Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/10/15/wsc_update/

World Solar combatants rev their engines batteries

We who are about to drive salute you

By Lester Haines

Posted in SPB, 15th October 2011 14:21 GMT

WSC The heat is rising here in the capital of Oz's Northern Territory ahead of tomorrow's starting flag of the World Solar Challenge.

El Reg's Special Projects Bureau is here braving improbable humidity, Oz beer and internet connection shenanigans to bring you the very latest on the world's leading heliowheels, but at 8:30am tomorrow we have to head off to the Outback for our own 3000km odyssey to Adelaide. So if this the last you hear of us we've either a) been killed in a collision with a kangaroo, or b) just got pissed off with the interwebs and decided to go Walkabout™.

Before we go, we'd like to bring you a bit more info about just how this thing works.

First up, we'll cover the rule change that has made the World Solar Challenge the most competitive race in years. Also we will cover some more of the contenders. Over the last couple of days, we've hooked up with Durham Uni and their admirably low-budget wheels - but here we'll have a shufti at some of the big swinging dicks.

According to race pundits, nine or ten teams are vying to win the race, including three "superstar" contenders: Nuon from the Netherlands, Tokai of Japan, and the University of Michigan, from, er, Michigan. The other contestants are here for different reasons - for the experience, the adventure. Their biggest challenge is to complete the course under their own steam, and that is a big ask. Event director Chris Selwood expects that just 30 per cent of the 39 contenders will reach the finish line without hitching a ride on a supporting trailer.

In it to win it

Due to race changes implemented this year, the frontrunners have mostly opted to use the same kind of solar array, sourced from one US company.

Until six years ago, teams were allowed to run on 8m sq of gallium arsenide arrays. These are very expensive and in real life are used only in outer space, unlike the silicon solar arrays that you can, say, find on houses.

Trouble is, this race is on the public highway and the cars were in danger of breaking speed limits (introduced at 130 kph a few years ago in NT and a feeble 110 kph in South Australia). On a practical note, the support vehicles mandated by law, one in the front and one behind the solarcar, had trouble keeping up with their charge. So rules were changed in 2009 to reduce solar coverage on the vehicles to 6sq m. The net effect of this was to reduce the energy to the cars by a mere four per cent, thanks to technological advances.

So the race organisers had another rethink and, instead of banning gallium altogether, ordained that such arrays were allowed a maximum of 3m sq. This prompted the most competitive teams to move en masse to silicon arrays - and mostly to silicon arrays supplied by the same company.

All the teams we spoke to have hailed this rule change, which has levelled the playing field. Ok, so it has levelled the playing field for the favourites. The solar arrays du jour remain prohibitively expensive for most of the players.

So let's talk about the superstars.

Drag the dead donkey

First up, beware the Japanese of Tokai University, who took the title in 2009 and are back to defend their crown with an impressively sleek solar beast. We asked Kenjiro Shinozuka (pictured, below), what made the difference between success and failure in a high-stakes solar race.

Kenjiro Shinozuka of Tokai University

He told us: "This year the organisers changed the regulations. We can't use more powerful panels, and everyone is using silicon. This has levelled the playing field. So nine or ten teams have almost the same performance. The most important day is tomorrow: the first day. If anyone makes a small mistake it could be come a big problem."

Pitched against the might of Japan is the University of Michigan, whose truly tremendous trailer has raised a few eyebrows here in Darwin. Pilot Troy Halm (pictured) said the World Solar Challenge is the world's most competitive solarcar endurance event and that the team is here to win the race, after ending in third place a frustrating three times in a row.

Troy Halm of the University of Michigan

The Michigan car is performing "very, very well," he says. "We have spent countless hours in optimizing the car. It is extremely light and extraordinarily efficient."

Regarding the trailer, he laughed and invited us to take a look see. You can see the interior in our upcoming vid, but suffice to say, it's the USS Nimitz on wheels. In fact it is almost as big as a U2 green room trailer.

No matter how big your trailer, you've still got to beat the Dutch, in the form of Nuon and their Nuna6. The five-times champions are back in Australia to regain their crown, and although we missed their car trials down at the Hidden Valley Motor Sport Complex track, we were able to catch up with some of the team experts at their luxury apartment complex close to the centre of Darwin.

Willem Zwetsloot (pictured right, below, with, Mike Hoogstraten centre, and Noud Brasjen) declared: "We want the title back, so the pressure is on again. Our focus this year is on the reliability of the car. In previous years we have seen many cars breaking down and that is costly. We are battling very hard for first place and we see Tokai and Michigan as the big contenders. But many other teams experienced in the silicon class are here - we will see what happens."

Nuon team members pose for the camera

The Heart of Lightness

The front page of today's newstastic NT NewsWe will indeed. Tomorrow, teams and media will assemble in the centre of Darwin for a quick photo call before heading off into the dusty heart of Oz. Expect updates as and when conditions allow, and for our bootnotes fans, I leave you with today's front page of the NT News, which leads with the quite remarkable story of the 13-year-old lad who was not unreasonably pulled by the local Boys in Blue while towing a donkey carcass behind a 4x4.

This being Oz, he also had a firearm on the passenger seat, although he mercifully wasn't cracking one off and toking on a fat spliff when officers swooped.

As of right now, we have two heartfelt wishes: to arrive safe and sound in Adelaide; and if we do perish on the highway, not to feature on the front page of the NT News. Check our Twitter thingy to see if we're still alive, and therefore, non-newsworthy. ®