Solar power: Chasing the sun is slow going
This was not your typical car race. There was no revving of engines at the starting line, no screeching of tyres – just a gentle silent forward movement and they were off.
We had gathered at the northern gate of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria for the start of the Sasol Solar Challenge. For the next two weeks, 13 solar-powered cars, bikes and hybrids will be racing around South Africa for 5400km.
Their route will take them from Pretoria to Springbok in the Northern Cape, down to Cape Town, along the southern coast to East London, and then to Bloemfontein. From there they will head to Pitermaritzburg and then back to Pretoria.
This route is split into 11 daily stages.
The Mail & Guardian went along for the first leg of the race, along the N4, through the platinum belt, and on to Lichtenburg in North West – the half-way stop for a 30-minute break and a driver change.
From there the teams were going to Vryburg, their pit stop after day one's racing.
The first solar vehicle race in South Africa took place in October 2008 and was organised by Winstone Jordaan and Johan Viljoen.
The event was created to motivate students and scholars to take an interest in the sciences, engineering and technology, and to demonstrate the power of new technologies.
The first event was won by Tokai University, which enabled the Japanese team to build a highly competitive solar car that would go on to win the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 2009 and 2011, and to retain their title in South Africa in 2010, when there were six competing vehicles.
In 2012, they once again started out as favourites. After a quick scan of the competing cars, it was clear to the untrained eye that theirs looked the most impressive.
A solar car is generally a long, narrow car that seats only one person, the driver, and has a flat-top surface covered with solar panels. The sunlight hits these panels to produce an electrical current, which runs to a battery for storage and powers the car.
Local teams taking part include the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, University of Johannesburg (UJ), North West University, the University of the Witwatersrand, Tshwane University of Technology and the German School of Johannesburg.
The international competitors are Tokai University and Kenjiro Shinozuka from Japan and Delhi University from India.
However, not all the vehicles were starting the race. Delhi University was taking their car on a trailer for the first leg of the race after it started smoking during speed trials the previous day.
Wits, Tshwane and the German School also began the race on the back of trailers.
Most of these teams were given until Thursday, or day three of the race, to get their cars approved, so they were rushing ahead to the finish line of day one to start work on their cars.
Bradley Rautenbach from the Wits team said that their car's brakes had not been installed, because the callipers were faulty.
Tim Milio, the assigned observer for the Wits team, was looking rather dejected. It was his responsibility to travel with the team and monitor the penalties it incurred, but with a non-functioning car his day was looking a lot less adventurous.
Milio is from California and volunteered to be an observer after a friend who had competed in previous solar car races told him about the race.
Albert Helberg, the team manager for North West, was pacing around their car, overseeing some last-minute work. "I have butterflies in my stomach," he said.
At eight in the morning, the cars headed down to the starting line and began day one, starting at two-minute intervals. In front of each vehicle was a lead car and behind it a chase car, to protect the solar vehicles from traffic and to warn South Africans of their presence. In their rear windows were giant yellow signs stating: "Caution: Solar Vehicle Ahead".
At nine, we took off in our rented minibus to chase the race. After we had been on the N4 for a short while, we came across the Nelson Mandela team. They were clearly having problems and they had been overtaken by several teams that started after them.
As photographers and cameramen decamped from the bus, rushing towards the stationary vehicle to see what was wrong, a young team member started yelling at the media to move away because the driver needed some privacy.
The big breakdown was just a toilet break.
The next car we came to was from UJ. It was vibrating and it looked as if it might come apart at the seams.
Too much vibration
"What happens when these cars hit a pothole?" I asked.
Another journalist joked that they were travelling so slowly that they would have plenty of time to see it and swerve.
As we passed, the UJ team pulled over and we stopped too.
Warren Hurter, the team manager and current driver, said he was getting too much vibration, and the team started to take the car apart to make sure nothing was loose.
Further down the road, the North West driver posed for pictures as we drove past and gave us the thumbs up.
We did the maths and realised that the only teams ahead of us were the two Japanese universities and KwaZulu-Natal.
We drove past fields of cattle and sheep, which were oblivious to the sleek silver cars moving across the landscape.
Zigging and zagging
Near Lichtenburg, we passed team Kenjiro Shinozuka. Commuters in bakkies showed typical South African tendencies, zigging and zagging around the solar car, impatient as usual.
As team Kenjiro Shinozuka sped on, we noticed the drivers of all the passing cars staring into their rearview mirrors at the bizarre sight.
We arrived in Lichtenburg and stopped at the half-way stop outside the Agricultural Museum. Team Tokai was pulling out, having finished their half-hour rest period. Kenjiro Shinozuka had just begun theirs.
Their driver was complaining about the potholes and that they had wasted 10 minutes waiting at a stop-and-go because of road works.
Across the road a new mall was being built and five young construction workers wandered across to eat their lunch under a nearby tree and surveyed the spectacle.
"What is that?" Nkosana Mabaso (21) asked me. "I thought it was a boat."
"I thought it was controlled by remote," said Petrus Leeto (22). "I didn't think there was anyone in there."
"How much do those cars cost," Daniel Jacobs (25) asked me.
I explained that they were not for sale and were not roadworthy vehicles.
"They should sell them," he said.
A conversation ensued about renewable energy and how we needed to decrease our reliance on coal energy.
The young construction workers were fascinated, but eventually Leeto said: "If we stop using electricity it will harm the economy."
I explained that it was actually our government's inability to deliver enough coal electricity that was hampering the economy.
Leon Taljaard, a middle-aged restaurant owner from Lichtenburg, was walking nearby with a younger man, Japie Venter. I asked them what they thought of the solar cars.
"I am impressed," said Taljaard, who added that he had heard about the race on television that morning. "Sure our roads here are not great, but this gives some exposure to our town."
Venter had just phoned his wife, who had seen the cars. "She said, 'Japie, I was just going to call you. I saw a spacecraft, ummm, a UFO on the road," he said, laughing.
By that time, team Kenjiro Shinozuka had left and we heard that KwaZulu-Natal had taken a wrong turn. We also heard that UJ had broken down outside Rustenburg, and North West and Nelson Mandela had still not passed the city.
The clock was edging closer to 2pm and one of the officials told us that, if the teams were not at the halfway point by 2:30pm, they would have to be taken on a trailer to the pit stop for day one.
We decided to head back to Pretoria when the news filtered in that, 40 minutes out of Lichtenburg, rain had started pouring down.
A press release later confirmed that, by the end of the first stage in Vryburg, only the two Japanese teams had made it to the finishing line before sunset.
I am starting to understand that the Sasol Solar Challenge is less of a race and more of a technology road show.