It's been an extremely draining week for the legions of engineers that have gathered in Darwin, in northern Australia, for the biennial World Solar Challenge, in which solar cars race across the desert for five days. The race to Adelaide, on the southern coast, starts Sunday morning, and every minute so far has been used to diagnose problems both large and small. Virtually every team has had to contend with minor last-minute disasters: The University of Calgary's car got in an accident and damaged one side, Stanford's car had a circuit board catch on fire, and the Venezuelan team was frantically searching for a new battery pack. Others were checking and rechecking things, and the solar-paneled tops to the cars were lying on their sides in the workspaces along Hidden Valley race track like a series of giant, upturned scarabs.
Nuon's team members, the reigning champs from Holland, were up until 3:30 a.m. Thursday night diagnosing unexpected problems, but they were out the door again 6 hours later, ready to keep working. "You just can't sleep knowing something's not working," says Rabih Alzaher, one of the car's three appointed drivers.
The team spent Friday retouching its solar panels. They had noticed different voltages building up between some of the cells, and it turned out that the arrays at the back of the car were coming in contact with the car body and conducting electricity into the car interior. So the University of Delft engineers spent several hours painstakingly peeling off a few of the paper-thin arrays and adding insulation.
The other teams had also, for the most part, overcome their mishaps and were putting the finishing touches on their vehicles at the track, in the outskirts of Darwin. They ran test laps as the sun was setting, crossing their fingers that nothing new would emerge as the hours wind down to Saturday morning--when they have to pass the final qualifying tests from the World Solar Challenge officials.
If their cars aren't running properly in these next crucial hours, then it will be over, and the long trek to Australia will end here in Darwin. In spite of all their preparations, it comes down to these next few hours to determine which cars will meet on the starting line tomorrow.