Backstage at Forze during the Gamma Racing Days 2017

 

After an exciting weekend at the Gamma Racing Day 2017, I have the honour of providing you with an update on behalf of the entire team about our progress. The emotions of the past weekend would be hard to explain without giving the context of the eventful year that preceded it. I will try to give a quick explanation of what made this race such a truly remarkable event for the whole team.

Work began with the new full-time team on September 1st 2016. The year began with some technical challenges, which provided an early hit to our morale. Fortunately the team was able to rally, and after many iterations, updates, and improvements to the car, most notably the accumulator system, the first kilometers could be driven. The team’s first public tests were to be held at the Pinksterraces at Circuit Zandvoort. Considering this would be the first drive on the track at Zandvoort, the test weekend was a much anticipated event. The car and team were ready and set to go, until several days before the track day, during a routine test, the vehicle refused to start. Consequently, many sleepless nights were spent trouble shooting, which resulted in a fix. The car hummed to life five minutes before the first test session was scheduled to begin that Friday. The test day was optimally used, providing much information and insight into performance. Unfortunately the weekend was cut short when, during a full power test on Saturday, the driveshaft disconnected from one of the gearboxes. This meant a temporary end of testing, and another eventful week for the team.

Several weeks elapsed before the Forze flagship vehicle was test-ready again, during which all hands were on deck to give the car as much track time before the year’s finale in August. Leo van der Eijk, Kevin Schreiber and Jan Bot each put in many late night hours to help the car back to operational status before it could be pushed to its limits on the track. Because of this monumental effort by all involved, the car charted faster times with each lap, and became more reliable and predictable every session… on the only exception of whenever Jan Lammers came to spectate. Our team ambassador was scheduled to drive a few laps in the car before the Gamma Racing Day in order to give feedback and to help promotion. Unfortunately both times he dropped by, the car refused to cooperate and did not start up as planned. As disappointing as it was, that is the nature of engineering complex systems on the forefront of what is technologically possible. Taking a positive mindset is vital at such times, and it was concluded that a breakdown during testing was better than on the big day, after all…

The last weeks could best be described as an intense, but rewarding flurry of activity. How the team’s engineers were still standing after 4 tests in 6 days, of which the earliest began at 9am in Assen, is anybody’s guess. Other than eating and the occasional nap, the technical core team, consisting of Huib Versteeg, Sander Verhage, Joost Berendsen, Oscar Verbeek, Sieger Falkena, Coen Lastdrager, Beau Smit and Colin Heimans, lived and breathed hydrogen. Exhausted as they were, their efforts paid off, and their performance was crucial in getting the car ready in the final stages of preparation.

On Thursday the 3rd of august at 7am, the race weekend began. The first heavily laden cars and busses departed Delft towards the TT circuit. Once we arrived, Tinie Lam, Sieger and I could begin setting the public relations stand up. Tinie and I would finally see the results of months of preparations… and what results they were! Tweereclame and Improve both provided us with a great begin to the weekend with a paddock that was beyond anyone’s expectations. Friday’s arrivals were Andy Maassen of Sim Racing Limburg with the race simulator, and Sodexo with the snacks and drinks to complete the stand. To round it off, the Toyota Mirai of Louwman & Parqui was placed out front. Once it was done, we observed the paddock in awe: it came together better than expected, and believe me, expectations were high!

Building the stand wasn’t the only thing that happened on Friday. The mechanics hangar in the Dream Hall in Delft was completely mobilised in order to provide technical support to the Forze VII which would go operational that day! I stood on the roof of the pit building with Daan Sistermans, our contact at Pitpoint, watching the Forze VII depart towards the track. All seemed to be going well until the vehicle stopped after travelling only ten meters down the pit lane. After minutes waiting, and another uneasy 30 meters travelled, the car was towed back to the paddock. The beginning of the free training was without a doubt one of the most stressful moments of the year. The car had been reliable in the preceding weeks, this could not have possibly been the end of the weekend. All the other team members on the roof and I had no idea what was wrong. Ultimately the issue was narrowed down to a pump that had failed to start, a fairly simple fix, but at the time I was preparing myself for another disappointment akin to what we experienced at the Pinksterraces. Fortunately, Sieger was able to restart the pump, and we were able to utilize the second half of training. Leo was in his zone, and even managed to race to the fourth best time in the class! After training, a wave of relief swept the team, and Daan could return to the Pitpoint office with good news.

The tech team worked until midnight Friday night, during which time I was also busy testing the simulator, as well as cleaning up and finalizing the VIP lounge, where we would receive our first guests Saturday morning. Because we were only participating in the race on Sunday, Saturday was a good day to get used to life on the track running a stand. It was noticeably quieter Saturday than Sunday, and after all tasks were finished in the morning, we were able to take a quick tour around the paddock. After focusing so hard on the car for so long, it was almost a surprise to find a whole world outside of Forze bustling with activity! A breath of fresh air was well deserved. Saturday was relatively uneventful and after the first enthusiastic guests came and went, and after having explained the intricacy of hydrogen fuel cells countless times, the team left the paddock for the relaxing environment of the “Glamping” to enjoy a delicious barbecue. After this, the heroes of the full-time tech team went back to the paddock to work until 4am getting the car race ready for the next day.

Sunday race day! Waking up was already pretty strange, as the day began almost like any other day. Only two hours before the race, when my mother, tears in eyes, told me how proud she was of the team, and only after people began to ask if I was nervous did I begin to feel the rush of adrenaline flush my body. Today is the day, a year of more than full-time work culminates in the events of today. The tension was palpable. An hour before the race, the team and guests assembled in the main tent, Mats Dirkzwager and Erik Bütker on behalf of Pitpoint gave a short word. Afterwards, the tent was closed down as quickly as possible and the best places along the track were found to observe the coming race. Nerves were truly on display when, during a short but powerful pre-race speech, Joost brought the team to tears.

Let the race begin! At 3pm I was ready on the grandstand to watch the field depart for the formation lap. The plan was for the Forze VII to begin at the back, then begin its climb up the leaderboards. The whole field had started, except for that one blue clad hydrogen powered racer. Forze VII lay motionless. This could not be possible! All those late nights and weekends spent toiling over the car flashed through my head. This was the worst moment for the car not to start. This could not be happening! It took three rounds, and the tension could be cut with a knife. From a distance, Tinie, my brother and I saw the back cover of the car open, as Remco Duba moved in to begin his technical magic from behind the screen of his laptop. Success! After a few more rounds, the back cover closed once again, and Leo guided the car out of the pit lane. Thanks Remco! The most inspiring was not that the car started, but the reaction of the spectators once it appeared on track. A massive applause followed the Forze VII as she lapped the track for the first time during an official race. Needless to say I was not the only one with goosebumps. After two minutes the car passed again, and this time Leo even began to flash his lights as he passed the grandstand! It was an amazing feeling to see the car race by, because that is precisely what it was: racing. This was proven when, in the first 20 minutes, Leo passed two cars in the first corner combo of the track. I don’t know what was going through his mind at the time, but my weekend had been made.

After a smooth pitstop, Jan took over the wheel. He would be the one to “take the car home”. The last ten minutes were very suspenseful, and Jan even overtook a Porsche in the same place that Leo passed two cars earlier. That the Porsche later overtook our car on the straights is besides the point, as a few moments later the TU Delft Forze VII crossed the finish line as the first ever hydrogen powered vehicle ever past the checkered flag! That moment was surreal, and I almost didn’t register at first. The car was on its way to the parc fermé where Tinie and I sprinted to congratulate the team. I almost ran past the car without realising it, when someone opened a gate and we joined the group photo. Then came the realisation of what the team had pulled off. All present and past, full- and part-time team members were overcome with joy. We pulled it off! The work of the past 10 years had all culminated and paid off on this one day in Assen. We even got a podium ceremony! As victors, we departed towards the grandstand where the party could really begin. I was first to receive felicitations, and after a few minutes the Forze VII entered with the whole tech team on top. What a heroes! Leo parked the car in front of the Supercar Challenge tent to allow Mats (with some help) to climb on top and deliver a speech. All were thanked, and the milestone could be celebrated!

Later that night, the tent was closed down in record time, and we all departed towards the glamping. We were able to finally relax and enjoy the exhaustive, but ultimately rewarding weekend.

As cliché as it is I will end this story on the following notes. What began as a quick summary of our weekend evolved into a saga in which I attempted to give a glimpse into the events and emotions of the weekend. I hope that you enjoyed this journey as much as we did at Forze. It would not have been possible without you, our sponsor, but also the parents, family and friends that have supported us enormously throughout this endeavour. In addition to this, there was a large group of part-time team members involved in this performance. This group may have, at times, been undervalued, but they too have been invaluable. I would also like to thank Hugo de Wolf and Jarno Kraayvanger of Worcflow, our media partners, for capturing our year in pictures. And I would like to extend special thanks to our primary sponsor Pitpoint; the Supercar Challenge, for giving us a chance to show the world what hydrogen is capable of; and finally the event sponsors Tweereclame, Sodexo, Improve, and Sim Racing Limburg, who helped us during the event to give the professional image that we hoped to portray.

I hope that you enjoyed this weekend and this story as much as I did. Even writing this brings a smile to my face that, for the time being, won’t be going anywhere.

– Mathieu Blanke, Acquisitions Manager

(English story by Willem van Vliet)