The DeltaWing brings radical innovation and progressive efficiency to the premier automotive testing ground: the racetrack. We’ll look at the origin and history of this revolutionary race car as it continues to capture the imagination and interest of enthusiasts around the world.
You remember where you were the first time you saw It.
It might have been at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with its enthusiastic designer expounding on its revolutionary lines. Or perhaps it was at the Chicago Auto Show, surrounded by curious car buffs. Or maybe it was racing down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans, a bullet in black. But you remember.
The DeltaWing commands your attention, your curiosity, your imagination. Such are the traits of innovation, like the Wright brothers plane, the Apollo command module or the first iPhone. Suddenly, the impossible is not only possible, but real.
Originally designed by Ganassi Racing Technical Director Ben Bowlby as a successor to the outdated IndyCar chassis, the DeltaWing is not just about looking different – it is about transforming the motorsports and automotive industries with radical innovation. Racer magazine calls it a game changer
Bowlby’s original design was in response to calls for a new IndyCar chassis. He had grown tired of the spec racer formula; the regulations stifled design and innovation. As he watched motorsports viewership decline worldwide, Bowlby looked at the smaller format engine technology that was entering the forefront of the automotive industry and realized that this technology was eminently relatable to racing fans. There had to be a way to use a small engine to create an entirely new package-one that would be more efficient and still provide the performance that a premier race car demands.
The resulting design bore more of a resemblance to a fighter jet than a conventional race car, with the car’s design creating a low pressure system under the car, which produces downforce. The DeltaWing’s radical design reflected what was happening in the real world; cars in the mainstream automotive market were increasingly lighter, had less drag and were much more efficient. Put that whole concept together-the aerodynamics, the lighter weight (with 75% of the car’s weight in the rear of the chassis) and the efficient engine-and you have a car that uses half the fuel and half the tires of a conventional race car.
When IndyCar organizers chose to remain with the spec racing formula, Bowlby went looking for somewhere to go racing. Sports car racing was the obvious choice, so armed with an introduction from Don Panoz, they presented their case to the ACO (Automobile Club de l'Ouest). Impressed, the ACO offered them a position in “Garage 56,” a spot in the 24 Hours of Le Mans created for experimental vehicles. With the ACO’s endorsement, they knocked on the doors of some of the legends in the game, men who have been defined by their entrepreneurial spirit and refusal to accept limitations - Panoz, Dan Gurney and Duncan Dayton.
Panoz took on managing director duties, coordinating the plethora of pieces required to get the project off the ground. Gurney’s All American Racers would build the revolutionary car at their California shop and Dayton’s Highcroft Racing would be the racing team. All they needed was a car.
Bowlby’s original design needed some modifications – for example, the lighter front end of the car had already been updated to run on two small tires instead of the single front tire the initial model had displayed (with Bridgestone creating the remarkable 4” front tires) and the car became a two-seater. The team also needed partners; since creating a chassis from scratch would be time consuming and expensive, AAR bolted composite components onto the central tub. Nissan Europe provided the direct-injection turbocharged 4-cylinder racing engine and Michelin produced the bespoke 4” front tires.
The dream had become a reality. It marked the starting point of the DeltaWing as an actual car, not just an idea. From there, the developmental process truly began to mold the car into a proven technology, and to validate the “game changer” label placed on it. Its testing would take place in front of the world, at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Le Mans saga is well known – the DeltaWing easily achieved the 3:45 lap speed required by the ACO tomake the race, qualifying with a time of 3:42:612 and receiving universal praise from drivers Marino Franchitti, Michael Krum and Satoshi Motoyama. But six hours and 15 minutes into the race, Motoyama was forced off the track by the Toyota prototype and crashed into the Porsche curves. Motoyama made a heroic 90-minute attempt to fix the damaged bodywork (with as much help as DeltaWing mechanics could provide from behind a fence, as cars are only allowed to be worked on by team members when they are in the pit lane) but devastatingly for the team, the car could not be repaired.
The overwhelming feeling, however, was a triumphant recognition that the DeltaWing had achieved itspurpose. The first set of tires taken off the car during an early pit stop showed little wear and lighter, little-tested components had held up far better than expected. It took very little convincing to put another stop on the DeltaWing’s tour; the American Le Mans Series season finale at Petit Le Mans. The 10-hour American classic would give the DeltaWing the chance to finish what it had started at Le Mans – and finish it did. Running as an unclassified invitational entry, the DeltaWing not only finished the 1000-mile race, drivers Gunnar Jeannette and Lucas Ordoñez demonstrated stunning pace throughout the race to finish fifth overall.
The DeltaWing had done what it set out to do; not only prove that the car’s ground-breaking design features were absolutely competitive, but show that efficiency in design and power can translate to supreme speed and driveability. So in February it was announced that the DeltaWing would join the ALMS circuit and its premier P1 category, managed by sports car veteran Dave Price and engineered by DeltaWing co-designer Simon Marshall.
Panoz relishes the road ahead, as his team takes over the engine and chassis development process. But he, like everyone on the DeltaWing team, believes they can succeed.
“First of all, it’s a challenge, because the DeltaWing is something completely new,” said Panoz. “When you consider the performance of this car, it is the performance of a hybrid but it doesn’t need batteries and an electric motor. It’s all based on aerodynamics and physics. It’s certainly very green; it’s half the weight, half the fuel, half the tire wear, half the horsepower yet the same performance."
First up was the Mobil 1 Presents the 12 Hours of Sebring. Testing prior to the race went well, qualifying went well, the race started well-until an engine gremlin put the DeltaWing on the sidelines. Driver Andy Meyrick focused on all the gains the program had made, pleased with the performance of the team.
“Everybody on the team has put in a very good effort – the crew, the engine guys, the whole team – it’s been very impressive,” said Meyrick. “It is a real privilege to be part of this racing program. The DeltaWing is a revolutionary racing car that challenges the way we go about racing. Don Panoz is one of the key supporters of sports car racing in America and worldwide and I have full belief in the program and team that he has put together.”
Joining the team at Monterey was open wheel and sports car veteran Katherine Legge. Her first impressions of the car were positive ones.
“It brakes well, it turns really well and it is really fast in a straight line,” said Legge. “It drives like a really good racing car. It is very stable and I also am impressed with the way it handles. It is really neat to get it going.”
Monterey proved to be another milestone for the young program, with Meyrick and Legge earning the DeltaWing its first podium finish in the P1 category. But the year's highlight came in August at Road America, a track well-suited to the car's low weight and straightline speed. The DeltaWing saw the front of the field for the first time, leading 16 laps on its way to a fifth place finish overall in the Orion Energy Systems 245. Meyrick and Legge each led eight laps in the two hour, 45-minute event, with Legge becoming the first woman to hold an ALMS race lead.
Step one was getting the spyder on a successful trajectory: step two was building the coupe version in line with 2014 ACO LMP1 rules which require a full cockpit for the driver. The DeltaWing coupe made its debut at Circuit of the Americas in September, receiving a great deal of attention from the sustainability-minded Austin media. Petit Le Mans, the final race of the season - and the final race of the American Le Mans series, created by Panoz in 1999 - saw the hometown team on the podium once again.
The development of the DeltaWing has taken place under an unprecedented microscope, with each step of its progress observed by an international audience. The eyes of the motorsports world – and technology entrepreneurs around the globe – remain on the DeltaWing as it continues to impress. As Automobile Magazine said when naming the DeltaWing its 2013 Racing Car of the Year “the genie is out of the bottle and we intend to embrace it.”