The 2011 World Solar Challenge officially began on Sunday 16th October 2011. Unofficially, it began much earlier than that. It’s difficult to pinpoint when, and for each team it is different. The day the car is shipped away; the day it arrives; the day testing begins; the day the build begins; the day the design is finalised; the day the entry fee is paid; the day the decision is made to participate at all.
For us, I suppose, the race began the day it sank in that we would be able to get to Australia. For a while it was uncertain, and that uncertainty lost us a few good teammates. But once we realised we were going to make it – that’s when it started for us.
Officially, however, it started on Sunday 16th October 2011 and ended a week later, and that’s all most people see. That’s where the focus is, and the detail around the edges is lost. But detail is important. Look past the media reports, flashy videos and posed photos – you will see another world. In this world, details matter. Tiny details, like what currency your shipping company wants to be paid in, or what number you have to dial at what time in what time zone to actually connect to a human being at British Airways to complain about lost baggage.
In this world, everyone has details. Maybe it isn’t your stickers stranded in a foreign airport, but your battery, as happened with MIT. Make a small error on your customs documents and your battery (and motor controller!) may arrive safely but never be released to you: as Solaris, the team from Delhi, learned.
It’s the small details that end the race. So Solaris worked day and night to rewire their car to accept store-bought batteries, and cobbled together a substitute motor controller to get themselves back on the road (hence the rumours that they were actually living full-time in their crate). Michigan stepped in to donate spare cells to MIT, who then spent several nights building a new battery pack instead of sleeping.
A big part of the race is just making it through scrutineering, which, thankfully, we all did. Out here, it’s not just a challenge to cross the finish line, it’s a challenge to cross the start line. And it’s a proud moment. I will remember the brass band playing outside Government House in Darwin, as teams are sent off with a wave of the NT state flag: Chile, Germany, the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Turkey, Canada, Holland, Japan, Italy, Australia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Belgium, the US, the UK…it reminds you that all over the world are people like you, who care about this enough to put in two years’ work and to struggle through every kilometre of the 3000 that make up the distance. You feel proud.
Strangely enough, it’s not always the successes that make me feel proud: sometimes it’s the failures; the struggles. This was my second WSC and I have seen so much go wrong. For Twente, arriving in 2011 with a bold and beautiful design and taking pole position at the start, to break down only 10 minutes out of Darwin was a blow. It takes a slick team to assess and solve the problem as quickly as they did, and make up their lost time. On the first day we passed several early casualties, among them MIT, who had suffered a tyre failure. Their solid tyres were intended to be a boost to performance but instead broke into pieces not far along the road. And of course our own issues cropped up with the steering wheel: ten minutes before you’re about to start your first driving shift, the last words you want to hear are “I’ve lost power”. Although to be fair, Alisdair’s follow-up wasn’t much better: “We’ve found a way to drive the car…but you’re not going to like it”.
As it turned out, two steering wheels are only better than one if one is broken. And even then it’s a close thing.
However, having been stuck at the side of the road outside Katherine for much longer in 2009, this was a great improvement and we were keen to push on. Other teams had even bigger setbacks: Solaris fell foul of the winds that destroyed Umicore in 2009, and lost both their canopy and a panel from their array.
So the long, hot days went on: at each control stop we rushed to look at the leaderboard to see if there was anything unexpected – good or bad. Most of the time it was unchanged: Tokai, Nuon and Michigan leading, with the only drama derived from working out how close together they were. Nuon gaining 4 minutes on Tokai; Michigan dropping an hour behind! More exciting was the performance of the Ashiya team from Japan who over the course of three days pushed their way past Apollo, Aurora and Twente into 4th place. More shocking was passing Apollo on the side of the road outside Tennant Creek, where they had hit a cattle grid too hard and destroyed their suspension. More amazing that they had it fixed within four hours and were rushing to get back their position.
Of course, the landscape was slightly less benign than usual, having caught fire, and the hold-up at Tennant Creek caused its own problems. The Philippine battery went the way of the rest of the bush and incinerated itself. That they managed to continue racing is incredible and speaks to the wisdom of having all teams submit detailed safety and chemical contingency plans before racing. It also speaks to the skill of their engineers, who must have had an immense job checking the electrical systems and installing the new battery. The replacement of so many cells also incurred a massive time penalty.
As the haze from the bushfires began to blur out the sun, many teams struggled to drive and were forced back on to their trailers. We were lucky, but only until Ti Tree, where the battery went on the blink again. The next day, it was the turn of the radios as my microphone decided to switch itself permanently on, blotting out all other communication with its scratchy noise. It was definitely a sight to watch the chase car pull alongside Endeavour with a huge sign reading CHECK MIC!! It was also a bit of a struggle trying to fix my own radio inside a slightly wobbly solar car without veering in front of anything, but eventually I disconnected the handsfree kit and wedged the radio into my helmet strap. Fun times. I was glad of a break as I pulled into the Kulgera control stop, and fell asleep until I woke up in South Australia and it was raining. You all know what happened.
On the last day Alisdair’s stubbornness apparently won over meteorology, and we had a patch of clear sky that we shared with MIT and Eclipse, huddled together in a remote parking lot in the Painted Desert. All three teams shared their stories of the race as one lone Montreal guitarist sat on his trailer and sang songs about their journey across the continent.
As we reached Adelaide, more stories began to filter in. Umicore had worked their way past Ashiya and Twente only for their battery pack to catch fire, two hundred kilometres from the end of the race. Undaunted, they waited until they were declared safe to race and then pushed on, their driver jumping in the car straight out of hospital where he had been treated for smoke inhalation.
We crossed the finish line on the last day, and we watched as the last few teams followed us into Victoria Square to have their moment in the fountain. That night, at the awards ceremony, the usual speech was given, lauding all participants in the event, who made the journey across the continent. And yet, when we went back into the world, and looked at the publicity, and the media, and the promotional videos – it was all about the top three. And it was a shame, because I realised that this race above all others is not about the teams that win: it’s about the teams that don’t.
It’s about the teams who build a car with a budget of US$10,000, lose their battery and motor controller and yet are dedicated enough to get up and running nonetheless. It’s about the teams who fight for fourth place, behind the impossible-to-reach Big Three. It’s about the teams who catch fire and still keep going. It’s about the teams who eat away slowly but surely at each kilometre, who know before they start that they will never finish but try anyway. It’s about the teams who don’t see an eighteen-month sabbatical as a sacrifice, but as a luxury.
The World Solar Challenge is full of untold, unheard stories, dissolved in the unseen details. Behind the high tech, high performance, glistening exterior of the best teams is another world, and a different adventure: one that is incredible not because it is easy, but because it is hard. That is the adventure that I will remember: frozen in the image of a solar car crawling along the Stuart Highway at 30 kph, refusing to give up, while all around it, rain falls in the desert.