The Panasonic World Solar Challenge in Australia had a bittersweet ending Sunday for the Michigan solar car team. Its car, Continuum, finished in seventh place out of 41 cars.

Before the race across the Outback began on Oct. 21, hopes for the University’s first-ever victory in the race were high.

But just five minutes and 2.5 miles into the 1,800-mile race, a collision between Continuum and the team’s escort vehicle essentially ended any chance of Michigan winning the competition.

Having just passed Continuum, the Stanford solar car team suddenly stopped, causing the lead Michigan vehicle – a car that transports crew members who stand by to make repairs – to stop.

Without enough time to halt, Continuum rear-ended the lead Michigan vehicle, causing cracking in Continuum’s concentrator canopy and separation of some of the front bulkheads, leaving the front solar modules in need of replacements.

While the team assessed Continuum’s damage on the side of the road, a local man riding his bike stopped to ask the team if they needed any help.

“We started talking and he asked what kind of parts we had,” said Bob Culver, the team’s faculty advisor. “I said, ‘Carbon fiber composite,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I know a guy in town that’s pretty good at that.’ “

Culver said they decided to take the stranger up on his offer for help. Culver said the man even called a friend who was out sailing to come help repair the solar car.

Culver said the man “really helped us get the car back on the road in a couple hours so that we could get some sleep, where we all thought we would be up all night.”

“So after our accident we meet a guy on a bike on the side of the road who knows a guy that’s a carbon fiber expert in Darwin. I mean, who knows how this stuff happens?” Culver said.

Race officials allowed the Michigan team to take the solar car back to the small racetrack outside of Darwin where the qualifying races were held to make the necessary repairs.

The man who had been sailing came to the track to help the team make repairs.

Through the team’s blog, the Michigan team kept its fans updated about the accident and Continuum’s progress through the remaining stages of their race within hours. While the seventh-place finish was lower than expected, team manager Tom Carroll said he was happy with Continuum’s performance.

“We must admit, from the beginning our goal was to place with a different finish than we ultimately placed,” Carroll said. “But at the end of the day we are very happy with how Continuum performed.”

Culver was proud of the way his team regrouped and worked together.

“I was amazed at how quickly the team got back out on the road,” he said.

Culver said the accident had a definitive effect on the team’s chances of winning.

“I don’t blame the accident on anyone,” he said. “It was an accident, and it happens, but it certainly set us back tremendously.”

The team will use Continuum in its next race, the North American Solar Challenge. The 2,400-mile race from Dallas, Texas to Calgary, Alberta will begin in July 2008.

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