ABOVE: Promotion for this year’s World Solar Challenge.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Alice Springs will again be in the centre of the 3000 km World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide, starting in two weeks, witnessed an expected global audience of 25 million.
It will be the 14th race, with 50 entries from around the world, 30 years after the first event which had just 20 cars.
The challenge, held every two years, has generated more than 400 industry partnerships across energy, automotive, engineering, financial, material sciences and information and communications technology sectors, say the organisers.
Close to 10,000 competitors have participated. In the challenger class this year, 31 high-tech, high speed machines, from 21 countries will attempt to outpace Dutch champions Nuon Solar Team who have dominated the event in all but two challenges since 2001.
Swashbuckling adventurer Hans Tholstrup (pictured), the founder of the event, has been fascinated by the sun-drenched Central Australia for decades, crossing it in several directions in car testing and record events, and traversing the Simpson Desert on foot.
“The solar car challenge is a brain sport,” he says. But while top athletes make millions, the solar energy development “is not for money. It is for the future.”
Before oil dries up “we must work on the renewables and new ideas. No politician nor tax will fix this. Only ideas and a gentle movement away from finite fossil fuel will do this.
“If we allow dramatic and silly movements in the energy sector we will destroy our economy.
“It is fantastic that a Dutch university was able to break the ton. As kids we looked forward to do that in a car. Mind you the ton was miles per hour.
“Think about it, a human being drove from Darwin to Adelaide at an average speed over 100 km/h on just sunshine.
“We’ve come a long way from my first solar car. Its average speed was 23 km/h across Australia,” says Mr Tholstrup.
“No, the World Solar Challenge will not turn lead in to gold. But it is a great brain sport that will give industry better engineers, more efficient engineering.
“The most important part of this brain sport is the challenge of feeding the billions born because oil provided cheap and plentiful food.
“It takes 19 kilojoules of oil to get every joule onto our plate. So how do we feed the world after oil? That is the question and real reason for this great event.”
Writer Marcus McInnes says the Solar Challenge story starts with Tholstrup’s Quiet Achiever solar prototype in 1982, which led him to create the first challenge in 1987.
He writes: “The product of dysfunctional but privileged family childhood and barely out his teens, Hans hitch-hiked to Australia with a pistol and US$100.
AT RIGHT: A competitor in the 2015 race.
“Arriving Darwin in the middle sixties he worked as buffalo shooter, camp cook, road train driver and miner for several years. In the late sixties he came to Sydney to work in an office but his adventurous spirit was overwhelming.
“In 1970 he achieved fame with the first circumnavigation Australia in a small outboard motor boat.
“He set offshore speedboat records including one between Sydney to Newcastle, drove an 8ft outboard ‘Tom Thumb’ to re-enact Bass’s expeditions, and drove an outboard across the Atlantic and between Darwin and Japan.
“He rode motor bikes and drove cars around the world, and across the centre of Australia, drove in rallies, competed in several Bathursts, finishing 12th in a GT Falcon, set Cape to Cape records through South Africa, drove the London Sydney Rally in a Mini Moke.
“In 1975 Hans went to America, bought a little aircraft [a two seater Piper], learned to fly and with just 40 hours experience set off to fly around the world solo.”
The mid 70s oil crisis prompted him to focus on fuel efficiency and with rally director Tom Snooks organised the Wynns Safari, Australia’s first high profile off road rally in 1985.
In late 1982 Tholstrup’s Solar Trek became the first vehicle to make it from Perth to Sydney purely on solar power, a news story around the world, and 12 months later an eight-page story in National Geographic reached a huge global audience.
“For the first Solar Challenge the Stuart Highway highway was still only 12 foot wide for nearly 700 km,” writes Mr McInnes.
“There would be high humidity and temperature fluctuations. We charted the whole route, noting the sparse population, lack of accommodation, frequency of wheel shattering cattle grids, 67 counted, and identified possible overnight camps and unobstructed solar charging areas.
“We introduced a scout car to run ahead to observe weather, clear debris, road kill, shredded truck tyres and metal pieces, assess unexpected changes in road conditions and set up media stops.
“About this time Hans became uneasy about affiliating the event with CAMS and the influence of its global parent, the FIA.
“They knew little about solar cars and Hans wanted to have complete control of the conduct of the event without the possibility of interference of motor sport administrators. Hans may be eccentric but he lives by an almost nineteenth century code of honour and ethics.
“At the last minute he was able to secure sponsorship from the Japanese company Pentax.
“Meanwhile I was busy planning logistics and communications [including] a completely independent service facility on wheels.
“The race rules were simple: The battery must be charged by the sun, travel was allowed between 8am and 5pm. Solar cells were covered between 5pm and 7am. Accommodation down the Stuart was limited and we had to find an overnight stop within 10 minutes of 5pm.
“Communications down the Stuart Highway posed problems, there were no cell phone facilities in 1987, and fixed line phones were several hundred kilometres apart in The Centre.
“Short wave radio was used vehicle to vehicle but it was little more than line of sight. HF radio in the Top End was subject to sunspot interference. TV images could only be transmitted from Darwin and a limited facility in Alice Springs.
“I organised the Overseas Telecommunications satellite transmission semi trailer to enable TV teams to send vision on the road.”
On race day, the General Motors built Sunraycer, the fastest qualifier, streaked away from the start with the spectacular Mana La in hot pursuit, writes Mr McInnes.
“The rest is history. Sunraycer finished day one 519 km down the track, 116km ahead of second placed Biel with Ford team a further 17km back. Mana La depleted their batteries while in second place and was unable to continue.
“Sunraycer more than doubled that lead on day two and managed to stay ahead of the weather which severely slowed rest of the field.
“They reached Adelaide more than two days ahead of the Ford team and the Swiss team Biel who had the misfortune of damaging their car in an accident in an Alice Springs media stop area.
“Nicknamed the Flying Cockroach by Australian journalists the car covered the distance in 44 hours and 54 minutes, traveling at an average speed of 41 miles per hour. Including overnight stopovers, the entire trip from Darwin to Adelaide, along a desolate two-lane highway, took five and a half days.
“Hans sold the World Solar Challenge event to the South Australian Tourist Bureau in 1999 and the event has been conducted every two years continuously since.
“The WSC remains the world’s premier solar car competition, has evolved into several classes and is also a Tesla recruiting ground.”