A road race like no other, the World Solar Challenge teams traverse more than 3,000 kilometres of the Stewart Highway from Darwin to Adelaide, in cars powered only by a blazing G-type main-sequence star 149,600,000 km away.
It’s been a gruelling ten days of filming, with heat and the power of that g-type star fuelling forward motion yet at the same time sapping a ton of energy from this not so efficient bio battery. The World Solar Challenge is a very different kind of road ‘race’. I’ve used the dreaded quotation marks as the organisers don’t like the event to be called as such, which says a lot about what makes the challenge so interesting.
Don’t be confused though, it’s certainly competitive; part endurance test, part electrochemical pressure cooker, and with a big dose of engineering innovation required, it’s been a fascinating look at where this technology is going and how far away we might be from the sun powered four door family sedan.
The event starts out in Darwin with scruitneering, where each team’s vehicles are inspected in infinitesimal detail to make sure they comply with the requirements of the class they’re entering. Then it’s a day of racing at the Hidden Valley Raceway for pole position before setting off into the heat and beginning the trial of photovoltaic endurance.
Those cars that resemble the manufacturers concept cars of the future are those in the ‘Challenger Class’ described in the official material as “Visually stunning – slick, single seat aerodynamic masterpieces built for sustained endurance and total energy efficiency” – ooooh yeah! There were plenty of these four wheeled wagons of silent speed – the Dutch had a couple of entries that had placed in the top three in previous competitions as did the Japanese. It’s fair to say there was a healthy air of rivalry at the Hidden Valley Raceway this year.
At the other end of the classes are the ‘Adventure Class’, for teams with vehicles built for previous events to return. Three wheeled vehicles usually with new team members, “for the adventure of crossing the continent on the silent power of nature”. The Tushka Hashi team (Sun Warrior in the Choctaw Language) were the first all Native American Indian (High School) team to compete in this class.
Winner of pole position for the Challenger Class and fastest car outright on the qualifying day was the Queensland based and Aussie-built ‘Arrow 1’ car, a team running on a shoe-string budget with a mix of professional engineers and students, whose hard work paid off in the end. They came in as the first Australian team to cross the finish line in Adelaide (7th overall).
I have to be honest, as an interloper from the land of the long white cloud (NZ) I did have my hopes pinned on the University of Waikato’s HybridAuto or ‘UltraCommuter’. With no solar panels on the actual vehicle, the team’s aim was to explore the possibility of practical long range battery electric cars. Pioneering the EVolution Class, the team was hoping to drive the UltraCommuter 500km per day, at over 90km/h, with only one stop for a ‘top-up’ charge from mains electricity. Unfortunately there were mechanical issues and the team had to withdraw…but we’ll be back 2015 (you can’t keep a good Kiwi down).
Much of the real interest this year though was on a completely new class of vehicle. The ‘Cruiser Class’. The real goal of this new class is not speed but practicality, with the ultimate goal of an entrant being able to meet the requirements for road registration in the country of origin. Teams are scored according to their energy consumption and the subjective element of ‘practicality’, including how many people the vehicle can carry. An early favorite to win the Cruiser category was Team Eindhoven in their ‘Stella’, a four wheeled, four seater, that managed to come in second fastest at the qualifying day, ahead of many of the Challenger Class vehicles. Here’s Tracy reporting from the event’s first official race day with the Eindhoven ‘Stella’ waiting to cross the start line.
Once we were out on the road and apart from the heat, flys and road-trains we also had to contend with the apparent silent spectre of extra terrestrial interference. My theory is that they’re keeping an eye on us (perhaps several eyes) to make sure we don’t come up with anything that might actually dig us out of the ecological train-wreck we seem to be heading towards.
While we were filming primarily for the online market, there was some thought that the footage might be used for a documentary in the lead up to the next Solar Challenge. To get past the European Broadcast Union’s requirements for footage to be recorded at the 50 Mb/s mark we recorded SDI out into an Atomos Samurai Blade external recorder, kindly supplied by Pete Hall at UrbanCine. While I have to admit that I was a little nervous about running an external recorder for the amount of hours and the conditions we were filming in, I have to say it was a completely solid and reliable piece of equipment. The unit triggered through the SDI connection as I buttoned on and off and seemed to last a whole day on two Canon LP-e6 batteries. Not only did it give us great looking footage but it also allowed us to have immediate access to the Quicktime files as soon as we had finished shooting, for editing purposes.
Thanks to Justin at RedBikini for all the preparation of the FJ Cruiser to make sure we had enough power and fuel to get us across the continent. A special note of thanks to Tracey Kotzee for putting up with my twisted sense of humour and for being such a legend powering through each day and a big bucket of gratitude to Dani Tinker at Red Bikini for helping us get over the finishing line at the end of the event. See you all again for the next one in 2015!
For a look at what it was like out on the Stewart Highway, check out this report filmed with the Nuna team, eventual winners of this years challenge.