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World Solar Challenge: A day on the road racing high-tech vehicles in Central Australia

ABC News logo ABC News 10/10/2017 Georgia Hitch

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It might be a solar challenge, but much of the work to get the car ready happens before dawn.

Wake-up time is 6:00am, to give teams enough time to set up the car, so that as soon as the sun's first rays appear over the horizon, it's soaking up that energy.

While that's happening, everyone packs up the campsite, eats, and gets the support cars ready.

According to challenge rules, drivers have to wait until 8:00am to set off.

The 30 minutes before then is crunch time for teams to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible; then it's on the road until the first checkpoint.

Along the route are a number of mandatory half-hour checkpoints where both challenger and cruiser-class cars must stop.

The rules have changed this year, meaning that during this time no-one is allowed to touch the car — not even to help a driver or passenger get in and out.

That proved an issue for Queensland's TeamArrow STF on the first day, when it discovered an issue with the steering as the car moved to drive out of the checkpoint.

The priority was making sure the car was safe and fixed as soon as possible, said Richard Cummack, mechanical lead for the team.

"We did design the car, and we've been taking it apart and putting it back together a number of times, so we ... had an idea what was going on even from the other car," he said.

"It's such a critical piece of the car; to have something like that go wrong was quite a shock, to be honest.

"We were trying to get the problem solved quickly and get back on the road."

Some tweaking with a crowbar and set of pliers later, the issue was resolved and the car was back on track.

Solar cars prepare to leave camp for the day's racing through Northern Territory. © Provided by ABC News Solar cars prepare to leave camp for the day's racing through Northern Territory. Cars driving in extreme heat

The first thing you need to know about driving in a solar car is that inside, it's hot. Very hot.

Air-conditioning isn't really compatible with efficiency when you're travelling 3,000km on solar energy, so the car turns into a sweat box, particularly during the hottest part of the day.

In Central Australia, temperatures at this time of year hit 40 degrees Celsius.

After completing the first day in extreme heat, TeamArrow manoeuvred some black flexible pipe into the bonnet to act as elongated air vents. Or as driver Chris Ahern called them, "the magic pipes".

Everyone wears helmets and harness seatbelts because, unlike in a normal car, most of the solar cars are made from lightweight material. They don't have roll bars.

TeamArrow's car is made of carbon fibre which, while being light, also means there's nothing inside the car to absorb the majority of the noise — meaning the trip is extremely loud.

"We have bare carbon-fibre plates, and they're basically vibrating with the road noise and we're sitting in a giant carbon drum," Mr Ahern said.

He said despite the heat inside the car, the landscape and being part of the team getting the car across the continent outweighed any discomfort they might feel.

"One of the best things is when we get to go fast, because we've got plenty of power in the pack," Mr Ahern said.

"It's quite a nice-handling solar car, and we can take the bends quite nicely."

The challenge is full of unknowns. Will the car survive the heat? Will the sun shine strongly enough to charge the batteries? Where will the car end up at the end of the day?

Given all cars must stop driving at 5:00pm, according to the rules, scouting for a place to sleep starts about an hour or so before that. And it can be anywhere.

"It's kind of risky because you just don't know what you're going to get," scout car driver Anthony Prior said.

"We kind of know more or less within, say, 20km where we're going to land; there's a bit of a window.

"The trick is to find a nice spot within that. Sometimes there's a nice campsite, so we'll aim for that."

Mr Prior said one particular campsite was not an ideal spot, because of the surrounding scrub and the fact it was close to the road. But it wasn't the worst.

"It was a truckie stop and there's no toilets there, so you were constantly looking for land mines, if you get what I mean," he said.

"That was one of the worst ones, that's the horror story."

Nuon Solar Team vehicle 'Nuna9' from the Netherlands races between Alice Springs and Kulgera during the World Solar Challenge. © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for SATC Nuon Solar Team vehicle 'Nuna9' from the Netherlands races between Alice Springs and Kulgera during the World Solar Challenge. Maintaining critical electrical systems

When the convoy does stop for the night, the separate teams come into their own.

Software and mechanical crews make sure the solar arrays are up and work to repair parts of the car that need attention, especially when planning for the weather.

"We're expecting rain, so we're waterproofing the car as best we can," mechanical team member Alex Ward said.

"The critical systems are the high-voltage electrical systems — the car is carbon fibre, so it's conductive. If we get water and dust and stuff on that system, then it'll be a quick end to our race."

While that's happening, the trailer is unloaded, the camp team starts cooking dinner, and everyone else sets up their own tents before it gets dark.

One of the most important parts of the evening is reviewing how the car tracked and how efficient it was during the day.

Tracking data is reviewed and compared against the estimates, and plans are made for how far the car will travel the next day.

Then it's early to bed — with the hope no road trains wake you up in the night — to be ready to get up and do it all again at dawn.

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