What do world class high performance vehicles and US Olympic bobsleds have in common? More than one would think. The easy answers are speed, sleek design, aerodynamics, and award wins.
Now, the US Olympic sliders can proudly ride on US made equipment, too. Just as Great Britain has tapped McLaren, and Italy has picked the brains of Ferrari engineers to tune up bobsleds, The US Olympic Committee finally decided to go American made using BMW technology to design to build bobsleds and luge, and skeleton sleds. The US two man bobsledders haven’t won gold since 1936.
The state of the art BMW Designworks facility outside Los Angeles has already met design expectations. US bobsled teams have swept podiums in recent World cup events. Michael Scully, designer of high-performance cars for BMW, and a member of a four man bobsled team, said that the design process took two years and 14 simulations.
After testing two prototype bobsleds, BMW Designworks presented the final result in October 2013: a significantly smaller, more aerodynamic design. Using lighter materials like carbon fiber freed up about 15 pounds. The engineers had to add the weight back to the sled to meet the 374-pound minimum weight requirement, but they were able to place the pounds more strategically, shifting the center of gravity and improving the steering.
Luge sleds also went through changes. From 2007- 2011 over twenty material changes were implemented to shave thousandths of seconds off sliding times, which can mean a podium finish.
Once the materials were narrowed down, the sled – and the athletes – underwent hours of wind tunnel testing, which helps researchers understand how air travels over the athletes at different points of the race. They also used smoke to visualize the airflow.
The skeleton athletes also took their turn in a wind tunnel to test the new ProtoStar V5 sled. “That was quite an experience," says team member Matt Antoine. “There is a lot of science that goes into it. Even if we’re only finding a couple of hundredths here or there, it makes a huge difference.”
The group from ProtoStar Engineering worked with the company Machine Tek to determine the best materials, looking to build a sled that was lightweight and flexible on curves yet stiff enough that the frame wouldn't bend under forces upwards of 4 or 5G -- the equivalent of 600 pounds.
Over the design course, engineers adjusted for vibration reduction vs. drag, and kept adjusting materials in the carbon fiber pod, the area of the sled holding the athlete’s body. “Skeleton is 90 percent mental, so the athletes need to feel like they have great equipment under them, they have great coaching -- all the pieces of the puzzle,” says coach Tuffy Latour. “This is one of the most important pieces, that we didn’t have two years ago.”
“It’s really putting them in position to be medal contenders each and every race,” he adds. “It’s really, really encouraging.”
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