By Stuart Littlewood
Imagine a handful of engineering students imprisoned in the tiny Gaza enclave taking on the cream of Europe’s technical universities in a competition to build a race car and compete with it.
They did it last year. And they’re planning to do it again this year – at least that’s what their students’ union tells me, and I’ve been trying to get confirmation.
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 in a series of static and dynamic tests.
The aim is to inspire young people and boost skills in advanced engineering. In Europe the competition is run by the Institution of Mechanical Engineer (IMechE). America has a similar student competition run by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).
Students have to pretend they’ve been engaged by a manufacturing firm to produce a prototype car for evaluation. In addition to technical skills, the exercise teaches management, marketing and people skills. The motorsport industry regards this as an ideal standard of achievement for students making the transition from college to workplace.
Last year’s Class 1 winner was the University of Stuttgart. Stuttgart, of course, is home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, and the University is renowned for its advanced automotive engineering. Gottlieb Daimler himself was a student there, and Wilhelm Maybach received an honorary doctorate from the University at the age of seventy – names to conjure with!
This gives some idea of what the Gaza lads, who are starting in Class 2, will eventually be up against. Peter Leipold, 26, Chief Executive of the winning Rennteam Stuttgart, said: “Formula Student gives you the chance to learn much more than you ever could through studying, internships and diplomas. You have to deal with ideas and concepts, design, manufacturing, costing, materials, testing, logistics – there’s such a huge range of work you have to do. I don’t think there’s any other competition in the world in which you can learn so much.”
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, but this is enough to catapult the car from 0 to 60mph in just a few seconds. Electric only or hybrid vehicles are also allowed.
Further rules cover judging. The cars are judged in a series of tests such as technical inspection, cost and sustainability, presentation, and engineering design, solo performance trials, and high performance track endurance.
The rules even cover "unsportsmanlike conduct".
The competition has been running in the UK since 1998 and Silverstone has been the venue since 2007. Nowadays Silverstone, besides being the home of Formula One racing, incorporates a technology park and is a very different world from the old aerodrome circuit many of us remember from the 1950s and 1960s.
Blockaded and Starved of Resources
The Khan Younis Training Centre (KYTC), located near Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, was set up by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in 2007 to provide training for Gazan refugees and to inject skilled labour into the local economy. One of the programmes it offers is Autotronics, which includes diagnosis, maintenance & repair of automotive systems, injection & ignition systems and electronics & electrical systems
Ever since Hamas won the 2006 elections in Palestine and enforced their right to govern the Gaza Strip this tiny coastal enclave has been viciously blockaded by Israel, turning it into a prison. Nothing gets in or out without Israel’s say-so. Although the siege is illegal under international law the international community does nothing. 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 decided to go further and build a car to the exacting standards of Europe’s Formula Student contest. 11 students eventually travelled to the UK last June with their high-octane creation.
Entered in Class 2, the team won 3rd prize for their business plan and came 9th with their financial report. But they were docked a huge number penalty points for missing the deadline for their design and specification report. This was because Israel’s illegal blockade prevented specialty parts from Italy reaching them. The team had to improvise with recycled items from Gaza. Had they been awarded just an average score for the design and specification section they’d have finished in the top half of the results table along with Bath, Budapest, Brunel and Edinburgh.
Dr Colin Brown, Director of Engineering at IMechE, said: “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.”
Domestic Water pipes and Old Motorcycle Engine
Who are these remarkable youngsters and who encouraged them to get involved? UNRWA says: “The 11 youngsters that make up the Formula Student team are following a course in autotronics, designed to give a solid practical grounding in automobile engineering. In educational terms, it equates to an A Level or Ordinary National Certificate (ONC). Many are from a background that the United Nations describes as “abject poverty”, which means families who do not have the financial resources to provide for the very basic necessities such as food, clothing, and hygiene…”
The Principal of the KYTC, Dr Ghassan Abu-Orf, was aware of the then-fledgling Formula Student competition while teaching at the University of Sunderland in the UK. When he returned to Gaza, he reckoned that building such a car locally would be an ideal project for his pupils.
According to Emel (Muslim Lifestyle) Magazine, "once the team had made the plans for the car and identified the necessary parts they needed, they set about contacting various suppliers around the world to see where they could be acquired from. After many companies turned them down, the students found an Italian company that was willing to work with them. But even after the parts were sent, the Israeli authorities refused to let them enter the Gaza Strip.
“We didn’t give up,” a member of the team told Emel. “As Palestinians, we look for plan B all the time.”
So the students checked old cars and machinery in the Strip and salvaged the parts they needed. The engine came from a used Honda motorcycle and the chassis was fabricated with domestic hot water pipes. “Unfortunately we didn’t have the tools, machines and parts necessary to give us the best possible results — technology in Gaza is still quite primitive and out of date in comparison with international standards. But our mission was different, and remains different.”
Sahar Mousa, writing in Rotterdam4gaza, said: "For us the Formula Student competition is more than a prize, its more than a competition to win, it’s not related to being famous or to get any material reward. When we think about the competition we think about Palestine, we think about the Palestinian people wherever they are, we think about a message we need to send for the world. We need to tell everybody that we are a part of this world and we deserve our place in this world. We are able to be active and Palestinian Youth are able to create, innovate, and compete.
“Yes we can make it, we are strong enough to do it, because it’s for Palestine and it’s for every Palestinian."
Sadly, I’m posting this article without any contributions from the main players – the General Union of Palestinian Students UK who hosted the Gaza team while in Britain, the Palestinian Embassy in London, and the team itself. The reason? After several requests the union said it was “too busy” to give me the team’s contact details. The embassy has not, as far as I know, issued any press releases or briefings, although it did reproduced a Daily Telegraph report on its website last June. I have written twice asking the ambassador’s office for information and contact details only to be ignored. After combing the internet I found a general email address for KYTC. Two emails have been sent but not acknowledged.
So this amazing story is scraped together from other sources. Had I known about it last summer, I’d have been at Silverstone cheering the lads on.
But it would be good to know …
• While in the UK the team visited Parliament and presumably other places besides Silverstone. Did they manage to establish any helpful links to the performance car industry (constructors and R&D) or liaise with likeminded education and training establishments?
• Have they arranged a programme yet for their 2012 visit?
• For 2012 what changes are they making? Will it be the same car modified or an entirely new one? Same team or a new one?
These were among the questions sent to the Principal, although he might not have received them. I also asked for pictures. Again nothing.
The 2012 event is only three month away. If the KYTC lads read this and wish to update me on their preparations I’ll be happy to do a follow-up. But I hope they appreciate that writers and reporters need to wrap up their stories and move on. If unable get a timely reply or make proper contact they soon lose interest.
As for the Palestinian embassy in London, its prime task is surely to represent all Palestinians in a good light, showcase their achievements and help open doors to opportunities. This year, if indeed these remarkable youngsters are coming back, let us hope the Ambassador and his staff are on the ball and actively engaged.
– 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.