Thursday, 18 November 2010

Richard Noble

Richard Noble is a unique man. In 1983 he beat the land speed record in his Thrust 2 car, recording a maximum speed of 633.468 mph.

Thrust 2 was designed, built and run on a shoestring budget, much smaller than some of his rivals. Due to the work of his team, Britain regained the land-speed record.

Move on 14 years, and other teams were looking at breaking that record. This, of course, is the way that record attempts go: one team breaks a record, and other teams look at how they can respond; national honour is at stake. Richard Noble saw this activity, and wondered if he should try and increase the record, to put it out of the reach of the other teams. A milestone figure lies a short distance above 733 MPH - the sound barrier.

Thus Thrust SSC was born. On October 15, 1997, Thrust SSC, driven by RAF pilot Andy Green, reached a speed of 763 mph on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, breaking the sound barrier in the process.

In doing so, Richard Noble became a unique man in the annals of the land-speed record. Most holders of the record raise funding, build and drive the machine themselves, or lead the team that does so. That is utterly understandable; if you are going to risk your life, you want to be in charge. Yet Richard Noble, the fastest man on earth, knew that he did not have the skills to drive Thrust SSC. What it needed was someone who had reactions and experience far greater than his own. So a competition was started to find a relevant driver, and RAF pilot Andy Green was selected. In the process, Richard Noble organised for his own record to be broken by someone else.

It was an incredibly noble thing to do.

Move on another eleven years from Thrust SSC, and again Noble is working on the Bloodhound SSC project. Having broken the sound barrier, they are going for the next obvious target - 1,000 MPH. This is an amazing speed - 237 MPH over the current record, and it will be by far the biggest ever jump in the land-speed record.

Noble has not been resting on his laurels in the intervening years . In 1998 JCB, a British construction company (and based right under where I used to go to school), had a problem. For decades they had used engines provided by British company Perkins for many of their machines. Then it was announced that Perkins was being taken over by JCB's massive US competitor, Caterpillar. Not wanting the control of their engines to be in the hands of their competitor, JCB set about the task of designing and making their own. In 2004, the first JCB444 engine rolled off the production line.

JCB wanted to do something to publicise this new capability. As well as having the JCB 'Dancing Diggers' display team (which I saw on several occasions when I was a child), they also built the JCB GT, the fastest digger on earth, capable of easily reaching 100 MPH. But JCB wanted something extra, and decided upon the diesel-powered land speed record. But who could they get to run such a project?

Step forward Richard Noble and Andy Green. They and their large team designed, built and drove the JCB DieselMax car. In 2006 this got them the diesel-powered land speed record, a speed of 350 MPH, and improvement of 90MPH over the previosu record. In doing so they only ran in the fifth out of six gears - the limitation on the speed was down to the tyres. If they had wanted, they could have pushed the car further.

So I wish Noble the best of luck with the Bloodhound SSC. Not all of his projects have worked out, but I hope this one will. We can all dream impossible dreams, but it takes a special man to make them possible.

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