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The temperature can rise to 50 degrees Celsius in a tiny cockpit. Who’d do such a thing voluntarily, one would think. But the TopDutch Solar Racing team from Groningen can’t wait to take on that challenge. Between 13 and 20 October, they will cross Australia from top to bottom in the World Solar Challenge. On Wednesday, the team unveiled the car with which they want to represent Groningen for the first time Down Under.

It’s a push for a place around the stage. Researchers, students, proud parents and journalists: they all want to catch a glimpse of the bright green solar car with which TopDutch will participate in the Solar Challenge this summer. The university teams of Twente and Eindhoven couldn’t resist coming to see the new ‘outsider’, even a Belgian team came to see what was going on.

On 13 October, the cars will be at the start of the world’s most legendary long-distance race for solar cars. The students will race from the northernmost Australian town of Darwin to the southern terminus of Adelaide, challenged by one of the world’s most rugged landscapes. Every day, the cars race between regular traffic from 8 am to 5 pm. Afterwards, the team sets up a camp next to the road.

Read more about the World Solar Challenge here.

“Too expensive, too ambitious”

© Karlijn Saris

Until now, only the TU’s of Delft and Eindhoven and the University of Twente participated in the competition. “Too expensive, too ambitious”, they thought here, says Erik Westerhoff, the team coach of TopDutch. But then some students, who had positive memories from the Solar Boat Race, came up with the idea of conquering the land with solar energy as well.

Their enthusiasm was infectious. Through applications and open info days, the team grew to 27 people: a mix of engineers, programmers, coaches and PR. All come from the University of Groningen, the Hanzehogeschool and the Noorderpoort College, a unique combination of forces in the Dutch history of solar racing. The expertise of previous solar energy projects was very useful in the construction of their futuristic-looking racing car, entirely focused on the most efficient energy consumption possible.

A small illustration of how energy efficient such a car must be built: it can use 5 kWh of stored energy during the ride. That’s only 10% of the energy required to reach the finish line. The remaining 90% must be fully generated by solar and kinetic energy.

Challenge on multiple fronts

It was quite a job to prepare the team for the race because, in addition to a show-off of innovative technology, the World Solar Challenge is also a huge logistical challenge. That is why TopDutch was already present at the previous edition in 2017, to observe another Dutch team. “We learned what you all have to think about in order to be able to race self-sufficiently for seven days. That helped us enormously”, says communications manager Eline Hesta.

The World Solar Challenge cannot be underestimated on a physical level either. Five students, without too much racing experience, have to complete the 3,000 km in three-hour shifts. A real battle of exhaustion, because under the bright Australian sun the cockpit of their racing car heats up to 50 degrees Celsius.

In order to be in an optimal condition at the start, the students have already done a lot of sessions in the gym and on the karting track. Moreover, the team leaves for Australia as early as fifty days before the start of the race to prepare for the warm temperatures in heat chambers, says coach Erik. Some team members have even temporarily stopped their studies because they realize that they won’t get this unique opportunity again soon.

‘Of course we can win’

The bare fact that such an inexperienced team has produced a race-ready car in two years time is a success in itself. According to Eline, it has already motivated the participating educational institutions to look for new interdisciplinary projects. “Ultimately, we want to train young technicians to become young professionals who are ready for the job market. What better way to do this than with such a project, where you are forced to think in a problem-oriented way and work in a team?”

TopDutch is not lacking any ambition. “Of course we can win,” says Erik. “Everyone who appears at the start has a chance.” As a team coach, he is especially interested in how the group will survive. “We all know each other well by now, but suddenly you’re extremely close together for ten weeks. How do we deal with unforeseen problems as a group? We’ll find out there.”

What does he look forward to the most? “The moment we can all jump into the fountain in Adelaide. That will give us such joy.”

In early July, the unveiling of the new solar car of Solar Team Eindhoven will take place. Innovation Origins will be there to report.