Striking GoldSince October 2006, research engineers from the University of Southampton have been working with British Skeleton and UK Sport to help athletes prepare for major competitions

The University of Southampton’s Wolfson Unit has been awarded Innovation Partner status by UK Sport, which means it is recognised by UK Sport as providing services that meet the world-class standards of excellence in performance science and innovation required to make an impact on the UK’s best athletes and coaches.

Codename Blackroc

Rachel Blackburn and James Roche, both funded engineering doctorate students at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) at the University of Southampton, were part of the team that helped Amy Williams claim gold in Vancouver.

British Skeleton’s Performance Director, Andreas Schmid, a former world champion slider himself, was keen to perfect a fundamental element of the programme - the sled. Now affectionately known as ‘Arthur’, Amy’s sled was originally known by codename ‘Blackroc’ after its co-designers.

Amy Williams explains: “It gives you such confidence going to a major competition knowing that your equipment is world class and your preparation methods are at the cutting edge of your sport. All you need to worry about is delivering on the day. I’m really grateful to all the scientists and engineers at the University of Southampton and BAE Systems who helped make me and ‘Arthur’ such a successful team.”

As in the other sliding sports of bobsleigh and luge, the start is crucial. Once on the sled the sliders must find the best line and steer smoothly through each turn to keep their speed high. Sliders lie face-down and headfirst and steer through subtle movements of their legs and trunk.

There are two individual skeleton events, one for men and one for women. There are two days of competition, with two heats held on each day. The individual with the lowest combined time over the four runs wins

Blackburn and Roche worked on the project in Engineering Sciences under the supervision of Professor Stephen Turnock and colleagues in the Performance Sports Engineering Lab.

The four-year project has combined experimental work, the latest computational analysis techniques, and testing in the university’s R J Mitchell wind tunnel with the aim of improving understanding of skeleton performance. Competition within the sport is fierce and the margin of victory can be as little as 0.01 of a second.

They spent the first two years predominantly based at the University of Southampton, and much of the last 18 months travelling with British Skeleton. The sport’s season runs from October to March, with weeks of training followed by races around the globe.

Performance Sports Engineering Laboratory

The Performance Sports Engineering Laboratory in Engineering Sciences at the University of Southampton brings together expertise across a range of sports. In all of these, achieving a winning performance relies on excellence in engineering that can match outstanding human sporting achievement.

Its origins lie in over five decades of research and development in the high technology world of performance sailing and motorsport. In recent years, through links with UK Sport, it has expanded into other sports, including cycling, rowing, canoeing and bob skeleton.

The laboratory’s real expertise is in the synthesis of first principles-based analysis, with the latest computational analysis and simulation tools, expertise in model-scale experimentation, and tailoring system design to maximise the capability of a given athlete, sailor or driver.

The Wolfson Unit

The Wolfson Unit for Marine Technology and Industrial Aerodynamics (WUMTIA) in Engineering Sciences is one of eight organisations chosen as Innovation Partners to UK Sport. They provide support to the UK’s best athletes and coaches so they can reach their full potential in major competitions, on the world stage.

By using their extensive knowledge, skill and intuition, they have focused on areas where performance gains of tenths of a second can make the difference between a medal and nothing.

Wolfson Unit engineer, Dr Martyn Prince, worked with the British Cycling team who won gold in Beijing, in 2008. Dr Prince said: “We congratulate the British Cycling team on this amazing achievement. It is great to be able to apply our engineering expertise in this way, and a privilege to work with these top athletes.”

UK Sport

Blackburn and Roche were supported by UK Sport as part of its work with British Skeleton.

In addition to supporting British Skeleton, Engineering Sciences currently has three PhD students supported by UK Sport to allow in-depth study of other sports in a research-based environment.

Head of Research and Innovation at UK Sport, Dr Scott Drawer, added: “Working with the team at WUMTIA has been a truly world-class experience. Their enthusiasm and passion for excellence has never faltered. We hope our working relationship will go from strength to strength over the next four years as we try and build on the knowledge and insights we have gained in cycling and many of our other leading sports.”

Speed Freaks

The University of Southampton’s wind tunnels have an illustrious history, having been used by most of the current Formula One teams. Many teams have used the large, low-speed tunnels for their car development work since the 1980s, and continue to collaborate with the School of Engineering Sciences for research and teaching.

Superstars, such as Adrian Newey, Formula One's most successful car designer, cut their teeth in the wind tunnels at the University of Southampton, both as students, and afterwards, working for racing teams. Most recently, the Ferrari A1GP race car has been developed in the RJ Mitchell wind tunnel and is now being used in the World Cup of Motorsport from China and Malaysia, to Mexico and South Africa.

Wolfson Unit engineers also make extensive use of the tunnels for marine projects, including work on the Luna Rossa and Team New Zealand America's Cup yacht race contenders, as part of the R&D teams.

University of Southampton graduates are prized by companies involved in high performance engineering. As one of the few universities in the world with such an extensive wind tunnel complex, the university is able to give students a unique learning experience using industry-leading experimental facilities. Student projects have included developing the Bonneville 400 world F1 land speed record car with BAR Honda F1, and the Quicksilver world water speed record contender.

The University of Southampton probably supplies more aerodynamicists to the Formula One industry than any other university in the world, with many Ship Science graduates going onto racing yacht and powerboat design.

With its unique combination of academic excellence in aerodynamics and performance-focused consultancy expertise, the University of Southampton provides an exciting environment for teaching and research. As long as the big fans keep turning up, the University of Southampton will continue to supply the world with engineers of the highest calibre – and help keep teams on the podium.

Quotes from Key People

Amy Williams explains: “It gives you such confidence going to a major competition knowing that your equipment is world class and your preparation methods are at the cutting edge of your sport. All you need to worry about is delivering on the day. I’m really grateful to all the scientists and engineers at the University of Southampton and BAE Systems who helped make me and ‘Arthur’ such a successful team.”

Dr Scott Drawer, Head of Research and Innovation at UK Sport, says: “Like most top competing nations the British Bob Skeleton Association, in partnership with UK Sport, has worked with various science and technology partners – including the University of Southampton and BAE Systems – over the past four years to ensure the best programme is in place for their athletes. This has included cutting edge techniques in terms of the athletes’ physical conditioning and preparation, as well as the kit and equipment for use in competition.”