Known locally as ‘the track’. It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the southern hemisphere

Jeremy Taylor reports on the non-octane World Solar Challenge

Humans also welcome. The sign outside Wycliffe Well has cracked in the heat, but the alien shape extends a withered hand of friendship. The outback town is 220 miles north of Alice Springs and survives mainly on a reputation for extraterrestrial sightings. It’s early October now and with temperatures touching 40C, you could forgive the locals for allowing the unrelenting sunshine to cloud their judgement.

Today however, it looks as if aliens really have landed for speeding by on a 26-mile straight of road, comes a succession of space-age cars. Each is shaped like a rectangular tea-tray, with a single glass canopy atop housing a helmeted figure. They glide silently past at 75mph, racing under the glare of a sun that is also powering them across the desert.

Futuristic cars like these, made of aircraft grade composites and NASA technology, are usually the domain of Formula One. Yet once every two years, 42 teams from 23 countries converge on this inhospitable region of Australia for the wackiest road race on the planet. I have flown over to join to report on the race and take a closer look at these eco-friendly Mad Max cars.

The 1,800-mile race follows the notorious Stuart Highway from Darwin to Adelaide, a route known locally as ‘the track’. It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the southern hemisphere and connects a string of oddball towns like Wycliffe that somehow scratch a living beside the tarmac.

A key event in the no-octane world of motorsport, the World Solar Challenge is hugely competitive. Rivalry is so intense that some of the major teams arrive in Australia a month early to begin their preparations, testing odd-shaped cars in the most gruelling of conditions. They tweak their solar components to suit the intense heat and experience at first hand the dangers of driving in the outback.

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Arctan designed by the students from Stanford University speeds through the desert

Stood by the roadside in Wycliffe, I’m starting to understand why the challenge is as much as test of endurance as it is about technology. The carcass of a kangaroo is rotting at my feet and I’ve counted six dead cattle already this morning. And as well as the threat of dehydration, five of the world’s deadliest snakes and giant mosquitos to contend with, the drivers have something and something far, far worse to deal with – Road trains. The Stuart Highway is home to the biggest lorries I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Road trains are four-trailer trucks that blast country and western through the desert with the cruise control set at 70mph. Even travelling in a normal saloon they’re intimidating but the wind displacement can punch a lightweight, solar car clean off the road. Why would anybody want to race here?

Three days earlier I’m in Darwin as the teams prepare for their marathon journey. The city is described by Lonely Planet as the end of the road for lost souls, remote and notoriously hard to reach. And although it has been flattened twice, once by the Japanese in 1942 and again by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, Darwin does have plenty of something every solar race needs – sunshine, lots of sunshine.

Event director, Chris Selwood, explained the ethos: “These are the bright young kids of the world who are dedicated to doing something that makes a difference. The solar know-how we have gathered here is staggering – it’s way beyond what any car manufacturer has ever utilized. Obviously the more funding a team can raise the better their chances, but the rules are very strict. Every entry has to conform to set criteria before they even cross the start line.”

The World Solar Challenge has been a trailblazer for sun-powered transport since the first event in 1987. Next’s year’s race will be a 30th anniversary spectacular. It was inspired by the adventures of Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins, who drove their home-built solar car from Perth to Sydney in 1982. That inaugural race from Darwin to Adelaide was won by GM’s Sunraycer, covering the distance in 45 hours, at an average speed of 42mph.

Selwood admits the one surprising absence is the lack of motor manufacturer sponsorship. “There’s no doubt that solar power could have a practical application in production cars – we’ve seen it with the solar roof on the Toyota Prius. Electric cars charged at home from solar panels on a garage roof are already a very sound proposition.”

With 11 hours of sunshine a day in the outback, the Challenge cars could in theory continue throughout the night on energy stored in their onboard batteries. However, the very real danger of wildlife on the road means driving time is restricted to a nine-hour window from 8am to 5pm. Cars are also only allowed to start the race with a minimal 5kW of stored energy, or around 10 per cent of total capacity.

“They have to travel as far as they can until 5pm, when they are forced to pull over and camp at the roadside. Some of the lead cars will cover 450 miles, with a couple of compulsory 30-minute stops along the way.  They start the day running solely on stored energy but by mid-afternoon, the cars will be saving energy as well as using it,” said Selwood.

Most of the cars entered in the 2015 event were single-seaters in the elite Challenger Class. The Adventure Class allowed vehicles from previous races to return and enjoy a more ‘leisurely’ race, while the Cruiser Class was for more practical cars that could carry more than one passenger.

The race start in Darwin’s State Square is one of the most unusual spectacles in motorsport. There are no wheelspins, no pit lane blondes and, of course, absolutely no roar from the exhaust pipes. A polite round of applause from several thousand bemused onlookers sends each vehicle on its way, with a 15-piece orchestra playing in the background.

For the next 1,800 miles there’s little chance of human contact along the way. The World Solar Challenge is truly a spectacle that could have beamed down from outer space…

DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: Nuna8 of Nuon Solar Team Netherlands races between Katherine and Dunmarra in the Challenger Class during day one of the 2015 World Solar Challenge on October 18, 2015 in Dunmarra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challange)
Racing home to victory – Nuna8 of the Netherlands. Photography by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for The World Solar Challenge

* The 2015 event was won by Delft University of Holland, with the Nuna 8 car averaging 57mph. Houston High School took the Adventure Class title, and Eindhoven University won the Cruiser Class.

The next World Solar Challenge will take place in October 2017, date to be confirmed. Visit worldsolarchallenge.org

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