Audi’s brand new, ultra frugal A1 1.6 TDI manual led away the field in the 2011 Veolia World Solar Challenge today (Sunday) leaving Darwin’s State Square and heading south across Australia enroute to Adelaide.

Ahead lies 3028 demanding kilometres along the Stuart Highway through sub-tropical and desert country with road hazards varying from wandering stock and kangaroos to camels as well as massive wedge-tail eagles feasting on road kill. Temperatures on the journey are expected to reach 40C although at the start it was a comparatively mild 32C – but with a steamy 80% humidity reading. Dwarfing the natural hazards, and the weather, are those man-made hazards including the 50m long thundering road trains that frequent this part of the world.

The 8.30am start in Darwin’s State Square, near the imposing Parliament House, came almost as a relief to the record number of 37 teams entered in the solar car race. In their sights is the 100.54km/h average speed for the 3028km distance set in the previous, 2009 event by the Japanese Tokia team which is defending its title this year.

Crews spent the previous three days at the Hidden Valley Raceway testing and fine-tuning their vehicles. There was one tip-over and several wheel and tyre failures which had team technicians working on running fixes. Last-minute calibration of solar panels and batteries were carried out in sweltering, humid conditions.

Starting positions for the solar race were determined by the time taken for a flying lap of the Hidden Valley racing circuit, with the Netherlands four-time winning tem Solar Team Twente posting fastest time narrowly ahead of compatriots, Nuon Solar.

The University of NSW Superswift IV, one of four Australian entries, was fourth fastest.

The Audi A1 1.6 TDI went through a rigorous scrutineering program to ensure it was in standard specification – including tyre pressures – and the detailed first fuelling sequence was carried out on Saturday by independent adjudicators appointed by the event organisers.

The first official check of consumption will be tomorrow (Monday) morning after an  overnight stop in Katherine, the first official control point in the event. The first day was a comparatively short run of 316km but included some of the most punishing terrain of the whole route and including the steepest climb, up Hayes Hill. The unofficial consumption of the Audi A1 on Day One was 3.6 litres/100km. Day Two to Tennant Creek will be double the distance, at 633km.

Audi has gained approval from the organisers of the Veolia World Solar Challenge to run the Audi A1 in conjunction with the solar car race to demonstrate the car’s low fuel consumption and low carbon dioxide emissions in everyday driving. The Audi A1, which is about to go on to the market in Australia, is powered by a four-cylinder, 1.6-litre turbocharged diesel engine producing 66kW of power and 230Nm of torque.

The car’s lightweight construction – with fuel, it weighed in at 1187.5kg – is complemented by a low, 0.32 drag coefficient. It runs on low rolling resistance tyres and incorporates “start-stop” technology which turns off the engine when the car is stopped in traffic and restarts it when the clutch pedal is depressed.

The A1 1.6 TDI will be available with a choice of five-speed manual gearbox or seven-speed S tronic transmission.

The Veolia World Solar Challenge will finish in Adelaide on Friday.