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Crashing through the sound barrier

A 600mph pile-up has given Britain's Thrust the chance to be the world's first supersonic car, reports Andrew Baker
Craig Breedlove may not have regained the world land speed record, but last week he set a record of sorts. When he lost control of his jet- powered car Spirit of America at more than 600mph in the Black Rock desert in Nevada, he executed what must be both the fastest and longest U-turn in automotive history.

Moments after feeling the nose of the car lift, he came to rest three miles further on, facing the way he had come. Breedlove leapt out and immediately set about assessing the damage. Questions about his condition got the cool reply: "I'm standing here.

It's no big deal."

Breedlove's mishap means that the British Thrust SSC (Super Sonic Car) team have a clear run at breaking the record. The Britons, led by the current record holder, Richard Noble, will begin test runs on a 10-mile track at Al-Jafr in the Jordanian desert this week, and are confident that by mid-November they will be faster than the 630mph mark set by Noble in 1983.

The Thrust team were quick to send their condolences to Breedlove. "Although we are competitors we are also very good friends," said the project manager, Richard Noble's brother Andrew. "The first thing we did when we heard about his crash was to send a fax saying how sorry we were to hear the news, and how glad we were that Craig was okay."

Speaking from the Thrust base at al-Jafr, Noble denied that Breedlove's accident had worrying implications for the British team. "Our car is totally different," he said. "We are not worried about what happened to Craig happening to us - but we may have one or two worries of our own, who knows?"

The two team leaders have contrasting approaches. Breedlove, who in the 1960s was the first man to beat 400, 500 and 600mph, is a craggy, no-nonsense car nut with the looks and manner of the maturer-years Clark Gable. Awesomely laid-back, he is no stranger to high-speed accidents. At the Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1960s, he crashed at more than 400mph. His car cut down a telegraph pole, flew up a bank and came to rest, mangled, in a ditch. When rescuers reached the wreck, Breedlove was sitting on it. "For my next trick," he laconically announced, "I will set myself on fire."

The American now faces months of work to repair his car, but is determined to return in 1997 in pursuit of the record he last held 31 years ago. "It's not where we wanted to go," he said. "I guess I'll be busy this winter. But I'll be back."

Breedlove's feeling for what makes a car go faster is largely intuitive. Richard Noble is happy to defer to the experts, even to the extent of handing over driving duties to a younger man, 34-year-old RAF squadron leader Andy Green. "Richard is methodical," his brother said. "His great skill lies in keeping the ideas coming and in keeping the team together."

The first target for the Thrust team this month is Noble's existing record of 630mph. But the ultimate target, the Holy Grail to which both Noble and Breedlove aspire, is the sound barrier, 750mph at ground level, the justification for the SSC suffix to Thrust's name. The target is tantalising, not least because nobody really knows what will happen as a vehicle moves from subsonic, through trans-sonic, to supersonic speed. What is certain is that there will be instability, buffeting and high- frequency vibrations. What is less certain is what effect these forces will have on vehicle and driver.

But Andrew Noble is convinced that the Thrust team have done all the necessary research. "We have been calculating on our computers all the conditions we are going to get, and that way we have minimalised all the grey areas enormously. Our aim is to make a safe car go fast, not the other way round."

A reassuring thought for Andy Green, who has been whiling away the time before Tuesday's first test run by helping the rest of the team to clear the 17 ten-mile tracks in the desert of pebbles and any debris that might be sucked into the car's two Rolls-Royce Spey jet engines, or that might damage the vehicle's tyreless aluminium wheels. Cynics on the team suggest that Green's fondness for pebble-picking duties is based mainly on a desire to avoid journalists' questions. The answer to the commonest question is: "I can't wait to get into the car and get going."

Clearing the tracks is a boring task, walking 170 miles in 30-degree heat, but there is not much else to do at al-Jafr. "There are one or two Bedouins here," Andrew Noble reported, "and a shop that I think sells tomatoes and apples, and that's it. The nearest entertainment is in Petra, an hour-and-a-half's drive away, and let me tell you, that is not a journey you make at night. So we just work and sleep. We're very confident that we will be up to record speeds - around 650mph - pretty soon. But there is a word that is used a lot in Jordan - Inshallah - God willing."