Sasol Solar Challenge 2014: A race of contrasts

  • There were never any doubts that the Dutch team Nuon Solar would win the Sasol Solar Challenge. They managed to travel 4 227,8 km, nearly 1 500 km more that the second placed Anadolu Solar team from Turkey. Credit: Sean Woods
  • The slick, professional manner Nuon Solar went about their business was a wonder to behold. While watching them attend to their vehicle at the mandatory control stops along the route I couldn't help but think Formula 1 pit crew. Credit: Sean Woods
  • Nuon Solar proved they could celebrate their wins as hard as they race. Every member of every competing team ended up in getting a good dunking whether they wanted it or not, including race organiser Winstone Jordaan. Credit: Sean Woods
  • The University of Cape Town battled right from the beginning of the race with serious mechanical issues. Here they leave a misty Swellendam with their car on a trailer until they can find a sunny patch to charge their batteries. Credit: Sean Woods
  • Although the University of Johannesburg didn’t make it to the podium with their high-tech Ilanga II vehicle, they did walk away with the event’s Technology and Innovation award. Credit: Sean Woods
  • Team UKZN took third place and was the top SA team for the 2014 Sasol Solar Challenge. Credit: Sean Woods
Date:9 October 2014 Tags:, , , ,

By now, competing teams in this year’s Sasol Solar Challenge – which ended in Cape Town last Saturday – have probably recharged their batteries (ouch) sufficiently to begin serious post-race analyses. For me, the take-home message from the event was simple: he with the biggest budget and most experience wins.

Five times world champions and twice runners-up, the Nuon Solar Team from the Delft University of Technology, were in pole position even before lining up at the start. They’ve been solar racing internationally for the past 14 years. That means plenty of postgrads with experience to aid the team. For them, Sasol Solar Challenge represented a training session for the world championships in Australia next year.

Slick and professional hardly begins to describe the manner in which Nuon Solar went about their business. All that wealth of knowledge and experience aside, they also had a budget that can only make local engineering students drool – upwards of R30 million.

The cash disparity between the two teams also highlights other realities. Because of Nuon Solar’s successful track record, the university backs them to the hilt; students on the team are let off from their studies.

At the other extreme, last-placed finishers University of Cape Town SVG understood exactly what they were walking. As first-time entrants in the Solar Challenge they had no pool of expertise to draw from. The entire team, made up of second and third year students, were busy with exams.

They had less than three months to build their vehicle in-house from scratch and encountered serious mechanical problems on the first two days of the eight-day challenge. Says UCT SVG’s Moin Hanif: “Around that time we were seriously thinking about withdrawing. It was so frustrating, our electrics worked fine, but we were having so many mechanical problems.”

On paper, UCT SVG may have come last, but I don’t see it that way. The underlying goal of the Sasol Solar Challenge is to increase interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and to boost knowledge about electric motors, battery systems and vehicle aerodynamics. For me, that makes UCT SVG winners.

For the full story and pictures see the December issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, on sale 17 November.

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