The fastest sled on earth made by UK composites specialist

Composite materials are used in arguably the most exciting engineering projects on the planet, from Formula One cars to fighter jets to... sleds. Watch the video and read the story behind Guy Martin's downhill sled record. Justin Cunningham reports.

Composite materials enable strength to weight ratios that have become inextricably linked to performance. The trouble is though, when you are tasked with finding out and reporting on these things, it's rare for companies, or people, to actually talk about them.

Time and time again I've heard people in the composites world say to me: 'we've got such a brilliant project going on at the moment... Oh, but we can't talk about it'. It's an understandable annoyance, put it that way.

While it's fantastic that so many amazing projects are taking place here in the UK that use advanced materials, it's a frustration that nobody can talk about them publically. But, as it turns out, this is as much of a gripe for the companies involved as it is for journalists.

"Normally, what we do is very secretive and we can't ever shout about it," says Graham Mulholland, managing director of Derby based composite specialist, EPM Technology. "We can't take a Formula One car, point to a part and tell people this is what we do. It's way too sensitive."

So when an opportunity to show off its skill comes along, EPM is definitely up for it. This was the case when the company received a phone call from TV producers asking if they would build the world's fastest sled, to be ridden in a world record speed attempt. While the seeming randomness of the request might have taken a few back, Mulholland jumped at the opportunity, and for good reason.

"Fundamentally, we need people to get excited about engineering," he says. "This kind of project dovetails in nicely with what we are doing in terms of promoting the skills that industry is crying out for.

"It helps make engineering trendy to the next generation, and hopefully will get undergraduates at university thinking that they want to come and work for EPM Technology."

The sled is a one off, streamlined, engineering marvel that was piloted by none other than speed junkie Guy Martin. The record in question was for the fastest gravity powered sled and the attempt would make up part of a TV series for Channel 4 called Guy Martin's Speed.

The project essentially formed around three primary partners: the TV production company, EPM and Sheffield Hallam. Sheffield Hallam's Centre for Sports Engineering Research was recommended to the production company because of its work with Winter Olympics gold medallist Amy Williams. Engineers there had previously helped a consortium, set up by UK Sport, design and construct the Blackroc sled for the British Skeleton team to use at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, which ultimately led to the gold medal.

"Everyone came down to our factory and said the sled should be this shape, this long, this light, and we then turned that from a rough sketch and idea, in to an real design concept," says Mulholland.

The concept was modelled in CAD before being sent back to Sheffield Hallam for simulation on the structure. They ran both finite element analysis of the sled as well as detailed CFD to make sure it would work physically and aerodynamically as expected once it was made for real.

Research fellow and sports engineer Nick Hamilton, from Sheffield's Centre for Sports Engineering Research, said: "The team also optimised the stability of the sledge and the braking, and carried out a full laser body scan on Guy so that the sled design would be perfect for his requirements. We used computational fluid dynamics before EPM Technology manufactured the sled in carbon fibre."

EPM used a prepreg carbon fibre to mould the structure that was then cured in an autoclave. It also used a Nomex honeycomb to it make it stiffer and lighter.

As is good practice with carbon fibre design, EPM managed to produce the main component as a single complete piece. But there was a twist.

"There were a couple of clever little components in there, just in case there was a problem," says Mulholland. "If he'd come off it, we were doing all we could to keep him safe. So it looks like a complete sledge but there are some very clever subassemblies to do a job if needed."

Once the actual structure was produced, it was time for the sled to be assembled in its entirety. This meant the integration of many subsequent components including the steering system, its physical braking systems and a braking parachute.

"We didn't just make the carbon fibre part, we did the entire assembly," says Mulholland. "So it left ready to go. We assembled the braking mechanisms, adjusted how Guy was lying on it, and what he was holding on to. That was all part and parcel of the whole project.

"It's the same for a carbon fibre part that has to go on a Formula One car. It leaves us with all the titanium parts and sensors on it, all those difficult and complicated subassemblies and aerodynamic bits, ready to fit the vehicle, and go racing. The sled was no different – when it left us, it was ready to go."

There is no doubt this was a genuine risky ride and everyone was well aware of the dangers, not least Guy (or actually maybe least Guy...) And, as this was the series finale, the challenge was that bit faster than the other record attempts seen in previous programmes.

Guy took on a 984ft run that has a massive 360ft drop, which was at times steeper than the main climbing route on Everest.

So when the time came, just how did Guy and the carbon fibre sled get on?

"He smashed it," exclaims Mulholland. "He absolutely smashed the record."

The team had beat the existing record by nearly 20mph and reached a whopping 83.5mph on the Pyrenees slopes in Andorra.

"The lads here loved doing it," concluded Mulholland. "It lifted the moral. He is a very bright guy, and really down to earth and completely grasped what we were doing, and the processes that we were going through. He spent time with the guys and was amazed by the facility and skill set we have, praising everyone's hard work."

(Video content courtesy of Guinness World Records)

Justin Cunningham

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