Before becoming the Renault F1 Team's Technical Director, Bob Bell led a major project earlier in his career -- a world land speed record challenge! In the early 1990s, having been recruited by McLaren's F1 team, Bob Bell headed up the...
Before becoming the Renault F1 Team's Technical Director, Bob Bell led a major project earlier in his career -- a world land speed record challenge!
In the early 1990s, having been recruited by McLaren's F1 team, Bob Bell headed up the company's Research and Development department. The team principal, after dominating the F1 world championship with the electric duo of Prost and Senna, was looking towards new horizons. He called Bob to his office, and told him about a project close to his heart; McLaren would enter the fastest race of its life.
Ron Dennis wanted to break the land speed record, with the objective of breaking the sound barrier -- on four wheels. "We talked a lot about the project, then the day came when we gave the green light," explains Bob. "I was appointed as the project's technical director... but I was the only person working on it in the beginning!"
For two years, nobody knew what Bob Bell was working on -- even within the company. "We reached agreements with Rolls Royce and British Aerospace," explains Bob. "After our initial studies, we thought it would be possible to exceed 850 mph. We also started an ambitious marketing project in order to find the necessary budget."
Bit by bit, the project began to take shape. "We worked hard, and the project reached the production phase," continues Bob. "The car was very light -- under three tonnes, which is excellent for this kind of machine. It had two wheels mounted very close together at the front, and an active control system for the aerodynamic parts. It used active suspension, and the engine was an RB119 from a Tornado fighter jet. We even produced a full scale model."
Unfortunately, bad news was then to affect the project. "Gradually, the public got to know about the project," sighs Bob. Some enthusiastic engineers then began to take up the challenge, including Richard Noble, who launched the Thrust SSC project. "That move the goalposts for us," explains Bob.
"The land speed record became a race. But we had never given ourselves a firm deadline, and what's more, everybody thought we were Goliath fighting against David. The sponsors became harder to convince, and we didn't have enough money. Then Richard Noble tested his project -- had he failed, we would have continued with our project. If he succeeded, we would abandon it. And he succeeded..."
Although it was still-born, the land speed record project was still a useful one for Bob. "First of all, it allowed me to learn," concludes the engineer. "I was working with constraints and limits far beyond what we encounter in Formula 1. And it also made me realise that a partnership with a big aviation company would be a big plus for an F1 team. Now, the Renault F1 Team has an agreement in place with Boeing -- and I am focused 100% on a single goal, winning the world championship with Renault."