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Korean bobsleds are swift, scientific works of art

Mar 16,2017
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The world’s top bobsled and skeleton racers will be arriving at the Alpensia Sliding Center in Pyeongchang this weekend to compete at the eighth and final BMW IBSF World Cup.

“In bobsled, the sled is as important as the players’ skill,” Kang Kwang-bae, former Korean bobsledder, said.

To start a race in bobsled, racers push 170 kilograms (375 pounds) sleds 100 meters (109 yards) before the start area to slide down the track at a speed of about 150 kilometers per hour, whereas skeleton racers race down the track at about 130 kilometers per hour.

Bobsledders have to fight against gravity, air pressure and friction within the track while sliding down steep slopes, and the sled designed to fight these barriers is the result of the most advanced scientific technology.

Generally, the bobsled is divided into three parts: body, chassis and runner.

Since the weight including the racers and the sled cannot exceed 630 kilograms, sleds are made with carbon fiber, which is 1,000 times stronger than iron.

Germany, the bobsled powerhouse, has their bobsleds made at the Institute for Research and Development of Sport Equipment (FES). Their production technique remains a secret. Latvia and Canada use equipment from sled-specialized companies.

As the production of bobsleds require advanced technology, famous motor companies started to get involved about ten years ago. Ferrari produces Italy’s bobsleds, McLaren Automotive makes England’s and BMW makes the United States’ sleds.

In BMW’s 2014 Olympic design, they spent 27.6 billion won ($24.1 million).

“There are many similarities in the production of cars and bobsleds, like aerodynamics,” Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, said. “Sled production is an interesting project.”

After having to borrow a sled from foreign countries, Hyundai Motor Company started to produce bobsleds for the Korean national team in 2014. The company has been using the same technology, like 3-D scans and wind tunnels, as in car production.

As the advanced technologies are used in the production of sleds, the price is significant.

A two-man sled costs about 100 million to 150 million won and the price of four-man sled exceeds 200 million won. The price of the runner for a sled, which is like a car tire, exceeds 20 million won. Since different runners need to be used depending on the weather, teams need a variety of runners.

“It’s like the difference between regular tires and snow tires,” Lee Yong, coach of the Korean bobsleigh team, said. “For example, Germany has about 100 different runners as in preparation for all sorts of weather conditions.” As of now, the Korean bobsled team has four runners and plan on preparing about 30 runners for the Olympics.

Aside from the equipment, the shipping fee for a sled is costly, as well. Since the sleds are sensitive to vibration, when sleds are shipped to another country for international events, the transfer fee costs about 20 million won per sled.

Other than the importance of equipment, the role of the mechanics is also significant, as they control switching or connecting the right type of runners to a sled. Just as mechanics are in charge of changing tires in F1 racing, bobsled mechanics are required in bobsled racing.

“Bobsledding is a competition of technology and skills,” Kang said. “Mechanics complete the techniques of the sled and the bobsledders.”

Recently, the Korean national bobsled team has been using a simulator. Through the simulator, the team practices in an environment just like the actual event.

“With the simulator, it allowed me to concentrate better, as the screaming brings more tension when we are riding the track during practice,” said Kim Yoo-ran from the Korean women’s bobsled team.

BY KIM JI-HAN [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]