Students from one of the teams sit in one of the activity areas above the Sepang International Race Circuit, and the staff prepares the track below. – Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

On the second day of the Shell Eco-Marathon on 5 July, student teams from 18 countries around Asia and the Middle East were busy testing and tweaking their cars for the impending competition.

The students’ cars are checked by officials who conduct technical inspections before the competition flags off tomorrow. This phase of the marathon is often the most challenging, because it is here that the cars made by students first come under the scrutiny of the Shell officials. Teams hurriedly prepare and anticipate the result, as their cars are put through stringent checks by the technical staff. Often after the initial check, a team can be seen scrambling to tweak their car’s brakes or chassis in time, because it was found slightly short of standards.

Teams preparing for the design check with their cars in one of the special pits where safety checks take place. – Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

In this phase during last year’s competition, Pakistani teams faltered badly. While 22 teams had registered for the Shell Eco-Marathon 2011, nine made it to Kuala Lumpur, but only three teams actually reached the track because the rest of the cars had failed the technical inspections.

A ramp for the brake test, and car dimension tests can be seen in the above pictures, while a fuel measurement system is shown below. – Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

This year, all teams are doing better in this phase, and so are the Pakistanis: “I hope to see a high percentage of total teams pass the safety tests this year” said HSE Specialist Jumari Mohammad, in the pit where the checks were going on, “this is the third year of the competition, so the students are learning each year, and the results get better.” (By noon on day three, 74 out of 119 cars have passed the tests, and five out of nine Pakistani teams have passed too, which is a big improvement from their performance last year)

“These students are very intelligent, they are just as smart as the students from the other nations and their technical knowledge is sound” says Abid Ibrahim, General Manager External Affairs at Shell Pakistan. Ibrahim explained that Pakistan’s major handicap is not the quality of their education, but investment and experience, “just imagine, cars from other teams can value up to $25,000, but Pakistani students are entering with $2000 cars and still competing.” (More on investing in the cars as well as constraints the Pakistani students face, to be discussed in a later post.)

Team Victory from NED, for example has a hydrogen engine in their prototype car, an under-explored fuel source that is very challenging to use. Nauman Ahmed, a team Mentor from Shell Pakistan pointed them out as one of the most dedicated and committed teams from Pakistan, “They are always the first to arrive and the last to leave” says Ahmed.

“There are no hydrogen fuel vehicles in Pakistan, so basically these guys are truly pushing the limits for themselves. This is a very good attitude, and in my opinion it is true innovation from a Pakistani team.”

NED’s Team Victory seen during their safety check with their hydrogen powered car in one of the pits. – Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

Enthusiasm too, is in no short supply among the stronger Pakistani teams, “The team from NUST PNEC, has excellent communication and is showing a lot of initiative,” says Ahmed,“for example earlier they had made some changes to their car after filing their information, so they went to the judges directly in order to display these changes. No one else did this apart from them, and due to their initiative they are now shortlisted among eight finalists from 51 teams in the running for the Communications Award.”

There were also speeches from Shell executives, such as Mark Gainsborough and CFO Simon Henry who spoke about the company’s vision, and the goals behind the Eco-Marathon competition. The keynote speakers emphasised the importance of alternative fuel sources in the face of an imminent energy and environmental crises in the next fifty years.

According to Gainsborough, energy solutions will definitely involve more than one kind of alternative fuel rather than a “silver bullet” solution that involves a complete switch all around the world. The reason that the whole spectrum of alternative energy must be explored is because eventually, they may all be needed in different areas, such as countries and regions which have varying resources, visions and policies.

On 6 July the marathon will flag-off, and the students will begin to do laps in their cars to see who can achieve the highest fuel efficiency. Dawn.com will continue to bring you daily updates from the competition, so come back tomorrow to read more on the Pakistani teams and see how they do on the track!

Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and multimedia journalist at Dawn.com.

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