The Science of the Sleigh​​​​​
Team USA’s new BMW-designed bobsleigh before it debuts at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia

BMW’s engineers trade asphalt for ice in a quest to craft a better bobsled for Team USA

our years ago, the United States’ four-man bobsled team made headlines at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, by taking home the gold medal. It was the first time Americans had topped the podium in any bobsled event since 1948. Now, Team USA’s two-man bobsled team hopes to accomplish that same feat at the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia—something they have not done since 1936. The team plans to win gold with a lot of hard work, a little luck and a brand-new sled designed and built by BMW engineers, who know something about speed.

U.S. Olympic Team bobsledders Justin Olsen, left, and John Napier test the new two-man bobsled at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City

 

DesignworksUSA, BMW Group’s international design studio, which has its headquarters in Newbury Park, California, spent more than two years developing a sleeker sled made from carbon fiber for the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. “Using lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber, enabled us to optimize the sled’s weight placement to distribute and balance the regulation-required weight,” says Michael Scully, creative director of DesignworksUSA. “As a result, we were able to achieve a significantly lighter fuselage with a low and centralized mass.”

“Our approach to this project has centered on delivering a world-class vehicle that reflects [the athletes’] feedback and the experience and extreme conditions these athletes face,” says Scully.

According to Popular Mechanics, the original plan was simply to redesign the exterior of the two-man sled, but the project’s scope grew into a vehicle-system overhaul. The magazine states that BMW reimagined the shape of the sled by involving the athletes in the design process, sitting them in their positions and analyzing the aerodynamics, including how wind flows across the vehicle as it travels down a race course. “Throughout the process, athletes have told us what they like and don’t like, what challenges they faced in their previous two-man sleds and, ultimately, what they were looking for in a new two-man sled,” Scully says. “Our approach to this project has centered on delivering a world-class vehicle that reflects their feedback and the experience and extreme conditions these athletes face.”

(Left) the new bobsled, designed by DesignworksUSA, features a minimalistic design. Its dark hue also ensures that it will stand out against the snow in Sochi; (right) members of Team USA take their new two-man bobsleigh for a trial run

 

BMW has been involved in the sports world for a number of years, reportedly using carbon fiber in designs for Formula One race cars and America’s Cup boats. And with the company’s help, things are looking good for Team USA so far: The new bobsled reached speeds of just over 90 miles per hour in runs taken on the Olympic bobsled track in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in February 2013, according to Wired.

It might seem odd to some that a Bavarian company would help an American team compete on an international stage. But we’re sure the United States team isn’t questioning it as they race along with gold in their sight.

 

CHUCK TANNERT is a regular contributor to RL Magazine. His work also has appeared in Wired and on CNET.

Additional reporting by LAURA CHALLENDER

  • All images courtesy of BMW North America