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The U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team: Brought to You by BMW

Why does Germany lead the medal race at the Winter Olympics? Engineering.


Here’s a tip: In Sochi, watch out for the little sled.

Thanks to designers at BMW, the United States bobsled team is going to the Winter Olympics with its smallest, sleekest two-man sled ever — and, with pilot Steven Holcomb and pushman Steven Langton, at least one clear favorite to win gold.

“It’s a very efficient, almost diminutive package,” said lead designer Michael Scully.

That could make the crucial difference.

If the Summer Olympics is about raw athleticism, the Winter Games are all about engineering.

That’s why Germany had won four straight Olympic golds in the four-man bobsled race going into the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver — where Holcomb piloted the US team to victory. It’s why the Germans have won three straight golds in the two-man event, where an American hasn’t stood atop the podium since 1936. And it’s why, this year, Holcomb will be driving a BMW.

The key to Germany’s success is a secretive little Berlin outfit called the Institute for Research and Development of Sport Equipment, where engineers beaver away at bobsled runners, speed skates and luges with the aid of state funding.

Like a football quarterback treating his offensive linemen to Rolexes, four-time bobsled gold medalist Andre Lang invites the nerds to his house for barbecues.

This year, BMW is hoping the cookout moves from Berlin to Park City, Utah — Holcomb’s hometown.

Schooled in building race cars, the engineers developed 69 iterations of the design before creating the first prototype, and took that through another 78 iterations after seeing how it performed in a wind tunnel, Scully said.

They honed the sled further so the team can climb into their seats faster after the crucial “push” that starts the run.

And they used special carbon fiber materials developed for the company’s lightweight electric cars to slash the overall weight of the sled.

That might seem counterintuitive, since regulations require every bobsled to weigh in at 170 kilograms (374 pounds). But reducing the weight of the sled’s fixed parts allows the athletes to shift ballast forward and backward according to the demands of the course, Scully explained.

Together with the smaller overall profile, that makes the sled more maneuverable — like a sports car on the hairpin turns of the Alps.

“We tried to really centralize the mass of the sled. That was dictated because the course is so circuitous, and the sled is constantly changing direction,” Scully said.

So far, the design looks to be paying off. Holcomb won the two-man bobsled world championship for the second time this year and comes into Sochi favored to win.

But the bobsled championship is based on cumulative results, a bit like Formula One car racing. The odds-on favorite for Sochi backed into the victory with only a seventh place finish at the season finale in Konigssee, Germany, last month.

“The results of the [bobsledding World Championship] are something that we’re very proud of,” Scully said. “[But] the Olympics are the pinnacle of a sport like this.”