The U.S. Olympic team has not won a medal in two-man bobsled since 1936, a losing streak that is all the more confounding in light of the team’s four-man success. Not content to let Sochi be the latest disappointment, the coaches and sledders heading to Russia in search of hardware reached out to one of their sponsors, BMW of North America, for help. The automaker deployed a squad of engineers from DesignworksUSA, its subsidiary famous for refining yachts, razors, cappuccino makers, and toothpaste tubes. The idea was to “support the development of the sled,” according to studio president Laurenz Schaffer, who decided that wouldn’t be enough. “We ended up conceptually redoing the whole project.”
The result is a sled that meets the International Olympic Committee’s extremely rigid guidelines for the weight, shape, and dimensions but is wildly different from anything else set to arrive in the Sanki Sliding Center. “There are quite well-described regulations, Schaffer says. “So you would think that, during the decades of this sport, everything would have been optimized. But this was not the case; there was much to still do.”
The most significant change was the material. Where the previous sled was made of fiberglass, the new one is constructed out of carbon fiber – an advanced composite polymer used in BMW’s line of electric cars, which is far stronger than steel and much lighter. Schaffer and his team also made major adjustments to the sled’s aerodynamics, as well as to its weight distribution, applying lessons learned while working on planes and roadsters. Though the team’s outfits are still supplied by Under Armor, Schaffer even got rid of the old headwear. “The helmet [now],” he explains, “is a standard BMW motorcycle racing helmet.” But the most exciting changes – at least from the perspective of the man who will end up piloting the thing down an icy tube at 90 mph – were made to the steering mechanism.
“Remember playing Pole Position?” asks Steve Holcomb, a gold medalist in the Four-Man Bobsled in the 2010 Winter Olympics and one of the winningest American sled drivers ever. He’s referencing the Eighties Atari game that brought car racing to the small screen. “There was no feedback from the steering wheel in that game – you could turn the thing with ease and you’d be all over the place. It’s kind of the same with bobsleds. You need feedback from the runners [the blades that touch the ice]. We want to enhance the feel as much as possible.”
BMW’s engineers focused on making sure Holcomb could feel what he calls the track’s “response” in his hand. They also made the sled a bit more agile, which has been both a blessing and a curse for Holcomb, who hadn’t crashed in years before debuting the new sled at a competition in Munich and wrecking twice.
“The crashes definitely brought our game to the next level,” he says. “Two weeks later, we had another two-man race and finished second.”
That’s significant progress for the perennial underdogs, but it means they are playing a high-stakes game. If Holcomb can get comfortable with his new sled, the Americans may well find themselves on a podium. If he can’t, it will be back to the drawing board for both him and Schaffer.