scoffs at the idea that complexity could trip up Bloodhound, but he knows this dog may not have its day.
"The reality is that there are still a lot of unknowns," he says, but the team won't scale back its ambitions. "We're all getting old … so we'd better make it a good one."