No stone left unturned for Bristol's 1,000 mph car
The team behind the Bristol-based project to build a supersonic car to challenge for the world land speed record, is about to notch up another major mile stone – as a team in South Africa completes its Herculean task of clearing the largest stretch of Earth every to be cleared of stones. David Clensy reports
IT sounds like an ancient Buddhist zen challenge – to be told you need to clear 22 million square metres of stoney desert of every single rock, stone and pebble. But that's exactly what a team of 317 people have done over the last three years. In just 130 days of active work (extreme weather conditions prevented the team working for much of the time), they have created the largest strip of land on Earth to be cleared of stones – and they have done it entirely by hand.
It is something like being asked to remove the pebbles from Chesil Beach or picking the blades of grass off the Downs. It's seemingly impossible.
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But for the Bristol engineered Bloodhound car to make its attempt at breaking the world land speed record next year, and breaking the 1,000mph barrier the following year, the team need an immaculate stretch of desert – at those kinds of speeds a single stone could spell disaster for the car and certain death for driver Andy Green.
There are relatively few places on Earth where the challenge could be considered. The track must be a minimum of 12 miles (19km) long, in order for the car to reach its top speed and have space to slow down.
The ground needs to be a continuous band of unobstructed, smooth surface, devoid of stones, shells or vegetation, and for the car to operate properly it needs to be located within a "Goldilocks Zone" of altitude – between 3,000-4,000ft above sea level, where the thinner air allows engineers to build the car lighter while maintaining considerable aerodynamic loads.
Add to that the importance of reliable weather patterns in the region, and the all important issue of access roads for support vehicles – the team was left with few options.
The salt flats of America are the usual location for such runs – but since Green set the supersonic record in the Black Rock Desert in 1997, the area has suffered from a 10-year drought, which has left the surface severely damaged and pock-marked.
A team from Swansea University used computer technology to scan satellite images of the planet to search for a strip of land that could be used, and the focus finally fell on South Africa.
By 2009 the Verneukpan was the favourite on the short-list for Andy Green, but Rudi Riek – the man with the unenviable job of preparing the pan for the run had another idea.
"Verneukpan is certainly long enough, the problem however is that it is riddled with shale elevations, some of which are almost one metre high and run for hundreds of metres," Rudi tells me, as he chats on the line from South Africa.
"I begged Skip Margetts, South African project manager, to allow me to go and view Hakskeenpan. Skip told me that it was discounted earlier because of the provincial road going straight through it.
"Nevertheless I managed to convince him as we had nothing to lose. It was a good job we did. It turned out that Google Earth was out of date – the road had been decommissioned and a new road was built on the northern edge of the pan."
With the team finally agreed on the location, as site foreman, Rudi could begin the painstaking job of clearing the area of stones.
"The Northern Cape Government has been a crucial partner in creating the ideal run site for Bloodhound," he says. "To date they have spent close to eight million South African rand [£565,000 sterling] in clearing Hakskeenpan and in the process of doing so, have managed to create employment for 317 people."
Hakskeenpan is surrounded by five small villages, together housing more than 5,000 people.
"The latest statistics indicate that this area has a 98 per cent unemployment rate," Rudi says. "The decision to clear the stones on the pan by hand was not only made because this would be the best way to ensure minimal impact on the surface, but it was the best way to uplift the community."
But Rudi knew that by hand, this was a task that could take years.
"This is an extreme environment, the temperatures range between -6C and +45C and if it is not extremely dry, then it is extremely wet.
"There is no doubt in my mind, that nobody other than the locals, who are used to living in these conditions, could have tackled this sort of task. I have to keep going back to sit in my air conditioned car – it's 47C here today. But the workers are out there picking stones quite happily.
"More than the heat, the project has been stretched out because of rain delays – which might seem surprising for a desert, but we have rainy seasons here – since November 2010 the team has been able to work for a total of 130 days."
Rudi himself comes from the film industry – before taking on this job he was locations manager on feature films and adverts filmed in the Western Cape.
"The skill I could bring was an understanding of logistics," he explains. "I am used to managing large numbers of people in these sorts of conditions."
The track is 20km long, including the safety zones, and is 1.1km wide. The team of workers has completed clearing the entire track, the Western Safety Zone and 14km of the Eastern Safety Zone.
The remaining 6km of the safety zone has been left for completion after the rainy season in 2013 as it has very light stone coverage and clearing it would not create damage that requires rain to fix.
"Rain, although responsible for the delays, is also our ally," Rudi explains. "All the superficial damage caused by removing the stones gets repaired by a decent rain season."
To put that into perspective, the team has cleared an area measuring 20,000m x 1,100m – 22 million square metres of land cleared by 317 people in 130 days.
"Add to that the fact that even the smallest little stone is lodged into the clay and needs to be forcibly removed," Rudi says. "Then imagine doing this in extreme conditions including sub-zero temperatures in the morning, soaring temperatures in the afternoon and on some days severe dust storms. It has been tough."
All the stones collected are carried out to the edge of the area in which they are working, creating four rows, two on the edges of the actual track and two on the edges of the safety zones, these rows are each 20km in length, so 80km of stones need to be collected with heavy machinery.
There is approximately six cubic metres of stones generated for every 10m. That equates to 48,000 cubic metres of stones in all, or 8,000 truck loads that need to be removed from the track.
"This final process has started, but will continue after the rain season in 2013 but in time for the car's arrival – the team has removed 15km of these piles of stones with another 65km to go."
Tests conducted this week, using the Bloodhound's aluminium wheels weighed down with four tonne weights, showed the wheels will cut into the ground by as little as 2cm in the final run.
"That just shows you how hard the ground here is," Rudi says. "That's what makes it the ideal place for the team to run the car, to try to break the world land speed record, and ultimately the 1,000mph barrier."