Collin Arocho
18 October

After two years of intense designing, innovating and building, the week-long solar vehicle competition in the Australian Outback has come to an end. From sorrow and frustration to exuberant jubilation, here’s how the Benelux fared.

The curtain has drawn closed on a wild week of racing at the 2019 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (BWSC) in Australia. The five teams representing the Benelux region, the Eindhoven and Delft Universities of Technology, the University of Twente, KU Leuven and a consortium from the Groningen area, are finally home after a weeks-long camping trip in the heart of the land down under. Some of the teams return celebrating their successes, while others are left to lick their wounds – but all of them already starting to think about what to do differently next time around in 2021.

All the teams from the Benelux participated in the competitive divisions of the BWSC. First was the Challenger Class that pits teams against each other with one goal in mind: speed. The Cruiser Class also rewards speed, however, the car’s distance to the market is also considered. This means that subjective criteria such as practicality, comfort, design and innovation also play a role in determining the champion. After the successful completion of the race, teams pitch their car to a panel of judges that evaluate each car’s features before casting a vote for the winner.

A strong gust caught Red E and pushed it off the road into a ditch, damaging the car beyond repair. Credit: Jerome Wassenaar

Blowing in the wind

After some controversy surrounding cost and sustainability of the project, it was anything but certain if the University of Twente (UT) would be able to compete. The team was having trouble finding an investor to foot the bill for their car, including the solar panel that came with a 390,000-euro price tag on its own. Better late than never, the team ultimately secured the financial support needed, but their car Red E had much to prove in what potentially could be the team’s last chance at gold.

Right out of the gate, Solar Team Twente pulled to the front of the pack and built a 21-minute lead, putting the competition on notice – Twente came to win. Though its lead was greatly diminished, over the first 2,300 km of the 3,000+ km race, the team had maintained the lead. After 15 years of failed attempts, UT felt closer than ever to pulling off the victory. Cue mother nature. Roughly twenty minutes into day four, with the team driver battling the strong crosswinds of the Outback, a strong gust caught Red E and pushed it off the road into a ditch, damaging the car beyond repair and killing any hopes of finally taking the checkered flag.

The Vattenfall Solar Team watched as their car caught fire and burned to rubble. Credit: Jorrit Lousberg

Up in smoke

With Twente out of the race, the seven-time champion and perennial favorites of the Vattenfall Solar Team, from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), were now at the top of the board. Despite holding the lead, NunaX saw its advantage dwindle at three consecutive checkpoints: from 43 minutes at Coober Pedy to 24 minutes at Glendambo and finally to only 8 minutes as the day came to an end at the Port Augusta checkpoint. The Belgian Agoria Solar Team were hot on their heels and closing the gap.

On what was certain to be an exciting final day of racing, the defending champions were determined to push forward and capture their 8th BWSC trophy. The Belgians, however, weren’t going down without a fight, having already cut the remaining lead to just two and a half minutes. Suddenly, just 263 km from the finish line in Adelaide, disaster struck. The cockpit of the NunaX filled with smoke forcing the pilot to pull off to the side of the road, where the Vattenfall Solar Team watched as their car caught fire and burned to rubble – along with any chance of defending their crown.

“It seemed we had the wind in our back: we were in the lead, driving 100 kilometers per hour when I smelled something burning,” describes team driver Tim van Leeuwen. “I asked our chase vehicle if it could be the car, but all measured values appeared normal. It wasn’t long before smoke filled up the cockpit. I immediately knew something was wrong.”

The Agoria Solar Team became champions of the Challenger Class for the first time in the team’s 8 attempts. Credit: Agoria Solar Team

1st time champions

Having finished 3rd in the previous BWSC and fresh off last year’s win in the Carrera Solar Atacama event in Chile, expectations were set high for the Agoria Solar Team from KU Leuven. With the cars of the strongest competitors being dealt fatal blows, the Belgians had a clear path to victory. Their car, Bluepoint, was tuned-in and maintaining strong form, having already eliminated the gap between them and the race leaders. With about 250 km to go, the KU Leuven students surged to the front of the pack to take the lead.

Despite a final push from the Tokai University of Japan, Bluepoint successfully held off any threats and was the first to arrive in the South Australian city of Adelaide. With an average speed of 86.6 km/h, the Agoria Solar Team took the checkered flag, completing the race almost 12 minutes ahead of the 2nd place finishers, to become champions of the BWSC Challenger Class for the first time in the team’s 8 attempts.

The final regional participants in the competitive Challenger Class were the newcomers from the Top Dutch Solar Racing team, who returned with some encouraging results. In its first ever solar competition, the team – which is a collaboration between the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, the University of Groningen and the Noorderpoort vocational training center – finished just off the podium. The team car, Green Lightning, crossed the finish line in 4th place, averaging 78.4 km/h on the 3,000+ km journey.

In the Cruiser Class, Solar Team Eindhoven celebrated its fourth consecutive win. Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

Cruising to victory

The lone Benelux competitor in the Cruiser Class was the three-time defending champion from Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE). Having won this division of the BWSC every time since its inception, Solar Team Eindhoven’s Stella Era had plenty of hype to live up to. Unfortunately for the students from TUE, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Stella Era. Just a few minutes into the first day of racing, the team was stopped by an untimely red light, situated at the foot of a steep incline. With no momentum to move up the hill, three of the team’s passengers were forced to get out to cut down on total weight. Then, on the 5th day of the competition, Stella Era’s warning lights came on and the car suddenly shut down, costing valuable time. Fortunately for the team, the issues could be addressed, and Stella was fast to get back on the road.

In the end, TUE was one of only three competitors in the Cruiser Class to finish the race before the judges made their assessments. The panel awarded the Stella Era with the highest score for efficiency, 111.7, as well as the most points for comfort and innovation, 93.1 – sending Solar Team Eindhoven to its fourth consecutive BWSC win.

“It was certainly not obvious that we could become world champions for the fourth time,” reflects team manager Carijn Mulder while speaking at the event awards ceremony. “All challenges have kept the team sharp during the preparations and the race until the last moment. We’re all very proud of our high scores and the victory.”