Thinking outside the cube: the solar team courting AWS, Audi and TV
21 Oct 2023
By Matthew Ward Agius | Cosmos
Australia doesn’t have a Formula One team, but it does have a unique, high-performance outfit being run just like one.
Not in Supercars, or any other form of motorsport, but in solar car racing.
The team – Sunswift – is based out of the University of New South Wales in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It made headlines earlier in the year after setting a world record as the fastest electric vehicle over 1,000km on a single charge.
That car, while more similar in shape to a sportscar than an F1 racer, has nevertheless been developed and refined with an elite sporting approach to team management and product development under the oversight of project chief Professor Richard Hopkins, the former head of operations for F1 team Red Bull Racing.
His workforce, now, is comprised of volunteer students from the university.
“This became a ‘pay forward’ project for me, but I want it to be the best in the world,” says Hopkins, who was with Red Bull Racing for nearly a decade – in which time it won four world championships. He continues his involvement in petrol-powered motorsport as a high-performance advisor to the Walkinshaw Andretti United team in Supercars.
Tesla chief Elon Musk knows Sunswift by name, such is the glut of talent that emerges from solar racing teams and makes it into the world-famous EV maker, itself started by a former racer, JB Straubel.
“But I want it to not just be Elon Musk, but everybody to know who Sunswift Racing is, and what we do.”
Sunswift 7, the team’s current car, clad in a British racing green livery, ticks all the boxes for the 2023 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.
Hopkins wants to see the team’s next car aspire to bigger things and he admits that, right now, the designs being drawn up for Sunswift 8 would be non-compliant with current solar challenge regulations.
The car after that – Sunswift 9 – is targeting a debut on the 2026 Le Mans starting grid.
“We won’t stop doing the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge,” Hopkins says, “but it just becomes one thing we do, rather than the thing we do.”
This is nothing new for solar teams that build passenger vehicles. The undefeated champions from Eindhoven in the Netherlands opted out of competing in this year’s Bridgestone World Solar Challenge to build and trial a solar off-roader in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
Unlike F1, the Solar Car Challenge isn’t broadcast live, but fans and people interested in the technology can still get a glimpse of the action.
UNSW’s live feed from the race will likely reach the widest audience, at least in Australia.
Through partner AWS (Amazon Web Services), telemetry and video footage will be uploaded to the cloud and beamed back into the “Sunswift Cube,” which will act as a shopfront for the team for Sydney locals to view its progress through the outback. The process will be facilitated by about 60 Sunswift crew members who didn’t make the trip to Darwin.
AWS, along with vehicle supplier Audi, have been integral to the expansion of the team, and further exposes the student crew members to the world’s leading technology companies, though he admits it’s been a half-decade battle to bring corporate Australia along for the ride. Now, these along with other behemoths like Optus, Bridgestone and 3M are counted among its partners.
Hopkins notes, however, that the benefit isn’t all one way – when AWS and Sunswift came together to plan the Guinness World Record attempt, it was as equals.
“My students learn a huge amount, but so do the five AWS people [in the room] learn a huge amount,” Hopkins says.
“I think that level of engagement, collaboration, partnerships and teamwork came as a surprise for AWS – how much they learnt, and how much data was shared both ways.”
Exposing the next generation of engineers, designers and, yes, operations managers like him is all part of Hopkins’ vision for the team. While he’s had buy-in from UNSW, he admits it’s been a half-decade battle to bring corporate Australia along for the ride – something that has been aided by concerted relationship-building – including with the likes of major players like Amazon, Audi, Optus and Bridgestone.