Against the Odds: Khan Younis Formula Student Team Off to Silverstone
July 2011, Gaza — To the average team competing in this year’s Formula Student automotive engineering competition, the very thought of trying to build their car using parts from scrapheaps and other people’s cast offs would strike fear into them. Most colleges have a level of technological backup, engineering facilities and easy access to the best modern manufacturing materials that would shame an international race or rally team. But for the students of Khan Younis Training Centre, who have travelled from their base in the Gaza Strip to participate for the first time, all these things are an unattainable luxury. Instead, for this group of native Palestinian youngsters to even be attending the annual engineering exposition is a triumph of determination in the face of virtually insurmountable odds.
Khan Younis Training Centre was set up only four years ago, using money supplied by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Its main aim is to provide training and learning opportunities for young people from poor backgrounds in the Gaza Strip area. The academy is, as its name suggests, based in Khan Younis, an area to the south of the main Gaza City.
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). They are all from a background that the United Nations describes as “abject poverty”. In Britain, living without basic hygiene amenities such as clean running water and proper sanitation would be totally unacceptable. But in Gaza this level of existence is, in many cases, an everyday occurrence.
Dr Ghassan Abu Orf, the Dean of KYTC, originated the idea to take part in Formula Student. He first came across the then-nascent competition while teaching at the University of Sunderland, and introduced the concept to his pupils. When he returned to Gaza, he realised that building a car locally would be an ideal project to work on.
Speaking to Dr Ghassan, you cannot fail to get caught up in his boundless enthusiasm for the project. “The students deserve every respect for what they have achieved,” he enthuses. “Every day, they prove that they can face up to any challenge put in front of them. We all feel it is their destiny (to take part).”
The car that the KYTC team will present to the judges is a recycling enthusiast’s dream. The tubular chassis is constructed using domestic hot water pipes and the wheels come from ordinary roadgoing vehicles rather than the state-of-the-art alloys that adorn many of their rivals’ machines. The main monetary outlay has been to buy a Honda motorbike that was cannibalised to provide the 600 cc engine. Unfortunately, the purchase took a large portion of the team’s extremely limited budget.
The car took about one year to build. In the final stages of preparation, team members lived, ate and slept at the Training Centre for 22 days straight. Consequently, says Dr Ghassan, the first time the car started and went on a short test run was one of the most emotional events of both his and the team’s lives. “You cannot imagine how happy the students were when the car ran for the first time,” he says. “They were leaping about and shouting: 'We did it, we did it!’”
The only downside to the project is that when the students graduate and leave the course, work opportunities are very limited. In Britain and Europe, Formula Student is often a stepping-stone to a lucrative career with a major motor manufacturer or, ultimately, a Formula 1 team. But for the Gaza youngsters, the best they can currently hope for is finding work in local garages. Dr Ghassan finds this extremely depressing. “These young men have worked so hard. They deserve a future that properly reflects how much they have put into the project.”
Getting the car to Silverstone has thrown up its own challenges. Due to the Israeli blockade, sea routes in and out of Gaza are blocked, and the Israeli air force controls the air space, so no flights are allowed out of the area. Instead, Dr Ghassan had to take the car, now disassembled and packed into three transport crates, from Gaza to Egypt to be air freighted to England. Fortunately, they received help from a Palestinian businessman who runs a shipping company. He agreed to fly the car and team members to London and back. “Without him I’m certain we would not have been able to afford it,” says Dr Ghassan.
Getting additional financial help for the Formula Student project has involved not just the autotronics faculty, but students from all over KYTC. When the team went looking for added backing, pupils from the business specialisations department put together proposals to be presented to local businessmen. This approach proved to be very successful, and Dr Ghassan intends to continue with it in the future.
So, with the KYTC team so close to achieving their dream of taking part at Silverstone, what do they hope to gain? This first visit, says Dr Ghassan, will be used mainly to accumulate experience and knowledge. “We want to become familiar with the work that other teams are putting in to their cars, and learn from their greater experience,” he explains. The car is entered in Class 2, but ambitious plans involve building a new Class 1A car, for low emissions vehicles.
To sum up, Team Khan Younis has achieved something very special in the last year. Through sheer determination it has built a car from scratch from recycled materials, using only the very limited resources at its disposal. It has overcome financial and travel problems and given a focal point to a whole community of students to be able to face up to any number of challenges. It embodies the spirit of the Gaza Strip enclave, as the local people struggle to cope with the hardships brought on by the Israeli blockade. Dr Ghassan sums up the team’s philosophy, which could just as easily be describing Gaza as a whole. “We simply ask to be given a chance. We hope that what this year’s team has been able to do will become a vanguard for our future participation, and that we will be able to return regularly in the future.”
Writer: Ian Harden