Solar Cars Compete in 2022 Formula Sun Grand Prix

With the completion of the Formula Sun Grand Prix, which also serves as the qualifier for the American Solar Challenge, teams have had a chance to not only go head-to-head against other colleges, but have also managed to get on the road for the next race.

The Formula Sun Grand Prix, & Qualifier For The American Solar Challenge

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Formula Sun Grand Prix winners in the Cruiser Class (multiple-occupancy vehicle) division were the University of Minnesota, first place; Italy’s University of Bologna, second place; and Appalachian State University, third place. Photo by Troy Tuttle

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Formula Sun Grand Prix winners in the Cruiser Class (multiple-occupancy vehicle) division were the University of Minnesota, first place; Italy’s University of Bologna, second place; and Appalachian State University, third place. Photo by Troy Tuttle

This year’s race threw teams a new curveball: multiple classes. In the past, students built cars that would only hold the driver, with no room for passengers and cargo. Obviously, these cars aren’t really practical for just about anybody. They don’t even have creature comforts, like air conditioning or a heater in most cases. But now, teams can compete in single-occupant or multi-occupant classes, meaning that more practical designs are going to be part of the race.

To incentivize vehicles with more seats and help develop the real-world viability of solar cars, the teams get a bonus for each seat for each lap, with the winning team racking up the most “person-miles.” So, if a team with more seats is a little slower than a team with only two seats, the team with more seats can still win.

“That’s been really unique for a lot of people to see like, ‘OK, solar cars can be a two-seater or a four seater car and be transporting people,’” said FSGP event director Gail Lueck. “And those cars also get judged on some practical features. So those are the cars that may have some cupholders, they may have an infotainment system in the car and you know creature comforts that can kind of give the public the idea that, ‘Oh, maybe this is something that gets worked towards in the future.’”

Once designed and built for the class the team wants to compete in, and shipped to the site of the Formula Sun Grand Prix, the real challenge begins, and NOT on the track. There’s a rule book governing design and safety considerations for vehicles that compete in both the Formula Sun and the subsequent over-the-road American Solar Challenge. And, the rule book is over 90 pages long.

This means that a thorough inspection, or “scrutineering” process has to happen to make sure everyone is following the same rules for both fairness and safety. This took a whole day last week to prepare cars for the track on following days.

The 3-day race took place on a 2.5-mile track at Topeka’s Heartland Motorsports Park. Cars had the opportunity to run from 10 AM to 6 PM Tuesday, 9-5 on Wednesday, and 9-5 on Thursday. Teams had to go at least 308 miles over two days or 205 miles on a single day to qualify for the next race, and the teams that could go the most miles on the power of the sun win the Formula Sun.

On top of that, each driver that wants to go on to the next race over-the-road had to spend at least 53 miles in the driver’s seat, so the race couldn’t be done by dozens of fresh drivers to cheat.

Formula Sun Results

Solar racing isn’t the fastest racing you’ll ever see, but it’s among the most technical. Whoever gets the most laps in over the 3-day race times wins, so it makes sense to save energy for endurance instead of sprinting to set hot laps.

The #1 team in the Single Occupant Class, Principia College, managed to get in 299 laps, for a total of 747.5 miles. MIT took second place, with 290 laps and 725 miles. The University of Kentucky’s team wasn’t far behind, completing 270 laps, for a total of 675 miles. Kentucky’s team also made the fastest lap on the 2.5-mile track in 3:08, or 47.5 MPH.

Out of the 13 teams who competed in the one-seater class, just over half of the teams qualified for the American Solar Challenge (7 teams). The other teams just didn’t get enough laps in to convince event organizers that they were ready for an over-the-road race.

For the multi-seater category, things weren’t as easy. The first-place team, Polytechnique Montréal, completed 270 laps, or 1355 person-miles with their two seats. The second-place team (University of Minnesota) completed more person miles, but achieved lower total points under the scoring system, while the third place team (University of Calgary) was behind the top two in terms of both points and person-miles.

Honestly, I’m just as confused as you about the points system, so here’s a verbatim quote of how this works from the Formula Sun website:

Scoring Formula
At FSGP the MOV Score (S) is calculated as follows: S = (D / E) x C x T

The variables are as follows:

T – Target Speed derating. For teams averaging below 30 mph their score is exponentially derated based on their average speed
D – Total Personal Miles (Person Laps * 2.5 miles) minus penalty miles
E – External Energy Used in kWh
C – Completion Factor as a percentage of the highest miles completed by any team Note for teams: See the regulations for full details, information here is simplified

I’m no solarmatician, but from what I can see, your speed needs to be higher and your efficiency also higher to gain more points per miles driven. This seems to be geared toward getting the cars to be more practical.

All but one multi-occupant team qualified for the over-the-road American Solar Challenge.

You can get the full results here.

Teams Go On To The American Solar Challenge

The teams that qualified at the Formula Sun Grand Prix are, as this is being written and published, competing on the next race. This time, instead of acting like NASCAR and going around the same track over and over (hey, in NASCAR’s defense, it’s easy to follow when you’ve been drinking), they’re going from Topeka, Kansas, to Twin Falls, Idaho.

This 1400-mile race happens in 4 stages over 8 racing days, including various checkpoints and stops. This means it’s happening over 10 calendar days. Average speeds obviously aren’t going to ever rival the Big Bend Open Road Race, but when you consider that the teams are not only driving on solar power alone, but have to build more practical cars, it’s still quite an accomplishment for nerds like us at CleanTechnica.

You can see results here and live-track the teams here.

Featured Image: Appalachian State’s car from a previous year. Image provided by American Solar Challenge


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