- a british team's effort to surpass 1000 mph and take the world land speed record started more than a decade ago but was foundering until a wealthy investor jumped in.
- ian warhurst, a turbocharger-parts mogul, was originally looking just to help save the bloodhound vehicle for museum duty.
- instead, he's now at the heart of a renewed attempt that saw bloodhound reach a peak speed of 628 mph (that's more than 1000 km/h) on a 12.5-mile course this fall.
the bloodhound project was never short of ambition or technical expertise, but the british attempt to move the land speed record into four figures always struggled with both funding and organization. when we last reported on low-speed runs conducted on a runway in the u.k. back in november 2017, it was already three years behind schedule.
that was very nearly where the story ended. unable to raise enough money to head to south africa for a record attempt, the company behind bloodhound went bankrupt last year. the car had never traveled at more than 200 mph, and only ever using a borrowed rolls-royce ej200 jet engine; the record-setting run would also require rocket assistance. bloodhound's assets were soon being offered for sale but meeting little interest from potential buyers.
at which point ian warhurst entered the story. the 50-year-old from yorkshire had just sold a highly successful company that makes replacement parts for turbochargers, and he was looking for a retirement project. "my son suggested i should try to buy the car," warhurst told car and driver. "he was joking, but it got me thinking."
warhurst got in touch with the administrators—the court-appointed agents charged with liquidating the company—and was told that the car was about to be cut up. "they needed to remove the controls for the jet engine, which had to be returned to rolls-royce, but these were buried deep inside the car," he says. "the administrators didn't have the time or the knowledge to remove it carefully, so a guy with an angle grinder was going to cut the car in half to get it out. which would have turned it into scrap."
having expressed enough interest to stall the wrecking crew, warhurst traveled to bloodhound's former hq in bristol, england, to see the car. matters escalated quickly, and a week later he had agreed to buy it. he originally intended just to keep it from being thrown into a dumpster, he says. "i thought maybe put it in a museum and give it a dignified ending. but then i started to look into it a bit more and realized that because the project had gone bust, all the contracts with the original sponsors had ended. one of the big problems it had was that all of the sponsors had been there for perpetuity, so you couldn't raise any more money from them."
as the bloodhound project ran increasingly late, it ran out of cash. we first told you about it as long ago as 2012, when the stated aim was to break the 1000-mph barrier on the hakskeen pan, a natural salt flat in south africa. several major redesigns followed, and the scheme was modified: first, to beat the existing just-supersonic 763-mph record set by thrustssc in 1997, then to return a year later to try for 1000 mph. but the delays saw big sponsors lose interest, and by 2017 bloodhound executives admitted to c/d that they had already spent around $40 million and would require a similar amount to reach the 1000-mph target.
but having acquired both the car and bloodhound's other limited assets, warhurst started to look more closely into the figures. "i realized the actual numbers required were nothing like the ones being quoted, because the 1000-mph target was throwing so many unknowns into the equation. so i pulled it back: what if we just aimed for the land speed record. could we do that?”
warhurst faced a dilemma. although bloodhound wasn’t ready to run at supersonic speeds, the best way to both prove it could do it and raise the interest of potential sponsors was to take it to south africa for higher-speed testing. doing that meant making a serious financial commitment—"well into seven figures," he admits, and that's in british pounds. but he signed the checks, and over three weeks in october and november, bloodhound ran on the salt at increasing speeds. driven by serving raf pilot andy green, who drove thrustssc to its record 22 years ago, bloodhound reached a peak speed of 628 mph on a 12.5-mile course, making it one of just seven wheeled vehicles to have broken the 600-mph barrier—and on jet power alone.
"we've got the numbers now," warhurst says. "we can work out how much thrust we need to get us through the sound barrier and to the land speed record. that's information we need to give to nammo so they can develop the rocket."
nammo is a norwegian company that builds and develops compact rocket motors, but although it has been a technical partner on the bloodhound project since almost the beginning, the company's involvement will not come cheap. warhurst acknowledges that taking the car to the next level will be too much for even his deep pockets.
"i might have proved i'm a bit mad by paying for what i've paid for, but i'm not mad enough to carry on," he says. "i knew my budget would get us to the hakskeen pan and prove the car could do it; we've got a very credible product here, one that's eminently capable of breaking the record. if we can't raise enough money, then i will close the project down properly and put the car in a museum or whatever i need to do—i'm not going to ditch it and not pay everybody, so i've got a plan b. but plan a is that we need to get sponsors on board."
based on the largely white livery the car wore during testing, there's still plenty of real estate on the body to sell off. working as ceo, warhurst has created a costed plan for getting the car to a record attempt in south africa. he acknowledges achieving this will require some major external funding. "i'm looking to pull sponsors together so we know we have enough. we're not going to set off with half the money and hope we get the rest; that's not the plan."
beyond going almost impossibly fast, bloodhound's original purpose was to increase interest in science and engineering degrees in the u.k. and around the world, a mission warhurst has gladly taken on. "one of my frustrations as an engineer has always been the struggle to get people to see how important it is, but there are more people retiring from it than going into it. bloodhound is one of the best ways to inspire kids to think about it."
he also hopes that other people in his position might be inspired to take part. "there are lots of entrepreneurs like me who have sold businesses and are just watching their investments. this is a much more interesting thing to do with your money. it's a story of human endeavor and trying to push the limits of what we know."
we hope this is a story that ends with a supersonic bang, not a whimper.