The green light for the future

Ollie Guest - Sports Co-Editor 14 March 2012

A £500,000 car, twenty sponsors and a team of eighty students putting in over 20,000 hours of labour: all in preparation for the Formula One of eco-racing in Australia.

Cambridge University Eco Racing (CUER) is a remarkable outfit. Made up entirely of students with some advice from academics, they devise, construct and race cutting edge solar powered cars.

“This is one of the toughest but most rewarding challenges that a student team could take on,” claims driver Qichao Zhao. The statement is not hyperbolic.

Using the power of a mere hairdryer the cars are able to travel at speeds up to 100kmph. That means that by employing just two horsepower they can achieve motorway speeds; no petrol car on the market can boast an ability to use such few horsepower for such speed.

CUER participates in the World Solar Challenge, a biennial 3,000 km marathon across Australia between Darwin and Adelaide. In 2009 CUER was the only British team to take part while last year it finished an impressive 25th out of 37 racers despite its budget being miniscule in comparison with its competitors.

That doesn’t mean to say that the cars don’t employ state of the art technology. Far from it: using the latest in sustainable engineering they are able to produce the equivalent of 200 miles per gallon. To put that into some perspective, roughly speaking a Ford Focus will be able to do about 40mpg while a Ferrari 430 will do about 18mpg. For University students to be able to produce such an economical car is quite staggering.

“We’re working with F1 teams, national media, multinational companies, and academics, to create something that can travel at 80 mph using only the power of the sun,” enthused Mark Nicholson, CUER team manager.

Their original model, Affinity, became the first road legal solar powered car in the UK when it travelled between Land’s End and John O’Groates in 2007. Jeremy Clarkson will no doubt have a heart attack but it appears that the age of the green car is approaching faster than we may think.

Since their first foray the cars have evolved: the last edition was able to reach 121kmph while the current concept car is expected to exceed 130 kmph on even less solar input than before. Not bad development for a society that was only founded five years ago.

They certainly haven’t taken a slack approach to promoting themselves either. McLaren driver Jenson Button was called in to launch one of the cars at the Goodwood Festival of Speed while they have also been featured on Channel 5’s ‘The Gadget Show’. Last month, they went to Millbrook race track, the venue where Top Gear does much of its testing.

This is a serious outfit with grand ambitions. Their design for the next World Solar Challenge is top secret but revolutionary. Let’s just say it looks like a solar powered Batmobile. Only time will tell whether it will bring them the victory they desperately crave but it is a clear illustration of their passsion to succeed.

Ollie Guest – Sports Co-Editor