Racing the sun

Behind the scenes of the World Solar Challenge with 2015 Project Director Hayden Smith

It's 1:30pm on day three. We're 1,200km south of Darwin and it’s time for a pit stop at Barrow Creek - a small roadhouse selling petrol and pies in the middle of the desert. Our lead cars pull in, our solar car – the beautiful eVefollows, and our rear vehicles finish the procession.

From the moment eVe’s handbrake is on, the clock starts ticking – our 30 minute "control stop" begins. We have half an hour to change drivers, refuel, restock food, refill water, and charge eVe’s batteries from the sun. 

From around the world

Teams from Hong Kong and Turkey have pulled into the roadhouse at the same time, so there are dozens of people queuing for the substandard, leaking, and barely-private toilet. We run around like ants trying to find potable water to prepare ourselves for the night ahead in the dark abyss of the desert. With everyone swapping cars and seats – all sorts of paraphernalia, including sandwiches, muesli bars, and water bottles, fly through open windows, bouncing about on the front and back seats.

Only 10 minutes until we move off.

Half the team settle into their seats, preparing for the hours of racing ahead. The rest remain outside, filling tanks and barking commands into radios with little regard for those already speaking, pointing and directing the action! eVe’s driver scuttles back towards the solar car, clips on their helmet and prepares for four hours of driving in the hot seat. Literally. Temperatures are exceeding 45 degrees Celsius!

With only a couple of minutes to go, fewer voices hail through the radio, yet the sharpness and urgency rise. A team member strafes around the car, waving flies out of their eyes as they make the final call that the car is ready to go. The lead cars pull onto the highway and shoot off into the distance, beginning their scout kilometres ahead. The final team member enters the car, slamming the roller door shut behind them, leaving a softer silence inside the rear escort vehicle. Our core engineers exchange decisive nods. A breathless, assertive voice calls over the radio.

The Sunswift team catches up with Kenny the plumber (Shane Jacobson)

"Solar car, go!"

eVe lets out a soft electric groan and takes off towards the highway, kicking up dust and small clumps of soil in her wake. The fleet follows, merging onto the Stuart Highway, southbound.

Seconds later, a road train thunders past in the opposite direction. Longer than an Olympic swimming pool and travelling at 110km/h, it causes a gust of wind so strong that eVe jerks half a metre to the left.

"Solar car. Set a new speed of sixty seven. I repeat, six - seven."

The instructions are clear and stern. From the viewpoint of the rear escort car, eVe suddenly and momentously opens the gap as she reaches her cruising speed.

Within minutes we’re back in the flow of real traffic. Cars fly past, overtaking and weaving between our convoy. Seconds later, a road train thunders past in the opposite direction. Longer than an Olympic swimming pool and travelling at 110km/h, it causes a gust of wind so strong that eVe jerks half a metre to the left – then half a metre to the right.

The day starts to wane. There are only a few hours left before we hit Alice Springs so we settle into a calm rhythm and drive on towards the scorching sun. 

-     Hayden Smith, 2015 Sunswift Project Director

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