Solar Team Eindhoven takes the lead in Australia after disappointing start

After two days of racing, Solar Team Eindhoven has taken the lead in the Cruiser class of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. This has been achieved in spite of the disappointment the TU/e crew had to deal with on Sunday morning (Australian time), shortly after the start: at the foot of a hill in a traffic jam in Darwin, the solar family car Stella Era came to a complete standstill and couldn't tackle the incline. The team felt they had no choice but to 'jettison' three passengers, a move that would cost them points in the first stage.

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photo Bart van Overbeeke

The teams have over three thousand kilometers ahead of them as the starting gun sounds on Sunday morning in Darwin. The destination is familiar: Adelaide. Whereas it is a straightforward matter to finish first in the fast Challenger class, gaining a place on the winners' podium as a Cruiser has become more complex than ever - thanks in part to new regulations. The final score is reached by multiplying the number of passenger-kilometers per topped-up kilowatt hour by the practicality score: how much baggage fits in the car, how luxurious is the interior design, and so on.

Tough choice

So right from the start, on day one, the Eindhoven team had to kiss goodbye to twelve hundred of these passenger-kilometers (three passengers x four hundred kilometers). A huge disappointment, Marije Sesink tells us from Tennant Creek, where today the team has pitched camp after day two. “Owing to traffic and a red light we came to a standstill just outside Darwin, right at the foot of a hill; our nose was already pointing upward. This is always a challenging spot and on this occasion it was simply bad luck: we couldn't move forward from there. So we made the decision to 'jettison' three passengers for that stage.” A tough choice, explains Sesink, “The competition is fierce this year; the margin between the total scores is going to be a couple of percentage points.”

Among the team's formidable opponents is the Italian team Onda Solare, which lined up at the start with the four-seater Emilia 4 LT, says Sesink. They may be newcomers in the Australian Cruiser class, but in 2011 and 2013 they took part in the Challenger class, and only last year they won the American Solar Challenge.

On the trailer

At the end of day two, however, the Italians are not among the top three in the overall classification of the Cruiser class. Their solar car had to complete the stage on its trailer, due to a technical failure. Solar Team Eindhoven leads, with the Chinese Sun Shuttle and IVE Engineering Solar Car Team (from Hong Kong) hard on its heels. But it's still nailbiting from day to day, says Sesink, who is counting on a neck-and-neck race. “While you are racing, it is difficult to gauge how your rivalsare doing. Everyone is cagey about their performances, partly so as not to give others the chance to adapt their strategy in response.”

As yet, Stella Era is driving like a charm and is now taking the opportunity to 'refuel' in Tennant Creek. “We could have gone on for another couple of kilometers,” says Sesink, “but it is nice to be able to start the next stage with a little more certainty.”

Headwind

And every crumb of certainty is welcome, given that the route to the next recharging point in Coober Pedy is some four hundred kilometers longer than the first stage from Darwin to Tennant Creek. What's more, a pretty strong headwind is predicted during the coming days, Sesink tells us. “We are constantly checking the weather forecast, different sources anticipate different wind forces. We hope to be able to drive with four people on board, but if the wind is too strong, we will simply be forced to travel with fewer passengers.”

In any rate, as the team hoped, the sun is playing its part and Stella Era's solar roof is performing, says Sesink “beyond all expectations” - especially given its earlier damage and partial replacement with a slightly less efficient panel that had nonetheless been hurriedly made to measure and flown in especially.

On Tuesday the race continues, from Tennant Creek to the checkpoint in Barrow Creek, after which the caravan travels on to Alice Springs. For the time being, the team from Eindhoven won't have to tolerate the presence of other cruisers on the road ahead of them, but now and again they will encounter the challengers in the other class, says Sesink.

Tense challenger race

En route they are not likely to come across the Dutch teams, “they are driving a much longer distance. They are embroiled in a really tense race; they are within seconds of each other.” Among others, the newcomers from Groningen are already serious contenders for the title, says Sesink, since they clocked a really fast time during Saturday's dynamic scrutineering at the Hidden Valley circuit and were allowed to start the race in pole position.

In the overall classification Stella Era started in twentieth position, but in fifth place among the cruisers. “A great spot, which we'd been banking on. We didn't want to take too much of a risk with the car during qualification, and our driver Luc (Spooren, ed.) put down a really excellent lap time.” What's more, Solar Team Eindhoven was the only cruiser in the top five that had four people on board; all the faster teams are driving two-seaters, one team is even running their car with only a driver on board - and of course that counts in the total score at the end of the race.

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