Carola Hoyos Eco-cars, start your engines!

At Germany’s new Lausitz race track, ‘start your engines’ has never gotten a quieter reaction and the starting flag a more gradual response than it did yesterday. Dozens of teams from univeristies and schools from Hungary to Iran this week are competing in Shell’s annual European eco-marathon (its 25th).

Their kit cars look like everything from moon buggies to the sleek prototypes one would find in an automaker’s lab. The excitment among the young engineers was predictably high.

More surprising was the glee of the mid-level to senior Shell executives. The race was about creating the most efficient car of the lot (the Swiss record-holders managed more than 3000km on a litre) but the atmosphere was pure petrolhead engineer rather than tree-hugger. Shell may market itself as the responsible oil company most interested in sustainable development. But at its heart it is a collection of technology-loving scientists, with many of its grey-suited senior executives wistful for the days before they traded their oil rig, refinery or chemical lab for their office and the talking circuit peddling the company’s green credentials.

And, as Martha Stewart would say: That’s a good thing.