KU Leuven’s solar car cruises to victory in gruelling desert race


The Punch Powertrain Solar Team has won its first gold medal in international competition, setting it up for a medal in next year’s world championships

Deserts and mountains

A solar-powered car built by students at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) has won a gruelling race in Chile, raising hopes that they may have a shot at winning the world championships. “This is the first time we’ve won gold,” said team leader Adrian Baiets. “We’ve worked extremely hard over the past six months to get here, and it was fantastic to lead a team like this to victory.”

The Carrera Solar Atacama is one of the toughest solar car races in the world. This year competitors had to cover almost 2,600 kilometres, travelling from the capital, Santiago, in the centre of the country to the coastal city of Arica in the far north.

This journey involved crossing the scorching Atacama desert and a part of the Andes mountain range, rising to 3,400 metres. The Leuven Punch Powertrain Solar Team took the lead after the first day and stayed in front, completing the course in just over five days, well inside the eight-day schedule.

Back from a crash

“We set out to win, of course, but it’s another thing to make it happen,” said Pieter Galle, one of the three drivers. He told VRT that hardest part of the race was through the Andes, where the climb was tough on the motor and the descent tough on the brakes.

Apart from a shaky first day, when the car came off the road, they only experienced a few electrical problems, which were fixed along the way. The team of 21 students celebrated their victory in the fountains of Arica.

Meanwhile, congratulations poured in on social media from university colleagues, companies and politicians, including innovation minister Philippe Muyters and education minister Hilde Crevits. The next challenge is to design a new solar car for the World Solar Challenge, due to take place in Australia a year from now.

Photo courtesy Punch Powertrain Solar Team