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  • Writer's pictureDaria Danila

Making and Racing a Solar Powered Car - The Journey to Australia

Updated: Jun 24

Green Thunder During the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge 2023 © Top Dutch Solar Racing

The work on one of the most exciting student-led projects in Groningen is being done in a small building, hidden in the north of the city. In a modest workshop, the Top Dutch Solar Racing (TDSR) student team is pushing boundaries by powering racing cars not with fossil fuel, but with solar energy.

In the 7 years since the project was set up, the TDSR cars have been comfortable on or just off podiums in global competitions. Most significantly, as first time participants, they placed 4th in the prestigious Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in 2019, which saw them racing their car, the Green Lighting, in Australia. In their second entry, which took place this past October, the team finished in 6th place. 

From designing, building and testing their car, here’s the Top Dutch Solar Racing team’s 18 month journey to driving across Australia. 

The timeline of Top Dutch Solar Racing participating in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge 2023 © Daria Danila

Phase 1 - Building a team, and a car

What compelled Rick Eichelsheim to apply and be part of TDSR was a drive to challenge himself beyond his studies. “It was gonna be a time for me to develop myself, and to bring my practice skills to a higher level,” he says. 

Rick became the leader of Team 23 in the autumn of 2021, and got to work with his team right away. Having to build an entire car from scratch, there was no time to waste. Brainstorming sessions preceded the design phase because, as Rick admits sheepishly, they “actually had to figure out how to build a car”. Because the team is made up of people from across academic disciplines who had not built a car before, there was a bit of a learning curve. 

The various parts and components were sourced, and as the car was built, it went through various tests. “It was very cool to be able to see all the hard work being put in to actually be successful,” says Rick. He found that the first few tests were a satisfying way of measuring the team’s progress. 

This was when the Green Thunder turned from an idea, into a real race car, albeit one that looks a lot like a spacecraft. Armoured with solar panels, the supple body is interrupted only by a clear dome covering the cockpit. In the tradition of TDSR’s other cars, its distinctive green colour is a clear standout when it speeds by.

The Green Thunder - Carousel Photo 1 © Daria Danila, Carousel Photo 2, 3 © Top Dutch Solar Racing

Phase 2 - Behind the Wheel

But what is a race car without a driver? Jochem Hulsebos worked both as a mechanical engineer and was also picked to be one of the team’s four drivers. “It was really nice to be able to do that. Even at home, I’m very into karting, so it was an amazing opportunity to be able to actually drive the car in the race,” he says. In addition to their other duties, the drivers also have to train and get accustomed to driving in the harsh conditions of the torrid Australian spring.

Almost two months before the race, the team traded the gloomy Dutch weather for the Australian sun. They packed light, only about a shipping container’s worth of equipment. The mostly-completed Green Thunder also arrived, with just enough time to test it in race conditions and for mechanical finishing touches.

 “We have to prepare because we're gonna be working hard, we're gonna have late nights, we're gonna be sleeping in the outback, and we also have a race to do,” Rick says. The sheer scale of this project meant that all the moving parts had to be very well choreographed to ensure a smooth race. 

As proud as he felt seeing the car he helped build in action, Jochem found the lead up to the race to be a “mental game”. As he was driving the qualifying lap, which would determine which position the team would start in, he remembers feeling more pressure than he anticipated: “Everyone was shouting, ‘C’mon, you can do it!’ and ‘Don’t crash it!’ as a joke, but I was thinking what if that happens? Cause that would be a massive fuck-up.”

Phase 3 - The Drive

The race itself is no mean feat. The teams drive their solar racing cars on the famous Stuart Highway, linking the cities of Darwin in the north and Adelaide in the south of the country. That is a distance of about 3,000 km, which is equivalent to driving from Groningen, to Ankara in Türkiye, except there are very few cities, landmarks, or even trees, to spruce up the views along the way.

“It’s so weird to see how empty it is. Every once in a while there’s a tree, but then it’s empty again. You drive for nearly three hours, then you pass through a little village in 10 minutes, and you’re in the outback again,” describes Jochem. 

The rules of the race stipulate that the cars can only be driven between 8 am and 5 pm, and the teams must complete the entire distance in 50 hours, while passing control stops along the way. On average, the Green Thunder covered around 600 km every day, between two drivers. 

But driving it, only 10 centimetres above the road in 50 degree weather, was not glamorous.   “Yeah it was really horrible,” Jochem admits laughingly. “There was so much adrenaline at the beginning that you didn’t really feel anything, but after a couple of hours, you felt your entire body going sore. You maybe forgot about it when you had to focus on driving, but it was still painful,” he says.

Phase 4 - After the Finish Line

With a few minor hiccups left behind in the Australian outback, and after 41 hours of driving, the Top Dutch Solar Racing team crossed the finish line in Adelaide, in 6th place. Out of the 38 teams which signed up, only 11 made it past the finish line in time.

“We were so proud of what we were able to achieve and what we did. It’s the accumulation of one and a half years of hard work, which culminates in just one day. We just got to celebrate that and be happy,” says Rick. And even though they did not get the result they had hoped for, finishing the race was rewarding enough: “When we saw that many teams didn’t finish, we really thought that we did a great job, I was really proud of that,” says Jochem.

After enjoying their achievements in the sunny southern hemisphere spring, it was time for the team’s return to their less sunny home in Groningen. Jochem had already graduated his Bachelors, and going from the intense work of building a car to not having much going on was unfamiliar to him. “For a year and half you had a car that you had to work on, but out of nowhere there was no work left to do on the car,” he says.

As he picked up the uni life he put aside two years ago, and prepared to pass on the baton to a new Top Dutch Solar Racing team, Rick realised that the time spent on the project is in no way a waste: “Sure, I have a study delay. But I built a solar racing car with 27 other people and successfully raced it across Australia.” Gleefully smiling, he added: “Plus, how many times can you say you competed in a World Championship?”

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