Ping Cars Vol.3: The Summer’s Quietest Race!

When we left Tokyo, it was four in the morning and still dark. We were heading for the Suzuka Circuit, where Honda F1 Grand Prix will be resurrected in 2015. But saying that, our destination wasn’t to see Formula 1 or even motorcycle MotoGP. Under the blazing sun, we were there to watch a solar car race.

A solar car is of course, an electric vehicle that runs on power converted from solar energy absorbed by solar panels on its roof. It uses no gasoline and gets all its electricity from the sun. It is the ultimate eco car. And it’s also the star of the Solar Car Race Suzuka 2013, the world’s first racing event for solar-powered vehicles on a full international racing circuit. The main teams were schools and other groups, making this an event close in spirit to the summer Koshien high school baseball tournament, though one that showcased future mobility potential for Japan.

What is it about solar cars that we like? Well, for a start, their body design resembles a UFO. And because these vehicles were racing cars, each team’s know-how and ideas were tightly funneled into their machines. There were different divisions for race time (four or five hours) and per wattage. These were long races too, so endurance was vital!

Ping Cars visited the frantic pit lane teams, who kindly spoke to us about some of the cars we liked.

solarcarrace201301 First of all, let’s take a look at Hiratsuka High School of Science & Technology’s vehicle, which dazzled in the four-hour endurance race. Their car was really uniquely designed, a sort of insect shape. The students were able to design the body as they wished, so they used lightweight architectural materials that can be cut easily if heat is applied. The driver is sprawled inside the “caterpillar” for four hours! The solar panels also act as a sun visor.

solarcarrace201302 Team Miyako from Miyazaki Industrial High School made this car with a carbon monocoque frame, painting the bottom of the body black in order to bring out its super thin design to the max. It looks like a sharp-edged metal fighter plane!

solarcarrace201303 This vehicle by Nakanihon Automotive College is a three-wheeler built to be air and rolling resistant. Apart from the tires and body, everything is handmade. The rear-view mirror is also positioned underneath the solar panels so not even the smallest object affects the sunlight being absorbed by the panels. But am I the only one who thinks that the cabin and panels look a bit like a sushi roll?!

solarcarrace201304 Take a look at this masterpiece in minimalism, which looks just like Ittan Momen, the “roll of cotton” character from GeGeGe no Kitaro. Made by a joint team of alumni and current students, this is the first vehicle in nine years from Kyushu Tokai University and uses a carbon honeycomb structure. This one’s definitely full of potential!

solarcarrace201305 But graduates aren’t going to be outdone by students! Take the team from Olympus Hachioji, Olympus RS, whose vehicle has symmetrically designed solar panels on top and bottom. While it doesn’t have the downforce of other racing cars, it also doesn’t have the lift of a plane wing. But not just focused on high speed, this is a real mature class 2 vehicle that also places importance on improved average speed.

solarcarrace201306 This bright car is by Team Sun Lake, made up of people from the textile industry. It’s no surprise then that the inspiration for the design is the seamless LZR Racer high-end swimwear. The width of the vehicle is as narrow as possible, with a long body reducing the air resistance while maximizing the amount of solar power that can be captured by the panels.

solarcarrace201307 Goko Industrial High School’s solar car has a brillant way of opening and closing the cockpit. The whole front panel lifts up! The cockpit is inspired by a paraglider harness and also contributes to the stand-out body’s thinness. And then placing the position of the driver higher than the tires enhances safety for cornering. The attention to detail in the canopy and curve of the panels is also very delicately done.

solarcarrace201308 Another solar car from Goko Industrial High School, this one’s more like a box. Surprisingly, the specs told us that the weight of the two-seater is actually about the same as the other solar cars.

solarcarrace201309 Osaka Sangyo University dazzled to claim the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) Race division, and their solar car really ups the stakes. Though many teams went for slim bodies, OSU’s vehicle had a bulging silhouette. This meticulous design came about through experiment after experiment in a wind tunnel. And no doubt teamwork between students and industry in the east Osaka district, packed as it is with manufacturing know-how, is key to the design’s strengths.

solarcarrace201310 This solar car comes from the science faculty of Sakai Municipal High School, who have taken the winner’s podium an incredible fifteen years in a row since they first entered the contest. What’s the secret? “Being faithful to the basics.” And it’s true. Looking at the cars on the circuit, this design was the most orthodox. The picture of the sun on the front must have something to do with their success as well, plus they do test drives on the runway of Shirahama Airport in Wakayama prefecture.

solarcarrace201311 Ashiya University’s team color is an appropriate red, very evocative of the scorching sun. In the middle of the race this solar car was in a dead heat with OSU’s. Saying that, as the cars have electric motors, the race is an almost silent white-knuckle experience! Plus there are also alumni team cars which race against vehicles designed by current students at their alma mater.

solarcarrace201312 With its bright red color, this pit lane also made a big impression. Does the color perhaps remind you of a certain Italian automobile manufacturer with a famous prancing horse logo? Saying that, with the solar car suspended from the ceiling like this, the scene resembles a UFO garage!

solarcarrace201313 And last but not least, we spotted this particularly jolly model in the paddock. Made by students from Aichi University of Technology, the solar car is based on the body of a Microcar K-2 by Mitsuoka Motors. Since the cockpit isn’t closed like the other cars, its solar panels could function like a sun visor, making this by far the “coolest” car on the circuit.

So, how did you find these fantastical solar car designs? Most of the students had made use of a wheel hub motor, the kind of technology you usually only see in concept vehicles at motor shows, and their proficiency in next-generation technology was enviable. And keep in mind that many of the students were racing at average speeds of over 100km/h without even a driver’s license!

Having seen this showcase of talent and technology, Ping Cars is definitely looking forward to what new possibilities await future mobility.