With the focus on Russia diminishing now that the 2014 Olympic Winter Games have wrapped, we look into the curious question of a German auto manufacturer betting on an American bobsled team.
Two years ago, BMW agreed to partner with the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation to redesign the two-man bobsled in time for the Sochi Games. Team USA hadn’t seen a medal ceremony since 1952 and hadn’t won gold since 1936, so they hoped this would be an opportunity for the American team to retake the podium.
BMW’s investment in Team USA is the latest in sport-automotive design collaborations in recent years: McLaren and Ferrari worked with the British and Italian Olympic teams, respectively, in Sochi. To succeed, BMW looked to Michael Scully, the creative director of its California-based DesignworksUSA.
Scully's goal was simple: put Team USA on a path to the gold medal. To accomplish this, DesignworksUSA used the latest in aerodynamic design from their next-generation car development experience with the BMW i3 and i8. It took Scully’s team 69 tries to get the initial sled design right. The sleds then went through hours of wind tunnel and fluid dynamic testing before trials began in 2012. Ultimately, the decision to switch to a frame constructed out of carbon fiber shaved 15 pounds off the sled, allowing engineers to shift the center of gravity for better handling.
On February 16, 2014, the USA-1 bobsled team, consisting of gold Olympic medalist and six-time World Champion Steven Holcomb (four-man, Vancouver) and 2010 Olympian and two-time World Champion Steve Langton, crossed the finish line a mere 0.03 seconds after silver medal winners Switzerland, taking the bronze medal for two-man bobsled and ending a 62-year drought.
Less than 48 hours later, before their run at the four-man sledding event, Holcomb and Langton sat down with us to discuss their podium finish, BMW’s involvement and how they intend to stay competitive.
Playboy.com: Congratulations, guys, what an incredible feat. How are you feeling right now?
Steve Langton: Fantastic! It’s a dream come true.
Playboy.com: Thewinning sled, designed by BMW in California, replaces an outdated model that the American team has used for almost 20 years. Can you tell us how this new sled differs from the previous model?
Steven Holcolm: BMW’s sled design looks a lot different than most bobsleds. It was designed for aerodynamics. When you are at those top speeds, you need as much roll resistance [the downward force which keeps the bobsled from tipping over mid-run] as possible. So they focused on that. There’s a little bit of a difference in the way the axle moves in the front of the sled, which changes the steering. It’s a lot of experimenting. It’s kind of like NASCAR: you have to stay within the rules, but there’s a little leeway so you can test different theories of what’s faster.
Playboy.com: Is there a big difference between piloting this sled and what you’ve had in the past?
Holcomb: There’s only so much you can do to change up how it handles. The biggest differences are in the aerodynamics and the weight distribution. Driving doesn’t change a whole lot from sled to sled. It becomes a matter of controlling the sled and putting the weight where it’s needed to keep you from slowing down.
Playboy.com: Is there a major change from the braker’s perspective or is it in line with what you’ve previously competed on?
Langton: With the BMW sled and its use of lightweight materials, the carbon fiber that you actually see is a little rigid—I guess you could definitely say going on a track I could feel it a bit more. This is my seventh year competing on international tour, so I know where I am on each track and what each turn feels like from the back of the sled.
Playboy.com: Steven Holcomb, you piloted the four-man bobsled to Olympic gold in Vancouver, the first win since 1948. That medal also broke a 62-year dry spell—quite a coincidence!
Holcomb: I didn’t even realize it until the race was over on Sunday night and they told me I had broken a 62-year drought. I was like, “Yeah, I did that in 2010—62 years since a gold medal,” but on Sunday night it was 62 years for a medal [in two-man bobsled]. I guess it’s my new lucky number. [laughs] I’m going to fly back from Russia directly to Vegas!
Playboy.com: Having an auto manufacturer like BMW sponsoring the U.S. team and overseeing the technical development of the new sled over the past few years, what has been the reaction on the ground from the other teams?
Holcomb: There are a few car companies currently developing sleds, but it seems at the moment that BMW is the most successful. Ferrari is working on the Italian sleds, McLaren on the British sleds and Audi on the German sleds, but BMW is the only one really performing on the hill. It’s great but it’s intimidating. BMW is such a well-known company. They have great cars and what they can apply to bobsledding is great.
Playboy.com: Steve, you’re currently on the 2014 BMW Performance Team. How has that experience been so far?
Langton: It’s been great! Starting with our partnership two years ago, BMW came in with the idea of really raising the bar and helping us build a sled that would help us at Sochi. The sled performed like we wanted it to, winning the medal. In terms of the support, on and off the hill, BMW has been instrumental to both myself and my teammates, as well as to our national [bobsled] governing body. Much of the success that we’ve had over the season, and obviously at the Olympics, was because of their involvement.
Playboy.com: Were you involved in the development and testing of these sleds?
Langton: In March of 2012 they came out with a prototype. These sleds are extremely technical—as simple and rudimentary as they are, they go extremely fast and they are very difficult to build. We took it down the hill, saw what was working and what was not—what they had to improve on—and they took it back to the drawing board and created a second prototype that we took out that following December and put through the wringer a little bit. It made its World Cup debut a month later in January 2013. We made a few more tweaks and the entire fleet of six came out to us last October.
Playboy.com: What’s next for you guys?
Holcomb: When we get back to the States we’ll analyze how things went, sit down with Michael Scully and the engineers and do kind of the same process. This isn’t a standstill sport; I can tell you right now the Germans, the Swiss, the Canadians, they’re all looking to make themselves faster, and we have to be doing the same thing. We’re ahead of the curve right now, but we can’t sit here and get complacent or they’ll fly on by us.