When Steve Holcomb piloted the United States’ four-man bobsled to victory at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it was hailed as an achievement of the highest order, ending a gold medal drought that dated from 1948. At the same time, it highlighted the country’s longer-running futility in the two-person sled, which had been outclassed at every Winter Olympics since 1936.
With an eye toward closing the performance gap in Sochi, the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in 2012 teamed up with a company known for performance, BMW USA, which assigned a team of engineers to work with the country’s top bobsledders on a full-body makeover of the two-man sled.
“There are three main areas that define the success of a bobsled run,” said Michael Scully, the lead engineer on the redesigned two-man sled, which will also be used by the U.S. women’s teams. “First is the push, which sets the velocity of the run; then there is the drive itself, or input from the pilot; and third is the equipment. With this project, we’ve had the opportunity to affect all three.”
A former competitive snowboarder and road-racing enthusiast, Scully brought a fresh eye, competitor’s zeal and engineering smarts to the project. But he learned that all the computer-modeling and wind-tunnel testing at BMW’s disposal couldn’t simulate the violent ride down an icy, circuitous bobsled course at 90 mph.
“Simulations are one thing,” Scully said, “but what we learned in this project is you really only get your answers when you get on the track.”
Even to the unschooled eye, the U.S. two-man sled differs radically from its Euro peers.
The redesign started with weight. The sport’s rigid rules require sleds to weigh 170 kilos (roughly 375 pounds) but don’t specify how that weight is distributed.
By substituting lighter carbon fiber for Kevlar and fiberglass in crafting the shell, the engineers were able to reposition the weight elsewhere, resulting in a sled with a lower, more centralized mass.
They also worked on ergonomics: redesigning the handles that brakemen grab to give it the all-important push, as well as streamlining the interior so athletes have an easier “path” into the sled from their running start.
And with input from Holcomb and Elana Meyers, regarded as the country’s top male and female pilots, they fine-tuned the steering mechanism, which Scully likens to the sled’s “central nervous system.”
“The nuances of what they feel and sense through that system is essential, and we’re continually going back and forth, getting feedback, making changes and going back and trying it again,” Scully said. “Without that, we could only guess what they’re experiencing.”
Said Holcomb, 33, who’ll compete in the four- and two-man sleds in Sochi: “When you see it, it’s strange looking — more radically designed than any other sled. The Europeans wonder why it looks like it does. But sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to come up with new ideas.”