By Stuart Littlewood
Last year engineering students from the Gaza Strip took on the cream of Europe’s technical universities in a competition to build a race car, despite obstruction by the Israeli regime.
Formula Student (FS) is a challenge to university students around the world to design and build a single-seat racing car, which they must then put through its paces at the Silverstone Circuit in the UK.
The aim, of course, is to inspire young people and boost skills in advanced engineering. Students have to pretend they’ve been hired by a manufacturing firm to produce a prototype car for evaluation. As well as technical skills, the exercise teaches management, marketing and people skills. The motorsport industry regards Formula Student as an ideal standard of achievement for making the transition from college to workplace.
Construction of the car itself has to conform to nearly 30 pages of stringent rules and regulations. A four-stroke piston engine no larger than 610cc must be used, and this is enough to catapult the car from 0 to 60mph in just a few seconds. Electric or hybrid vehicles are also allowed. The cars then go to Silverstone, the home of Formula One racing, to be judged in a series of tests that include technical scrutiny and an examination of cost and sustainability, presentation, and engineering design. They are also put through performance and endurance trials on the track.
Last year’s Class 1 winner was the University of Stuttgart. Stuttgart is home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, so it’s no surprise that the University is renowned for its advanced automotive engineering. The Khan Younis Training Centre (KYTC) in Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, however, has no such iconic, cutting-edge benefactors on its doorstep.
The lads from Gaza were entered in Class 2. They won 3rd prize for their business plan and came 9th with their financial report. But Israel’s illegal blockade prevented specialty parts from Italy reaching them and consequently they missed.the deadline for their design and specification report and were docked a huge number penalty points. Had they been awarded just an average score for that section they’d have finished in the top half of the table along with Bath, Budapest, Brunel and Edinburgh.
After finalising the plans for the car and identifying the parts they needed the students contacted various suppliers around the world, only to be turned down time and again. Eventually a firm in Italy agreed to help, but when the parts were sent the Israelis refused to let them into Gaza.
The team had to improvise by salvaging parts from old cars and machinery. The engine came from a used Honda motorcycle and the chassis was fabricated with domestic hot water pipes. This and the lack of sophisticated tools was hardly a recipe for ultimate success. Nevertheless their efforts moved Dr Colin Brown, Director of Engineering at IMechE (the Institution of Mechanical Engineers), which runs the FS competition at Silverstone, to declare: “It really is inspirational to see a team working so hard with the odds stacked against them like this. Formula Student is a massive challenge in its own right, but to be working with almost entirely recycled parts in one of the most deprived areas in the world is remarkable.
“These students epitomise the spirit and inventiveness of those who take part in Formula Student.”
It was rumoured that the Gaza team would be back this year for another attempt. After wondering what could be done to give these enterprising youngsters a bit of a boost whilst in the UK I made provisional arrangements for them to tour the factory of Lola Cars, a name synonymous with motor racing since the 1960s.
But when I was finally able to contact the Principal of the KYTC, Dr Ghassan Abu-Orf, he said the team couldn’t take part this year but would definitely do so in 2013. "Those who participated in the 2011 event were in their final year and already graduated… As part of our preparation for our 2013 participation, 3 members of KYTC staff including myself will participate in the 2012 Formula Student Competition as volunteer judges… Once our participation is confirmed, the three of us will start seeking sponsorship to cover our mission. Keep fingers crossed!"
Their next attempt, presumably, will require an all-new car and they need more time. So building on the lessons from Silverstone last year, re-jigging the curriculum and learning from judging is surely a wise move.
"We will do whatever it takes to get this group a great experience here,” Lola had told me. “We will do a tour for them and it will be a very educational and fun tour." A kind gesture indeed. What’s more they’d be happy to receive staff members of KYTC even if the students couldn’t make it.
So imagine our great sorrow and disappointment – and the massive shock to the entire motor-racing world – when Lola announced two weeks ago that they were going into administration.
This doesn’t mean that the factory is closing. It continues in business with reduced staff and hopes to find a new buyer. I hear six Lolas are expected to run in this month’s Le Mans 24-hour race.
Who are these amazing youngsters?
KYTC was set up by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in 2007 to provide training for Palestinian refugees and inject skilled labour into the local economy. One of its courses is Autotronics, which includes diagnosis, maintenance & repair of automotive systems, injection & ignition systems and electronics & electrical systems.
The tiny coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip has been cruelly and illegally blockaded by Israel, with Western collusion, ever since Hamas won the 2006 elections fair and square and enforced their right to govern. But the great democracy-preaching powers have no hesitation in strangling other people’s democracies such as the Palestinians’ if the wrong side is elected. And they use criminal methods like collective punishment, which itself goes unpunished thanks to our morally bankrupt international community.
In 2009 KYTC’s first Autotronics class, frustrated at the lack of workshop materials for hands-on automotive experience, set about building a race car from recycled parts. The following year the students went one step further and built a car to the exacting FS standards, and 11 students eventually travelled to the UK last summer to test their prized creation.
Who are these remarkable young people? UNRWA says that many come from the sort of background the United Nations calls “abject poverty”, which means families who don’t have the financial resources to provide even the most basic necessities of life.
Fate has dealt them another unkind blow by pulling the plug on Lola’s offer of encouragement, at least for the timebeing. Let us hope there are other firms out there at the cutting edge who are prepared to give these bright and "inspirational" lads from the hellhole of Gaza some eye-popping insights into automotive engineering excellence… and bring them in from the cold.
Fingers crossed, as the optimistic Dr Ghassan says.
Post Script: Dr Ghassan emailed to say that the Formula Student organisers have not selected him and his teaching colleagues as volunteer judges for this year’s event. So another technology window to the outside world is slammed on the prisoners of Gaza.
– Stuart Littlewood’s book Radio Free Palestine can now be read on the internet by visiting www.radiofreepalestine.org.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.