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Tokyo factories seek bobsled win in 2014 Winter Olympics
Even before the curtain fell on the London Games, Junichi Hosogai was dreaming of bobsled glory at the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia.

A small business owner in Tokyo's Ota Ward, Hosogai himself won't be taking to the ice, but if his "Shitamachi Bobsled" project is successful, he will help provide the sled for the Japan team, as well as hope for Tokyo's ailing factories.

"This could show people how well we make things here in Ota Ward," Hosogai said. The 46-year-old president of Material, which performs precision metal processing, began recruiting colleagues last fall in hopes of tackling a development project as a joint effort. But even after joining forces, there was a limit to their collective financial muscle, and the factories were unable to finance any major projects on their own.

Thus, the Shitamachi Bobsled project was born.

The factory managers set their sights on the bobsled event as a way to showcase their metalworking expertise and as a testing run for working with new high-tech materials. The sleds have relatively few parts, about 200 in total, many of which, including the runners and frame, are metal.

In late July, 10 or so of the factory managers visited the "Spiral," the bobsled track used in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. There, they inspected the latest German-made sleds the city bought last year, carefully measuring individual parts one at a time and taking X-rays of the frames to examine the materials used to build them.

"The work is more elaborate than I thought," one of the managers said.

The group plans to draw up their own bobsled designs based on their research and start construction in mid-August, with each factory handling certain parts. In fall, they will send a completed prototype down the Spiral on a series of test runs. Development costs will be around 30 million yen ($382,000). The group says it is receiving donations from large companies in addition to a subsidy from Ota Ward.

And while athletic success is one aim, the group has bigger goals in mind.

Because the outer layer of the group's bobsled will use carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), a strong state-of-the-art material that is lighter than steel used to build aircraft, the group hopes it will prove a useful training exercise for future projects.

"We can acquire the knowledge we need to enter the aircraft industry by developing this bobsled," Hosogai said.

With overseas competition decimating the Japanese manufacturing industry, Hosogai said he felt compelled to take action.

"The time when you could just sit around and wait for the work to roll in is over. And it'll only get gradually worse if we don't take the initiative," said Hosogai with conviction.

In addition to five small to medium-sized enterprises with factories in Ota Ward, the group also includes Dome, a company based in Maibara, Shiga Prefecture, that builds race cars. The group has also enlisted the help of Takahisa Kato, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Engineering and an expert on the subject of friction.

The Shitamachi Bobsled project is also getting a competitor's perspective from Toshio Wakita, 47, a former bobsledder who lives in Ota Ward.

Bobsleds glide down an icy track at speeds of around 130 kph. And while victory also depends on the crew's skill, such as how fast they run before jumping into the bobsled, the sled's performance also matters.

Wakita, who appeared in four consecutive Olympic Games beginning with the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, reflected on the importance of the right equipment.

"Bobsledding is as competitive a sport as Formula One auto racing. The way the air passes over a strong team's sled just sounds different."

With their countries' pride on the line at international competitions, powerful teams take it on themselves to stay at the forefront of bobsled development. The Italian team works with scientists and engineers from Ferrari, the Germans with BMW and the Americans with NASA. Teams use high-tech methods, including placing sensors on their sleds to collect data, to develop cutting-edge equipment.

Meanwhile in Japan, bobsledding is not as well-known a sport as in other countries, and few Japanese compete in it. There are no major domestic manufacturers that develop competition bobsleds. Japanese teams only buy commercially available Italian and German sleds, and there seems to be a limit to how far they can be modified to run faster.

So can a late-comer produce a winner with a domestically built bobsled? These small factories will have to put up a tough fight against the likes of major foreign automakers, but Hosogai is eager to meet the challenge.

"Small factories are very flexible. I want to run our prototype through test runs and build a sled that suits a Japanese person's frame."

Along with the country's top athletes, Japan's skilled workers will put their talent on display at the Sochi Olympics.