Fin-topped solar car soars through winds and wildfires to victory
For the second consecutive time, a team from Belgium has landed in first place in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (BWSC), a competition that sees dozens of innovative solar vehicles race across the often punishing continent of Australia.
The BWSC takes place every two years and sees teams of engineers, mostly students from around the world, develop and drive a solar vehicle from Darwin, at the top of Australia, to Adelaide at the bottom.
For the Challenger Class, which the Belgians won, the single-seat vehicle is only allowed to have one driver at a time, although that driver can be swapped out as needed up to six times. The race takes place daily from 8AM to 5PM and teams have to be self-sufficient, camping out along the route at night and carrying everything needed to keep the vehicle in working order. If any driver weighs in at under 80 kg (176 lb), weights are added to bring him up to the minimum.
During the last event in 2019, the Belgians slipped into first place after the lead car, designed by a team from the Netherlands, burst into flames. For this year's race, which was the next to be held after 2021's event was canceled due to COVID restrictions, the Belgian team, Innoptus, maintained their narrow lead over the Dutch for nearly the entire time, finishing the course in 34 hours, 4 minutes and 41 seconds. That's an improvement over the 2019 time of nearly five minutes. The Netherlands team, Twente, came in second with a time of 34 hours, 24 minutes and 58 seconds.
Cars competing in the race can't be larger than 5 m (16 ft), wider than 2.2 m (7.2 ft), and must have at least three wheels. The solar array that powers them can't be larger than 4 m2 (43 ft2), which means that every bit of Sun is critical. That proved to be a challenge for the competitors along this year's route due to smoke from wildfires.
"We arrived first in Adelaide and that is because we followed our own strategy for 3,000 kilometers," said Cedric Verlinden, Innoptus team manager. "We had to anticipate a number of elements: there were bushfires along the way which meant less incoming power, other things like clouds and the weather which was constantly changing but we were able to stick to our strategy and anticipate all the time and that ensures that we are now first across the line here in Adelaide."
Innoptus team members put some of their success down to the unique fin they had on top of Infinite, which is the name of their winning car. The fin was designed to help the car stay stable in the face of crosswinds, which picked up along the course.
"Solar Team Twente definitely didn't make it easy for us," said Pauline Vanvuchelen who handles marketing for Innoptus. "We really tried super hard until the end to stay minutes ahead and we succeeded. The fin was our secret weapon and we did super well with it."
This was the 10th car the Belgians designed for BWSC, which has been running since 1987. You can see the Infinite reveal video below.