British bid to claim land-speed record

There’s still time to secure their place in history, but for a British team of speed record-chasers in America, the clock is ticking. Driving a vehicle that has been described as the world’s fastest kettle, they are attempting to break a world land-speed record that has stood for more than a century. And it isn’t going well.

Powered by nothing but super-heated water, the team hope to blast their way to more than 130mph along a runway more usually reserved for the Nasa space shuttle. In doing so, they will set a new time for the fastest steam-powered vehicle. That was supposed to happen on Friday but so far the record has remained tantalisingly out of reach. At time of writing, the team had nothing to show for their efforts but bruised egos, damaged pride and a flat tyre.

That might still change: they were set to make another assault on the record yesterday, but even if they make it over the finish line, the frustration of mechanical breakdowns and unforeseen mishaps during what is, in essence, a giant physics experiment, has left the team with a renewed respect for a speed record that has stood unchallenged since 1906. “It’s certainly been tougher than I expected,” says Charles Burnett III, the driver of the car, after Thursday’s failed attempt.

“The issues have been more to do with the problems we have had to overcome, rather than actually driving the car. This week has been tough — the problems have just started piling up. All the right components are in the car, we just have to get them working together at the right moment.”

Burnett, a nephew of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who made it into the record books in 1999 for an offshore water speed of 137mph, is no stranger to this kind of thing. Neither is Don Wales, the team test driver, who is a nephew of the speed ace Donald Campbell and grandson of Sir Malcolm Campbell. But neither of them anticipated the technical problems and old-fashioned bad luck that has bedevilled the project.

The 20-strong team have been in America since July preparing to take on the current world record, which stands at 127.659mph and was set by the American Fred Marriott in his Stanley Steamer. His car was a magnificent cigar-shaped contraption built by the Stanley brothers. But technical problems forced the latest attempt to be postponed for several days. Then last weekend the team made their first practice run and smashed the record speed reaching 137.14mph — but without the presence of monitors from the FIA, the governing body of world motor sport, it didn’t count.

Then, on Wednesday, the technical problems began. Under the rules of speed records, the car must complete two separate runs through a timed one-mile stretch, then an average speed is taken. The first official run went well, but as the team turned the car around for the second run, a valve problem was discovered. Mechanics battled throughout the day to fix the problem to be ready in time for another attempt on Thursday morning. Again the first run went well. With temperatures reaching 40C, the car clocked 130.6mph on the first timed run. After a swift 45-minute turnaround, Burnett started the return leg, hoping to increase the speed to 140mph. Halfway through it, however, the car was hit by the bane of all motorists’ lives: a slow puncture, probably caused by debris on the track. The record attempt was aborted yet again on Friday because of a faulty water filter.

“It’s annoying that we have these problems because we broke the existing record last Saturday,” says a clearly frustrated Burnett. “Unfortunately, there were no FIA timekeepers here to record the feat. It’s been a little tense because everybody in the team is doing their darn best to make the car work. It’s one thing when you have a mechanical issue which can be rectified but a tyre puncture is unlucky, a real nuisance”.

Painted in British racing green and with the muscular dimensions of a jet fighter, the vehicle is called Inspiration and bears little resemblance to the quaint Thomas the Tank engine machines more usually associated with steam power. In typically British fashion, it was originally conceived on a student notepad, designed in a wooden shed in Hampshire and built on a relatively modest budget of £650,000.

That was in 1999. It has since gone through several transformations with some help from Glynne Bowsher, mechanical director on the Thrust SSC, which holds the ultimate land-speed record. Today it is 25ft long and looks more like a rocket than a car — and it drives like one, too, according to Burnett. “It’s a real dream. The whole car is really stable. It’s like driving a dart.”

It looks sleek on the outside but Inspiration is a complicated network of water tanks, tubes and wiring that would give Heath Robinson sleepless nights. It works by using liquefied petroleum gas to heat 140 litres of water up to 1,000C. This is then forced through two miles of fine piping, which turns the liquid into superheated steam. When the steam reaches 400C, it is fired into a turbine, powering a shaft that drives the wheels.

Inspiration will pump out up to 360bhp, plus enough hot water to make the equivalent of 23 cups of tea a second. The three-ton car has no gearbox and a steering wheel with only seven degrees of lateral movement. Retro-style fins at the rear help it to steer straight across the six-mile sand track that is part of Edwards Air Force Base in California, which has been used as a landing strip for the space shuttle, as well as being where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.

Burnett’s main fear every time he climbs into the cockpit is a massive explosion. “The car is loaded with 70 litres of LPG,” he said. “If that ignites, I’m more likely to take a vertical trajectory than a horizontal one.

“There’s a five-second delay when I press the accelerator to the floor and then all hell breaks loose. The sound is deafening and the heat in the cockpit is immense and there’s a huge surge of torque when I open the throttle.”

Despite the frustrations of last week, Burnett remains confident the record is within reach: “It’s a record that has to be broken,” he says. “And when it is, it will have been worth all the struggles and difficulties we have had to overcome over the years.

“When I break it, the first thing I’m going to do is have a cold beer. There’s a bar near here where Chuck Yeager went when he became the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947. He was flying a Bell X-1 at 45,000ft. Hopefully, I’ll be a bit closer to the ground.”

Whether Burnett will be in that bar today drinking a beer of celebration or drowning his sorrows is all down to Lady Luck.

From The Times Online