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How Bobsledding Works

By: Tracy V. Wilson & Patrick J. Kiger  | 

The Physics of Bobsledding

bobsledding
The German team competes in 2-man bobsled during the IBSF Bobsleigh International Sanctioned Race, part of a 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games test event, at the Yanqing National Sliding Center in Beijing Oct. 25, 2021. WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

What determines who wins a bobsled race? Basically, it comes down to physics. Victorious competitors are the ones who are most successful at maximizing acceleration of their sleds at the start of the run, and then minimizing other forces that tend to slow down the sled. But accomplishing that takes a combination of good equipment and a skilled team [source: Osborn].

Winning a bobsled race starts long before the push-off stretch — it starts with the design of a fast, efficient bobsled with good aerodynamics, so that it minimizes the resistance of the air. A bobsled design is tested in wind tunnels, adjusted and then tested again, in order to minimize the air drag [source: Osborn].

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There's also the challenge of maximizing acceleration, which is dependent upon how weight is distributed on a sled by the design. Bobsled makers utilize lightweight carbon fiber in the shell, so that the weight is shifted to the lower part of the sled. That also enables the sled to handle turns better [source: Osborn].

Another crucial part of minimizing the forces that slow down a sled are the runners, the metal blades that ride on the ice surface. They're coated and polished to reduce the amount of friction [source: Osborn].

While a well-designed sled is essential, the biggest factor in the equation is the team itself. All of the competing teams have a standard amount of mass, so the amount of force is that a particular team generates makes the difference. Good runners are able to push the sled faster than slower ones, which is one reason why some teams recruit track sprinters to do the pushing. Because the team only gets a chance to push at the start of the race, a good team can build an advantage that will last to the finish [source: Osborn].

In the course of their race, thought, it's important for a team to conserve their acceleration. That's why the push athletes position themselves in a tight tuck behind the driver, in order to create as little drag as possible. They also shift their weight to help the driver steer [source: Osborn].

In the end, all of these physical forces and athletes' actions lead to a very tight race. Often, the winning team's time is only a few hundredths of a second faster than that of the second-place team.

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