In the summer of 2014, the newly recruited team of 16 students started designing the Punch One, the sixth Belgian solar car. The 2013 team had built a very reliable solar car, which was a great baseline to start from. After the sixth place in the World Solar Challenge of 2013 and a third place at the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge in January 2015, the new team was aiming even higher for the upcoming World Solar Challenge of 2015. After a year of hard work, the team proudly presented Punch One in July 2015 and were confident they had an amazing solar car.
The main goal of the team was to optimize the performance on every aspect of a solar car, which included a more efficient solar array, new motor, much improved aerodynamics and many more details to gain every watt possible.
With this goal of “Perfecting Performance” in mind, the team left for Australia in September of 2015 to do some last preparations and tests before they could start the challenge. They completed about 2000 kilometers of testing on the Cox Peninsula Road without encountering any major electronic or mechanical issues. The car showed very promising figures in terms of energy efficiency and seemed ready to compete with the best.
Qualifications - 17 October 2015
The qualifications were held on the Hidden Valley Circuit in Darwin, one day before the actual challenge started. Our pilot Bert Longin drove a sharp time of 2:02, which qualified for fourth place in the Challenger class. There were some very fast laps in the Challenger class this year, with Team Arrow taking the pole position after an impressive lap of 1:54. We were happy with a fourth place on the starting grid, which meant we would make the drive out of Darwin easier as we would not have to overtake many other solar cars .
Day 1 – 18 October 2015
Around 8:30 AM, the solar cars started rolling into their journey from Darwin to Adelaide. Everything went smoothly and after leaving the city center, we could start increasing our speed up to 95 kilometers per hour. We had overtaken Western Sydney University, as well as the two Cruiser class cars in front of us from Eindhoven and Bochum. A while out of Darwin, we caught up on Team Arrow and greeted them while we moved further up front. By 11 AM, we only had Michigan driving in front of us and we seemed to slowly gain on them. It went perfect, too perfect. At 11:45 AM, the pilot felt a flat tire and requested a stop. All tires were checked but they all seemed pressurized. We didn’t know what else to look for, so two minutes later we were back on the road. Everything seemed fine again and we drove further, while debating what could have been the issue. Twenty minutes later, we monitored abnormal values in power usage and decided to look for a good spot to stop. While doing so, we noticed an object dropping out of our right rear wheel fairing. One the side of the road, we opened the rear fairing and noticed the wheel enclosure was badly damaged. We decided to remove the enclosure and perform a preventive tire change because the tire had been rubbing the carbon covers.
The entire operation was performed within seven minutes, but that was sufficient for Tokai and Twente to overtake us while we were stopped, setting us back to fourth position. From there on, it was only a short end to the first control stop in Katherine. We parked next to Michigan, Tokai, Twente and Nuon. Shortly after leaving the control stop, we noticed a problem with the motor, which dropped power intermittently. We expected that the wheel enclosure had resulted in strain on the cables between motor and motorcontroller, resulting in a faulty contact. We did another technical stop, which took another seven minutes. However, when we got back on the road, the issue wasn’t solved. Nevertheless, we figured that we could keep driving and decided to keep going to the rest of the day and fix it in the evening.
We reached the second control stop at Dunmarra at 4:29 PM, which meant we could drive out at 4:59 PM. However, we decided to keep the car in a tilted position for the evening charge, as this saved us the setup time so we could charge a bit more. Moreover, it was an ideal position in an open space to keep charging until sunset, and also get a proper charge in the morning. We camped there along with Stanford and Megalux.
After day one, we could conclude that we lost sixteen minutes in three stops and we stood at fifth position at about fifteen minutes behind Michigan who ended the first day in the lead.
In the evening we had a lot of work to do and the team worked late to repair the wheel enclosure and fix the motor problems. By 2 AM, the car seemed ready to go again.
Day 2 – 19 October 2015
The second day, we took off at 8 AM for a long stretch up to the control stop of Tennant Creek.
The motor issues seemed to be solved and the pilot confirmed everything sounded better. Our battery was pretty full due to the consecutive control stop and evening/morning charge. So when recalculating our optimal speeds, we set a speed of 105 kilometers per hour as we encountered a tailwind and anticipated the upcoming weather conditions. By 11 AM, we were only eleven minutes behind the leader, Michigan. Then, our solar car passed a cattle grid. Not the first of the day, but this one seemed to be more harsh and the impact caused the left rear wheel enclosure to get loose. We noticed it right away and stopped, removed the enclosure, inspected the tire and decided to leave the tire in place. The entire stop only lasted for three minutes and we could drive the rest of the day without any problems. We reached Tennant Creek, then continued to Barrow Creek, then drove on and ended the day right next to Tokai, camping alongside with them.
However, the day ended with some terrible news. We had to sit out a time penalty of sixty minutes for an incorrect overtake by our media vehicle during the first day. We could hardly believe it and were still hoping it was a mistake.
Day 3 – 20 October 2015
At 9 AM, we arrived at Alice Springs, the first control stop of the day. Nuon, Twente, Tokai and Michigan were still there and reacted very surprised when they read our penalty of sixty minutes on the leaderboard. We believed this was not justified and submitted an appeal. The clerk of the course decided we could delay the penalty time until the next media stop of Kulgera, leaving us time make the written appeal. We continued to Kulgera and then received the verdict that we had to do our one hour time penalty there. A hard moment for the team to sit there doing nothing while the other teams took off.
Nevertheless, we all kept our focus. We had a serious delay but we also had a well charged battery after charging for an extra hour. From Kulgera onward, we could use this extra energy. There was a headwind, but it appeared to come at a favorable angle. While we drove on, we saw the average power use decrease under influence of this side wind and we increased the speed to match it. We were effectively sailing, and the faster we drove, the more we took advantage of it. This led us to drive the rest of the day with speeds of 105 to 110 kilometers per hour, while still consuming less than anticipated. At the end of the day, we were curious to find where the others were. We did some scouting and found Tokai only 12 kilometers ahead of us, Michigan at 25 kilometers away and Twente and Nuon about 80 kilometers from us. While we had given up hope during our one hour penalty, a medal somehow seemed within reach again.
Day 4 – 21 October 2015
We started the fourth day only one hour away from Cooper Pedy, the first control stop of the day. The drive up to Cooper Pedy was excellent, although we had to stay focused due to abrupt winds. The control stop was an open space without traffic, but the turn was noticed too late and the solar car had to make an abrupt turn. The driver felt something went wrong with the rear wheel, but still could drive the car into the control stop. When we took a look, we noticed a snapped rod end at the rear suspension. During the control stop everything was analyzed and prepared. The rules state that any reparations to the solar vehicle can only be started after the control stop, so we waited and meanwhile had the time to put all our tools in place and distribute the tasks. The repair wasn’t simple, as it involved cutting and grinding of metal, but we managed to fix the problem and get back on the road in sixteen minutes.
Here is a time-lapse video of the reparation and departure at Cooper Pedy:
And as if that wasn’t enough: shortly after we were back on the road, the motor problem from our first race day returned. But this time, it was even more problematic and we had to pull over again. We replaced motor connectors until the signal came back and we continued our way. The problem stuck with us however and we had to do yet another technical stop. We suspected the MPPT box and decided to reroute the CAN circuit to bring the MPPT box at the end of the circuit and insure the stability of the CAN communication from steering wheel to motor controller. This one eventually did the trick and we managed to drive the rest of the race with this configuration without any further issues.
We were eager to reach Port Agusta before closure in order to combine the control stop and overnight stop, allowing us to avoid a setup and breakdown of the tilting system. We rolled into Port Agusta at 4:54 PM.
Day 5 – 22 October 2015
The final day, we left Port Agusta at 8:24 AM after serving the last part of the control stop. There was a strong headwind, but we knew we had a good morning charge and weather conditions were improving by the time we would reach Adelaide. We still managed to drive 100 to 105 kilometers per hour and when the headwind reduced, we could speed up to 110 kilometers per hour. At Angle Vale road, our finishing time was clocked at 11:12 AM, confirming our fifth position. Then it was time for the fountain on Victoria Square, followed by Belgian beers!
The justification for the time penalty of 60 minutes still seems strange to many, including ourselves. Nevertheless, we will try to give an explanation of what happened, as we believe teams should know so they can learn from it.
A couple of days before the race, a member of our team was speeding while leaving the Hidden Valley circuit in Darwin, an unnecessary mistake. A couple of phone calls and emails between the organization and our team manager led to the withdrawal of his driver's license. The organization seemed satisfied with this decision and decided to not give us a time penalty but an official warning, which meant that any further violation would lead to exclusion from the event.
We formally agreed to this. We were obviously not expecting any traffic violations, as this also never occurred in the past events were we participated. Our team member gave his sincere apologies towards the team and we decided to leave this behind us.
As a convoy, we paid particular attention to keeping the correct distances, following the correct safety procedures when pulling over, etc. However on the second day of the challenge, during the stop at Barrow Creek, we were informed about a penalty given for an overtaking maneuver by our media car which would have occurred on day one. We contacted Mission Controls to find out what had been the issue. We were told that our media car had made a mistake during the overtake of Stanford, by placing itself between their solar car and the chase vehicle. This is something which can lead to very dangerous situations and certainly is a no-go in solar car racing.
Our media crew was very surprised by this news and believed it must have been a mistake. They had been in communication with Stanford over the radio to request permission to overtake and did not recall any hazardous situation during this overtake. Fortunately, they could show video footage of their maneuver which clearly showed that they passed the chase and solar car in one fluent movement without placing themselves between both cars, without staying parallel to the solar car and without cutting in front of the solar car. A smooth drive-by.
We sent this footage to the organization hoping to get positive feedback. However, we received the response that the actual incident was what happened afterwards. Apparently our media car would have endangered the oncoming traffic, which had to slow down or move to the left to avoid a collision. This was again something our media crew denied, only this time they couldn’t prove it with video footage since the video stopped when they passed the solar car.
We do believe that in the spirit of the event, it would be certainly more helpful towards the teams if the penalties would be obvious from the moment they are handed out to a certain team. We appealed for this penalty, but received the answer we already expected. Normally, the penalty given to a team for this type of traffic situation would be ten minutes, in our case it was raised to sixty minutes due to the earlier warning for the Hidden Valley incident.
We fully acknowledge the importance of safety in this event, and we do not take this lightly. However, we have difficulty to match the severity of this penalty with what we see happening in the whole event. We believe in both incidents that occurred from our side, we did not directly bring anyone into a dangerous position. Up to today, we don’t know what exactly happened during the maneuver of our media car, but we did hear from a lot of other teams that our media car was always very respectful when they tried to pass.
Nevertheless, we will do our very best to learn from this and make sure to drive as correct as possible in any event. We hope to leave this behind and restart from a clean sheet in the future.
We also hope as many teams as possible do take notice and that it that sense this penalty will have had a positive effect on overall safety.
In terms of speed and energy efficiency, our car performed better than we had hoped for. However, we have to acknowledge the fact that in order to win in such a competitive event, there is simply no room for error. We had various technical issues which made us spend too much time on the side of the road.
We ended one hour and twenty-three minutes behind Nuon Solar Team, the winner of World Solar Challenge of 2015. Comparing with 2013, where we ended seven hours behind the winner, it is a huge step forward.
We know we lost about one hour to repairs and one hour at a media stop due to our time penalty. Moreover, we drove two days with partially removed wheel enclosures, which was not optimal for aerodynamics. On the other hand, we also charged the battery during these two hours of standstill, and the fact that we ended up driving closely behind others did place us in more favorable weather conditions on the last day.
As a conclusion, would it have been sufficient to compete for first place? We will probably never know for sure, but we think it would have been close.
This only makes us eager to improve and return for more races .
Thank you to everyone who supported us during the past 2 years!