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.
To find out more visit www.solarchallenge.org.za