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Richard Noble
by David Woodward

Richard Noble's mission is to build the world's first 1,000mph car. He hopes his supersonic Bloodhound will earn him a third land speed record and inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers

Richard Noble is a battler. "I like fighting and winning," he says simply. So when Noble heard that the late adventurer, Steve Fossett, was planning an attempt on his 1997 land speed record, the only reasonable course of action was to mount a vigorous defence. This time, though, things would be done differently. Noble's two previous attempts, with Thrust 2 in 1983 and Thrust SSC in 1997, had proved successful, but the cars were built on a shoestring budget. Parts were begged and borrowed. On Thrust SSC, says Noble, "we were using engines that were 30 years old. The main processor came from a derelict tank."

In search of sturdier science, Noble and Thrust SSC's pilot, Andy Green, found themselves knocking on the door of Lord Drayson, then minister for defence equipment and support. "We thought we'd earned the right to do this properly with the right technology," says Noble. Was there a spare Eurofighter jet engine they could borrow? In politician mode, Drayson answered the duo's question with a question. Perhaps Noble and Green could help the government? The Ministry of Defence was struggling to recruit engineers. The supply had simply dried up. Could Noble lead an "iconic" land speed project, "an absolute jawdropper", and help inspire a whole new generation of science and maths graduates?

According to a report by EngineeringUK, as many as 600,000 new engineers will be needed in low-carbon technologies, electronics, bioscience and advanced engineering over the next seven years. "Shortages of new engineers," said its report, "and of the further education lecturers to train them, could seriously jeopardise" the UK's ability to shift its economy away from an over-reliance on
services. But it won't be easy correcting manufacturing's decline. In the past year alone, the number of graduates with production and manufacturing degrees fell by 17 per cent.

Work on Bloodhound SSC (or Bloodhound Supersonic Car) began in Bristol at the end of last year. In tune with its brief to inspire a new generation of engineers, the vehicle has been designed to smash the land speed record by 30 per cent. With its hybrid rocket engine providing an average thrust of 25,000lbs, Bloodhound will be able to reach 1,000mph, travelling the length of a football pitch every quarter of a second—faster than a Eurofighter jet, faster than a speeding bullet. As a four-wheeled comparison, a Formula 1 car can reach 190mph in 8.5 seconds. But F1 cars weigh about 500kg. Fully fuelled, Bloodhound will top seven tonnes.

The technical challenge of driving any car at Mach 1.4 (1.4 times the speed of sound) is immense. "Rolls-Royce has had to go through a
restressing operation on the engine to make sure it will stand up to this," says Noble. "You are really pushing the boundaries."

The aerodynamics alone will require groundbreaking science. As the vehicle accelerates through the sound barrier along the Hakskeen Pan desert floor in South Africa, it's still anyone's guess how the resulting shockwave will affect the motion and stability of the car. Perhaps the answer will come from the classroom. More than 3,000 primary and secondary schools have already signed up to the Bloodhound education programme. Alongside education provider Primary Engineer, the team has designed resource materials to try to engage pupils in the Stem subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths. "We want to bring coherence to the promotion of Stem subjects," says Dave Rowley, Bloodhound's education director. "We need to get youngsters excited by maths and science."

Once the car is built, new design challenges are sure to emerge. And because the project team is allowing full access to the car's data, in real time, it gives the project the potential to become a gigantic collaboration. "You're talking about some bright young people who very often don't know the words 'can't do'," says Rowley. "I have a vision that somewhere along the line we will get stuck," adds Noble. "It will plateau at 850mph. And then there will be some kid in Cumbria who says, 'have you thought about this'?"

Crowdsourcing such a competitive, hi-tech project is unusual. Open collaboration is impossible in engineering hotspots such as aerospace, defence and motor sport. But the world land speed rules are simple: the car should have four or more wheels and must be driven by the driver. Such simplicity leaves room for a huge variety of different strategies. As Noble says: "With Thrust SSC we had a twin-engined car with rear-wheel steering. The Americans had a single-engined car with five wheels and front-wheel steering."

Because each team has its own ideas, the technology "doesn't transfer", says Noble. Each entrant believes they have the best solution. And "if it doesn't transfer, you can make everything transparent, because you are not going to erode your competitive advantage."

The project team has already received invaluable help from university researchers. There will be no Bloodhound prototype. "The finished car will be the prototype and the production model," Noble explains. But using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), students at Swansea University have been able to mimic the way a prototype might behave in a wind tunnel, predicting how the various structural details, from nose to tail, affect aerodynamic performance. As a result, the car has gone through nine different design configurations, starting life as a spindly dart and finishing with a shape not unlike a fountain pen—albeit, a pen with rocket fuel for ink.

Spurred by childhood memories of speed ace John Cobb, Noble built and drove Thrust 1 himself, selling his beloved TR6 sports car to buy an old jet engine. As world record attempts go, it was pretty crude. "I had no motor racing experience, no engineering experience. It would have been a magic fluke if I'd got it all right."

It went drastically wrong. In 1977, Noble crashed Thrust 1 at 200mph following a calamitous wheel-bearing failure. The vehicle did a triple mid-air roll and landed upside down in an airfield. Emerging from the wreckage, miraculously unscathed, Noble went straight to the pub. Then he went to the nearest scrapyard. The £175 he got for Thrust 1's battered body provided the starting capital for his next land speed record attempt, Thrust 2.

By now, Noble had learnt the value of commercial sponsorship. He'd also developed a keen understanding of public relations and, vital for a small company short of cash, the art of exaggeration. Noble's promotional material for Thrust 2 cited all the companies that had been involved in Thrust 1. "The great Lucas Industries had given us about three feet of electric cable, so their name went in."

After six years of trial and error, where at one point the car came within 7mph of accidental take-off, Thrust 2, with Noble in the cockpit, finally broke the land speed record in 1983, on the plains of Black Rock Desert in Nevada, achieving an average speed of 633.47mph. Success afforded him a degree of professional reflection. He established a set of operational rules, a blueprint for running his project teams, which he carried through to his next record attempt, 14 years later with Thrust SSC, and that he employs even now, with Bloodhound.

Rule one is, surprisingly, "no major sponsor". "We have no capital. [Bloodhound] lives on its day-by-day trading." This must be pretty stressful from a fundraising point of view, but Noble would never acquiesce to a lead sponsor. "It would destroy the whole thing," he says. But wouldn't it ease the pressure? After all, Bloodhound requires a further £6.5m to see it through to completion. "You need commercial pressure in order to get the right result," he replies.

That self-inflicted stress enables rule two: move fast. "If we had a lot of money in the bank," says Noble, "we would all relax." Revenues must expand continually, he says. "Turnover has to treble every year. If it doesn't grow, you die." He says he's terrified of organisations that stand still and "consume" money.

Rule three he picked up as a 20-something working for the management development company, Management Centre Europe, part of the American Management Association (Ama). It feels a bit arrogant, Noble says, but even then he could see that Ama had it all wrong. "The principles were about creating large hierarchies. The problem is that hierarchies are not very productive. A lot of time is wasted on politicking. There's very poor communication."

Noble cites Maslow's hierarchy of needs, applied to employee motivation, which he sketches on a scrap of paper. In a hierarchical organisation, he says, the key motivators, self-esteem and self- actualisation, which in the context of a workplace mean "a pat on the back" and the ability for employees to find out what they are capable of, "are seldom less than 15 per cent satisfied". That's because employees with layers of management above them "are never really responsible for anything. Authority remains with the board."

Rule three, therefore, dictates that Noble's project teams are almost flat. Noble is the sole director, looking after planning, finance and company culture. On everything else, the team answers to no one. "I only want to know when things go wrong," he says. With no manager to go through, people are forced to collaborate. Teamwork prospers. In a flat organisation, "you see people develop like you've never seen them develop before". Every employee, says Noble, “should have enough authority to fail the company.”

Noble is wary of "natural" leaders. "Leadership is like a baton in a relay race, you've got to get rid of it as soon as you can. That's why I'm not in Bristol cracking a whip. We don't work like that." Although, admits Rowley, his project director isn't beyond making a call "at half-10 on a Saturday night" if the mood strikes him.

There are tangible, commercial benefits to a flat structure, says Noble. First, recruitment problems disappear. "People come to us," he says. Second, productivity goes through the roof. "In a hierarchical organisation, everybody pushes off at five o'clock." In a flat structure, "they'll still be there at eight and nine". Third is the boost it gives to efficiency. "We did Thrust on just $4m. McLaren's budget was $40m and the Americans had $13m. We can do these things because of the effectiveness of the structure and culture."

Not including its £5m Eurofighter engine, Bloodhound SSC will cost more than double Thrust SSC. Half of the budget will come from individuals willing to pay to have their name on the vehicle's fin, the rest will stem from corporate sponsorship and merchandising. With only 18 months to raise £6.5m, and monthly costs running at £90,000, the team desperately needs UK plc to do its bit.

As ever, Noble is driven by a sense of urgency, but increasingly by the desire to put something back. "I'm very fond of our island. It [has] a wonderful collection of people. But basically it's in a bit of a mess." In the late 1980s, he says, an "extraordinary experiment started where we ended up with manufacturing at 15 per cent of GDP. Post-recession, we need to get back to making things," says Noble. "We need to get back to something we all understand."

Richard Noble is speaking at the IoD Annual Convention 2011