When Sunswift 7 lines up to potentially break a new world speed record in December, it won’t just be the culmination of thousands of hours of work by a team of UNSW students over a period of 18 months through the perils of Covid and its associated lockdowns.
Instead, it will be the product of more than 25 years of heritage when it comes to producing high-performance solar-powered racing cars.
Sunswift 7 in testing at Sydney Motorsport Park. Photo: UNSW Sydney / Richard Freeman
Sunswift Racing, which officially unveiled its latest car this week, has been pushing the boundaries of solar vehicle technology since 1996 and enjoyed success in numerous races, most notably the World Solar Challenge, and collected motorsport records along the way.
The seventh car to be produced will aim to set the Guinness World Record for the fastest solar electric car over 1000km at the Australian Automotive Research Centre in Victoria, with the team hoping they can achieve an average speed of over 120km/h for the entire distance.
That will be just one reward for many months of hard work designing and building the car, which would have been difficult enough without the additional challenges of the pandemic.
Which is why Sunswift team principal, Professor of Practice Richard Hopkins, is immensely proud of everything the students have achieved just to get the car out onto the track.
“This is the result of the hard work of 50 undergraduate students who are very dedicated, very focused and very talented,” he said.
“They were given the freedom to create. The criteria was simply: build a car that has solar power and a battery. I had very little influence over what they chose to do within that – I just wanted them to make the best engineering decisions.
UNSW Professor of Practice Richard Hopkins talks with the Sunswift team during testing of the car at Sydney Motorsport Park. Photo: UNSW Sydney / Richard Freeman
Members of the UNSW Sydney student team who designed, built and developed the Sunswift 7 solar car. Photo: UNSW Sydney / Richard Freeman
“Sunswift 7 is the manifestation of their collective minds, who on day one probably had very little idea what they were doing. And now to produce this amazing car is just insane.
“Let’s remember, these are not the best paid professional car makers in Stuttgart working for Mercedes. This is a bunch of very smart amateurs who have taken all the ingredients and put it together in a brilliant way.”
Sunswift 7 should have been racing since the start of 2021, with events such as the prestigious World Solar Challenge on the schedule.
All that had to be shelved when Covid lockdowns severely delayed the build, and then also wiped out the majority of high-profile events as international teams were simply unable to travel.
But Prof. Hopkins, formerly Head of Operations for the Red Bull Racing Formula One team, was able to draw on his experience in the top levels of motorsport to guide the team through the challenges.
“That whole period of going in and out of Covid lockdowns reminded me very much of when I was in Formula One.
“In that high-pressure environment, when you are losing you can feel as if you are at rock bottom, but you know you have to retain your focus and work exactly the same as if you were winning,” he says.
“You draw on a resilience you never knew you had. I think in that situation, it was just important for the Sunswift team to continue to communicate.
“If we weren’t in a lockdown, we had to absolutely maximise the time we had because you never knew when something else was going to happen.”