World Solar Challenge: one road, endless possibilities
After overcoming technical difficulties, harsh terrain and more than 3000km of dangerous roads, the MTAA Super Sol Invictus solar car team has completed their second Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.
Held biennially since 1987, the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (BWSC) is the world’s most prestigious solar racing competition, attracting teams of secondary and tertiary students from around the world.
The aim of the challenge is to build a race vehicle entirely powered by the sun and journey approximately 3000km between Darwin and Adelaide on 20 October 2019.
This year eight Australian teams took part in the event, with another 36 from the USA, the Netherlands, Chile, Singapore, Japan, Germany, Hong Kong, Poland, Sweden, Canada, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
As expected, the 3000-kilometre journey from Darwin to Adelaide was gruelling for both car and support crew.
Despite almost two years of designing, building, and testing, the team faced unexpected setbacks.
A spinout in qualifications put the car well back on the starting grid. Battery issues on day one meant more delays.
From there it was a matter of enduring temperatures of up to 48 degrees, sharing the road with road-trains, and battling wind gusts over 80km per hour.
Overall, the MTAA Super Sol Invictus team ranked 25th in the Challenger Class.
Simply finishing was an extraordinary achievement. Several teams suffered race-ending accidents throughout the journey including one team’s car flipping in high winds and another bursting into flames just 260km from the finish line.
For Jacob Debono, a veteran of the team who has worked as the aerodynamics lead and the marketing lead over the five years, this experience has already helped him secure life-changing opportunities.
Jacob won a yearlong placement with the prestigious INFINITI Engineering Academy just a few weeks before the team was about to embark on its first Solar Challenge in 2017.
The academy provides an opportunity for seven world-class students to learn from veteran engineers and play an active role in INFINITI’s technical partnership with Renault Formula One Team. Furious competition
Jacob had to beat out more than 500 other applicants in the Asia-Oceanic region before competing against 10 other finalists in an intense round of engineering play-offs at INFINIT’s global headquarters in Hong Kong.
Jacob said the competition was fast and furious.
“I got this email saying pack your bag you’re going to Hong Kong in four or five days. For two days they put us in two teams and had us do all these different challenges – everything from scavenger hunts to building drag cars and racing them.”
The competition also became a crucial part of the Sol Invictus Team’s first World Solar Challenge campaign — mere weeks from the official launch of the car’s official launch.
“It was all hands-on deck to make sure the car was looking perfect and ready to go. So, I was having 12 to 14 hours days being assessed then I would go back to my hotel and call the team to find out what’s been happening. It was a very nonstop couple of days.”
Despite the bad timing, Jacob won the event and became only the second Aussie to ever to earn a spot in the final seven.
In 2018, Jacob relocated to the United Kingdom for a yearlong placement. Six months were spent working directly with the Renault F1 team. The other six months were spent at the INFINITI academy.
“It was a factory-based role in the aerodynamics team. So, I worked on the testing and validating design parts, particularly around the wind tunnel.”
When not testing parts, Jacob also volunteered on race weekends doing race strategy. This involved contributing to pre-race planning sessions to come up with plans to deal with track conditions, pit stops, and safety car situations.
During races, he helped communicate vital race intel throughout the team.
“I started off listening to the radio of the other drivers, mainly the ones were in direct competition of. Eventually, I was managing the team who communicated race information to the strategists.”
First steps to fulfilling a dream
Being a long-time race enthusiast, it was the kind of high-pressure, high-stakes experience Jacob embraced.
“My dream has always been to work in F1, particularly in a race team. My dream job would be to be Chief Race Engineer, so the guy on the microphone that you hear talking to the driver making all the key decisions.”
Another dream of Jacob’s is to earn the coveted motorsport “Triple Crown” of winning the Monte Carlo F1 Grand Prix, the 24 Hour Le Mans and the Indy 500.
“I always thought it would be cool as a race engineer to get a win at each of those events. It’s a bit farcical, but it would be cool if my career led me down a road where that was possible.”
Given the notoriously difficult path to join the motorsport industry, Jacob’s sixth months of experience with an established F1 team put him in a privileged position for the future.
“It’s the kind of experience most graduates don’t have. The nice thing about motorsport is that once you’re in, you have quite a bit of freedom to move because it’s not a particularly big industry. So even from six months in F1, I’ve got contacts in Indy Car and the World Endurance Challenge and the F1, F2 and F3 teams. It’s kind of insane how tight nit and how closed that field is.”
While the conditions in the F1 team were tough, Jacob credits his time helping design and build the MTAA Super Charge solar car for giving him the skills needed to flourish under demanding conditions.
“There were times I was working 12-hour days, seven days a week for weeks in a row. To me that wasn’t a big deal, because I am used to that through the solar car!” Putting learnings to good use
Apart from providing an opportunity for the world’s brightest minds to innovate and push the limits of sustainable technology, the World Solar Challenge gives young, passionate students a platform to expand their own boundaries and embrace paths they hadn’t previously considered possible.
For Jacob, this meant connecting with a purpose he never knew he was lacking.
“When I first went into uni I just kind of pottered along. I thought I’d get in, get out, then get on with the rest of my life. But by doing this project I found my calling. I was able to say this is really what I want to do and is something I’m really passionate about.”
The opportunity to compete against other engineers and to put his studies to practice outside of the classroom was also a big drawcard.
“One thing that always annoyed me about universities is you do these labs and assignments, but they are the same labs and assignments people did the year before you. So, you never feel like you’re doing anything unique or challenging the way you think. But through [Sol Invictus], even though the race has been going for 30 years, we’re always looking for advantages, for things people haven’t come up with before.”
With a bright future full of possibilities, Jacob is certain he’ll look back on his time in the Sol Invictus team with fondness — despite the hard work involved.
“At the end of the day, after all the hours you put into it, there’s something unbelievably satisfying and overwhelming about seeing the car drive for the first time. It’s the same for everyone else in the team — everyone who built it, everyone in the business team, the machinist that we work with, the academics involved. Seeing this car out there and driving is just an extraordinary feeling.”
The next World Solar Challenge takes place in 2021. The Sol Invictus team is already making plans.