The difference between finishing 1st and 5th in most sports can come down to seconds, sometimes even minutes. Many think that sprinting has the closest difference in finishing times, however, this may be after only 100-200 metres. Bobsleigh however, can have differences in the hundredths of a second after a course that runs for several miles.
When Gary took over as performance director, Great Britain had finished fifth during the world championships. This was not too bad from a country that has little snow and limited numbers of tracks. However, Gary saw several areas that could be improved and took analytical logic to address them.
One of the main issues that Gary faced was the lack of budget in the team, with little money it was difficult to make any significant improvements to the team and the equipment being used. Therefore his first challenge was to persuade the National Lottery Fund and UK Sport to put more money into the sport.
Noticing that success at youth level is likely to improve this, the team concentrated on the under 21 championships.
In order to improve this level to a significant degree Gary was forced to fire many of the existing members of the team and bring in specialists from other countries who had a proven track record of success. The merits of this move went beyond simply improving the coaching though, as each of the coaches who came in could bring with them data and baseline requirements from their respective teams. This move allowed the under 21 team to not only improve, but win the world championships.
This move prompted the increased budget that Gary needed in the senior team to take it to the level that he wanted to get to.
After this success Gary also made strategic partnerships with two of the leading companies currently working within aerodynamics, one of the most important factors within Bobsleigh. These were McLaren and BAE.
He also made the move to break the existing system of athlete recruitment. Traditionally Bobsleigh had relied on trial days in order to recruit new athletes, this system meant that there was only ever a small pool of people who had a previous interest in bobsleigh to get involved. This pool was too small for what Gary wanted to achieve however, so through taking an analytical approach and identifying the key areas that needed to be targeted, he put together a profile for the athletes that he wanted.
At this point it is worth noting that the most important aspect of any successful bobsleigh run is the start. The fastest team at the start of the run is likely to be the fastest to the bottom of the track. There are other factors, the effectiveness of the driver for instance, but this has been identified as the key area that is likely to give a team significant improvements. Therefore when look at the profile for the ideal athletes, Gary’s model mainly picked out rugby players and sprinters. These are the guys who have explosive acceleration combined with the strength required in bobsleigh.
The highest profile of the new athletes recruited was Craig Pickering, who was an olympic sprinter in Beijing in 2010. There were also a number of other sprinters chosen, one of the main criteria being an ability to run 100m in sub 10.2 seconds.
Many would question the wisdom in this move, given that sprinters are not natural bobsleigh competitors. To fast-track this, Gary put together a programme that converted athletes from other areas to becoming expert members of bobsleigh crews in 3-4 months. This relatively short turnaround has allowed him to bed in some of the fastest and most powerful runners in the UK to the team, allowing starts to be improved and giving them the best chance of a medal at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Aside from athletic performance there was another issue that was affecting the competitiveness of the team, the equipment.
The equipment being used when Gary first arrived at the team was 10 years old and often in poor condition. What he found was that the upkeep of the sleds was not at the level needed and given that the most important events were at the end of the season, by the time it got to these the sled were in far worse condition than at the beginning.
Despite the poor quality of the sleds at this point, the team, after Gary’s successful recruitment strategy, had begun to improve significantly and had arrived on the radar of competitors.
Traditionally other countries had been willing to sell equipment to the British team as they were not seen as a direct threat to medals in World Championships and Olympic games. After proving themselves to be contenders with their starts, this was no longer the case and when they asked Germany (traditionally the best sled makers) to sell them a new sled, they refused.
Many would see this as a hinderance, but with the support that Gary had from McLaren and BAE, this turned into an opportunity.
Utilising the technological knowhow of these two companies he set about creating new technologies and innovations to build a new sled, one that would not only be better than the old ones in the fleet, but better than those he had tried unsuccessfully to buy. McLaren being one of the leading performance car and Formula 1 manufacturers assisted with material choice and the building of the sled, BAE utilised their knowledge of plane design and the the testing facilities to create a sled built like an F1 car and tested like a fighter plane.
There were setbacks in this process, when the front bumpers, which had initially been an area which had seen significant improvements, needed to be changed in order to fit front facing cameras as part of new regulation. This was not the only area that had been improved though and Gary claims that throughout the last 2 years, there have been new technological breakthroughs that will see the team shave several hundredths of a second from their times.
These were originally going to be deployed at the 2018 olympics, but as the team were keen to utilise them in 2014, Gary saw an opportunity to incentivise early successes. He said to the team that if they became the fastest starters in the world, then he would allow them to use the technology in 2014. So after the recruitment process and the new sled, the team became the fastest starters in the world.
Therefore the ‘buried nuts’ of technology that Gary and his team have held back on are slowly being deployed during competitions and will be fully used only during the Olympics themselves. The idea behind these being that through covertly creating new technologies that are within the rules of bobsleigh, that they will gain significant advantages over their competitors. These are then hidden and utilised fully during competitions. Even at the competitions themselves there is an element of deception, as mechanics are told to cover what they are doing and work more obviously on parts that aren’t part of the technological innovations.
There has already been a leak of one of the innovations, which was a simple idea for helmet alignment. Here the team had a line drawn across the top of their helmet from front to back, allowing video technology to show if all members of the team were lined up correctly. This was later integrated into a clever design incorporating the British flag, but not until other teams had cottoned onto the same idea.
Given the amount of technology that others have not been able to emulate though, Gary believes that this new technology will give the team a 5/100ths second improvement and with the even newer sled ‘Sir Douglas’ being deployed momentarily, there is a real opportunity that through his use of analytics, scouting networks and technology that the British Bobsleigh team could realistically be in one of the three medal positions come February 2014.