The American two-man bobsled team didn't do so hot on the track at the last Winter Olympics. While the four-person crew took home the gold medal, the shorter sled only came in sixth. And one reason was because their sled was nearly two decades old.
In any form of racing, technology can make or break a championship. The fastest driver in the world can't take any trophies unless they can turn harder and move quicker than the next guy on the track. This notion goes double for bobsled, where teams hurtle along at more than 80 miles per hour down a winding, banking, ice-covered chute with not so much as a seatbelt to hold anybody in.
It's a sport that's been dominated by alpine Europeans since its inception. Germany, Italy, and Switzerland have combined for 41 Olympic medals in the two-man bobsled competition, or almost 76% of all medals ever handed out. That's not "just gold medals," but all medals. The top non-alpine team, the USA, comes in fourth on the medal count list, with seven.
The last time the American team took gold in the two-man sled was 1936, when Alan Washbond and Ivan Brown took first place, beating the Swiss. In case you're forgetting how long ago that was, Roosevelt was President, Hitler was Führer, and Betty White was a young lady.
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This picture, from the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, showed pretty much what that whole thing was like:
Yeah, it was a really long time ago.
In 2010, when the Americans placed sixth, their sled was 19 years old. Let's say that again: nineteen years old. Imagine running the biggest Formula One race of your life against Sebastian Vettel, and he's in his fantastically new Red Bull with all its whiz-bang tech, and you're stuck with a car from 1992. Except that your racer from 1992 was designed by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.
You're not going to win.
So the US Olympic team decided it needed a new two-person sled. Clearly, if the US was going to beat the alpinists at their own game, they'd have to turn to somebody who knew what they were doing. Somebody who understood the latest technology. Somebody who always fought for America. A real national treasure.
Of course, they turned to BMW.
Okay, so it's not Ford or Chevy like you'd think, but BMW has a huge amount of experience with the one material the US team really needed to be competitive – carbon fiber. BMW's new generation of carbon fiber wundermaschinen like the i8 and the i3 are incredibly complex, and hey, there's also a lot of cross-promotional wonderfulness with that, and that never hurts.
BMW employs a chap by the name of Michael Scully, who has a bit of experience in making things go fast. Not only is he a designer with BMW DesignWorks USA, but he's also a former race car driver himself. Scully went through 69 different designs before settling on the one the team is using in Sochi, so he seems like he's a bit thorough.
Scully and his team tweaked everything, from the running gear to the steering mechanism to the core structure itself. One of the biggest hurdles was the previous sled's aerodynamics, as it was shaped a bit like a wing, causing lift. The thing would rattle and yaw as it was heading down the track, which does not sound like fun. And because the new American sled would be going up against the Germans, they made sure to keep it away from BMW's headquarters in Munich, and tested it only at American wind tunnels.
One of the elements from motor racing that the bavarian motor manufacturer took is that they designed the new sled to be below the minimums. The most aerodynamic body was, of course, smaller, so instead of the old sled which was shaped a bit like a tank, the new sled was designed to meet the minimum requirements in length, height, and width. All of this of course made it below the minimum weight requirement, so lead ballast sheets were attached to the bottom for a low center of gravity, just like at Le Mans or in Formula One.
So will all this insane amount of automotive-inspired design win at Sochi? Well, for one thing, the two-man events don't start until tomorrow. So we don't know yet.
But the American two-man bobsled team is currently ranked first in the entire world, after so many years of failure, so there's that.
There's only one small little problem, though. BMW designed the American sled, and that's all fine and dandy.
But Britain's sled is made by McLaren.
And Italy's sled is made by Ferrari.
And world-renowned Japanese race car maker Dome made the Japanese sled.
You might think that auto racing takes a break in winter. That couldn't be further from the truth.
Photo credit: BMW, Getty