Saturday, October 18 - One day to go!
Saturday morning starts at 7:30am at Hidden Valley Raceway. Yesterday was scrutineering at the showgrounds, which checked many features of the cars while they were stationary; today is qualifying laps and tests done in motion.
All teams are required to be on track at 7:30am, but actual qualifying doesn't start 'til 9. Many cars put in a practice lap or two, including us.
Once qualifying starts, cars are sent out on the track in groups of four. The routine is that all the cars do a lap at whatever speed they like, then as they come into the straight they put the pedal to the metal, or turn the knob 'til it sticks, or slide the bar all the way up, or whatever the driver of this particular car has to do to make it go fast. Then they complete a timed lap. The shortest time gets to be first on the starting grid tomorrow.
The first four are quite fast cars, including Aurora. Aurora puts in the best time.
After their fast lap, each car goes to the end of the straight, and turns onto the drag strip, on which cars run parallel to the straight but in the opposite direction. This part of the testing is run by NT Roads, and cars must pass it in order to get the license plate which allows them to drive on the roads. There are traffic cones set up in a slalom, and further ahead four more cones set up to delineate the brake test. Cars must take both at 35 km/h, which is checked with a radar gun. During the brake test they must wait for a signal, and then stop within 12.5 metres. We watch cars pass; we watch cars fail. Cars that fail must go around for another try.
Our group comes up. I'm standing on the observation deck above the pit area, with a two-way radio so that I can communicate to Colin in Sungroper. Colin is our most technically skilled driver; he understands going fast much better than me. He pulls into the pit lane, and slowly rolls up to the control tower for the previous group to finish. I feel apprehension; so much so that I have difficulty keeping my voice steady as I direct Colin forward.
Colin is second in the group of four. A mistake we've seen some other cars make is to go too fast in the lead-up lap. Then, during their fast lap, they nealry lap the last car of their group, still on its slow lead-up, and are forced to slow down during passing, thus costing valuable time. Colin takes it nice and slow on his lead-up, and the only car even remotely near in front of him is High Tech Racing, a low-budget team from Hokkaido, Japan. he turns the knob all the way up, and hammers round the track. We need to average 40 km/h to qualify into the race; Colin makes 47 km/h, qualifying easily.
But that's the easy part.
Next, we have to pass the slalom and the brake test. Colin has glanced at the slalom and declared that in Sungroper it will be easy; the only difficulty will be getting Sungroper to accelerate to the required 35 km/h before the start of the slalom. The brake test is the hard part: Colin blew it several time in practice yesterday, and his worst distance was better than any of our other drivers' best. There are two cones that mark the start of the brake test area and another two 12.5 metres further along, but we have noticed that the official who drops his arm to signal cars to start braking, does so a variable distance _after_ the initial two cones. We are unable to find an official who knows why this is, and who is actually able to talk to us.
Colin accelerates. I concentrate on breathing steadily.
He goes through the slalom. From where we are, we cannot tell if he has passed or failed. An official has a radar gun trained on Sungroper, and only he can tell if we have taken it at the correct speed. Shay is videoing our brake test, in case we find it necessary to dispute.
The hand drops. As we suspected, about three metres late. Colin slams on the brakes. And skids. The car twists to the left. And stops. Before the cones.
The officials are impressed; this car is the only one that has locked all its wheels, and as such has the best brakes in the race. I realise that I am hyperventilating. With an enormous grin on my face.
After I am escorted by several team mates back to our pit area and sat down with a bottle of water, we pack our pit back into our vehicles.
Paradise Racing, the Puerto Rican team, fail to qualify. Their throttle control is failed, and they can accelerate at 100% or 0%, and nothing in between. They goose their car along the drag strip in a series of jolts, but are unable to hit the required 35 km/h.
The day's next scheduled event is a briefing, at the showgrounds. There's just enough time to go from Hidden Valley back to our hotel room for a quick dip before the briefing, but my vehicle doesn't. We're towing the Sungroper trailer, with Sungroper inside, to the showgrounds so that we can plug it into power for a battery top-up before the race. But we can't get into the car park with power in it. We wait to see if a race official will ley us in; but they don't.
Dennis isn't at the briefing with us; we left him at Hidden Valley to help Puerto Rico. He isn't the only one; there are technical people from a variety of teams, including Queen's, MIT, Aurora and UNSW helping too.
The briefing covers extensive administrivia, including much safety information. But Chris Selwood, the event manager, leads off the briefing with the news that Puerto Rico's throttle is fixed, and their car is driveable. Everybody cheers.
The final event for the day is a cocktail do at Parliament House. But again we chase power for Sungroper, this time back at Hidden Valley. Alone amongst everybody involved even tangentially with the race, the course managers are not co-operative, and we give up and drop the trailer at our hotel and walk to Parliament House, arriving just a few minutes after the designated start. We scull a few free waters and orange juices, and there are the usual speeches. Chris Selwood leads his with the news that the NT Roads people have made a special trip back to Hidden Valley to test Puerto Rico, and that Puerto Rico have passed. Again, all cheer.
After the cocktail do, we return to the hotel, and spend some time maneuvering the Sungroper trailer into the hotel's underground parking. It is a tight fit, but we are able to plug it into power.
We return to our room. I set my alarm for 4am. Tomorrow we race.