“Day 0” - The Formula Sun Grand Prix

Race crew vaults over the track barrier in preparation for a pit stop.

Race crew vaults over the track barrier in preparation for a pit stop.

How is the suspension? The battery safety? How are the tires? Can the primary driver exit the car in under ten seconds? Are the turn signals bright enough?

Three days before the start of the racetrack qualifying stage, scrutineering opens, a strict process that involves officials checking various aspects of the car to see that it meets race and safety regulations. Race officials inspect brake efficacy, structural stability, driver vision, the solar array, mobility, and more. They set out to determine the car’s readiness for a race stretching 1,975 miles of highway—highway filled with stressful uphills, speckled with potholes, crisscrossed by train tracks, and punctuated by unpredictable weather.

Driver Andrew Toennies exits car in 4.95 seconds during scrutineering.

Driver Andrew Toennies exits car in 4.95 seconds during scrutineering.

The University of Michigan Solar Car Team passes these inspections with flying colors, finishing scrutineering first. This distinction awards Michigan the advantage of starting the qualifying race from pole position.

The three-day qualifying race for the ASC, the Formula Sun Grand Prix, or FSGP, was held at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex. In the same way that the winner of scrutineering starts qualifying in pole position, the winner of the FSGP starts the ASC in pole position. This is a huge advantage, because it means not needing to pass other teams’ entire caravans—their solar cars, lead vehicles, chase vehicles—while mid-race.

The FSGP is straightforward: over the course of three days, teams compete to complete as many laps around the track as possible.

The FSGP proves to be the first test of how teams perform in weather; the third day, it starts raining. All teams concern themselves with slickness and ensuring they have enough energy to continue. Some teams struggle, stalling when going up hills. Out of the twenty teams that undergo scrutineering and enter the FSGP, twelve succeed in qualifying. For Michigan, everything—down to pit stop turnover—runs smoothly.

Michigan wins the FSGP with 518 laps—828 miles—and the team shifts its focus to the next task: in thirty-six hours, the starting gun will go off in Brecksville, Ohio, and the ASC will begin.

The night before the race begins, strategists Alan Li, Michael Katz and Leda Daehler, meteorologists Austin McDowell and Jeffrey Cwagenberg, and Engineering Director and driver Clayton Dailey analyze the expected weather for tomorrow.

Together they set out to formulate an idea of Day 1 race circumstances in order to brainstorm a game plan.

They primarily look at two models, the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model and the IBM model, which allow them to explore all possible “what-ifs.” Alan illustrates: “What if we saw the lowest possible radiation? What if we saw the highest possible radiation?”

But the two models say different things. Meteorologists always look at many different sources, and across all the other different sources they consult, the trend persists: conflicting predictions.

Staring down the barrel of the start of the race and uncertain weather, the team heads to bed.