World Solar Challenge: How to win

Thanks, Nigel, for those two excellent guest posts! Now back to regular programming…

I have been thinking: How exactly does one win the World Solar Challenge? There are of course many, many factors. But here are three important ones that I can see:

Don’t decide to build a solar car

Instead, decide to build, test, and race a solar car. Those last two steps should not be afterthoughts. In particular, testing and race preparation take time – serious time. The top teams will generally run some kind of simulated race before the real thing, and will typically reconnoitre the Darwin–Adelaide route ahead of time as well (usually in reverse). Several teams are doing that this year.

Solar Team Twente running their simulated race in 2015 (photo: Jérôme Wassenaar)

Don’t start a club

By that I mean a group of like-minded individuals. Instead, what you need is a team – one with a diverse range of expertise. For example, in 2013, Team Nuon included a wide range of skills, including engineering, operations research, race strategy, media, and PR.

Nuon Solar Team in 2013 (photo: Jorrit Lousberg)

A successful team needs the right leader, and it also needs appropriate team-building activities to help mould members into a true team. This needs to happen at the start of car design, but also at the end of construction. Even if exactly the same people are involved, the “build team” and the “race team” are different teams, because they are structured differently. Several of the less-experienced WSC 2015 teams have reported interpersonal frictions that revealed themselves during early road testing. These are things that need to be resolved before the race!

Nuon’s “race team” structure in 2013 (colour-coding shows “build team” skills)

Don’t re-invent the wheel

First time around, mistakes are always made. So learn from those who participated in previous races – either from team alumni (this post by Michigan highlights the importance of team continuity) or (for new teams) from teams elsewhere. Some new teams this year seem to have done that quite well, judging by some excellent first-time-around designs.

Two generations of Nuon Solar Team (Nuna6 and Nuna7, photos: Hans Peter van Velthoven)


8 thoughts on “World Solar Challenge: How to win

      • We always tried to beat the idea behind your post into the heads of solar car teams, and that was the catchphrase we used.

        Every year, there’s some new hotness at WSC that everyone ooohs and aaahs over before the start of the race… but it doesn’t matter. Very few teams have the complete package together like Nuon does.

        It’s always a shame when a team shows up with a great looking, well built car, super confident in themselves… and then discovers that they have no idea how to actually run a race.

      • Yes, that saddens me too. It means that the car-builders never really get the chance to show what their creation is capable of.

        I recall that, in 2013, the Nuon team had several members with experience in other kinds of racing. Along with the solar car alumni, I’m sure that helped.

        One of the things that seems to frequently let new teams down is failure to identify necessary expertise (especially non-engineering expertise) and bring that into the team early on.

        And, of course, most rookie teams have no idea at all as to what 3,000 km of Outback looks like, and what it can do to a car.

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