UK Formula 1 design put to test in 3,000km world solar car race

Paul Boughton

A radically new solar car, incorporating Formula 1 design concepts, will compete in this year’s Bridgestone  World Solar Challenge. The vehicle was designed and built by the Cambridge University Eco Racing (CUER) who will be up against 40 other teams from across the world.

The CUER team of students and their vehicle, which are now in Darwin Australia, will speed across the harsh landscape of the Australian interior starting 6th October and covering 3,000km. The drivers will experience temperatures of 40˚C+ and will be trying to avoid bushfires, which nearly scuppered last years race. Australian road testing is underway because of the great disparity between local conditions and the UK.

Replicating the temperatures (or even just the sun) of the race in the UK is no easy task. However, the team were provided with access to Jaguar Land Rover’s state-of-the-art environmental testing facility in Coventry where they could test the car’s cooling. Adequate cooling is essential for the performance of the space-grade solar cells, but equally important for the driver, who must endure 4 hours stints in the tiny cockpit. The team is also rehearsing for control stops (the WSC equivalent of pit stops), using experience imported from a number of F1 teams. The standards for changes at control stops are incredibly high: in the 2011 competition, the 4th placed team could change a driver and two wheels in less than 30 seconds.

The team is also keen to inspire young people about the potential of solar technology. During their stay at Kormilda College they’ve given demonstrations of the working car to young science students to demonstrate what their studies can lead to. This follows on from the numerous school trips the team has made in the UK and events at places including the London Science Museum to take the car’s technology to a wider audience. In addition, members of the public can contact the team through their “Ask an Engineer” feature on CUER’s website.

Recent rule changes have levelled the playing field, replacing 3 wheels with 4 and drastically changing the shape of cars to make them safer. CUER’s game-changing solar car ‘Resolution’ takes full advantage of these changes, and has just emerged from its final stages of manufacture in the BOC Workshop Facilities in Darwin. The car contains a number of technologies not seen before in the World Solar Challenge. Foremost is their decoupling of the car’s solar and aerodynamic performance using an aft-facing sun tracking plate for its solar panels, and optically transparent canopy. By tracking the sun’s trajectory the car receives 20 per cent more solar power. The result is a vehicle that rewrites the rulebook for solar vehicles within the new race parameters.

The car is built from an ultra-lightweight carbon composite chassis like those found in Formula 1, and a dynamic wheel steering system that minimises the car’s drag.  An electric motor that is over 98 per cent efficient and regenerative braking system gives the car greater energy efficiency. All of these features allow the car to hit speeds of up to 140kph.

This year the car’s software will combine live weather data, traffic information, the elevation of the course and data from the car itself to respond to the danger of bushfires and receive the most sun to get the fastest race time. All of this information is relayed from the chase car to the driver via our telemetry system, which can also be used to send tweets of encouragement! Watch out for our upcoming app, where individuals can follow the team’s progress in real time.

However, the team knows that the race is not just about building the fastest cars. The race itself is a significant challenge for these Brits not used to Australian climes. Emil Hewage drove CUER’s entry in the 2011 competition. He says that the biggest challenge was a sudden bush fire.

“Our scout car saw the fire and importantly, the shadow cast by its huge smoke plume.  In this competition you are always balancing the budget of energy input against speed gain. It was a race to get back to the sunlight.”

This year the race has attracted over 40 entries from teams all over the world, and Keno Mario-Ghae, their Team Manager, does not underestimate the competition: “The margin between first and second place in the 2011 race was just 30 minutes. The narrowly beaten Dutch team had previously won the race four times in succession, so we are not underestimating the strength of the competition”. Nonetheless, Keno is quietly confident about his team’s chances: “we’re entering a wholly new design this year, packed with interesting technologies.”

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