At 3 p.m. on the third Saturday in June, 56 cars stream past the starting line of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a multicolored, roaring blur. Two hundred forty thousand spectators have gathered around the 8.5-mile circuit in central France for the 80th edition of the race. Cars of wildly varying speeds will compete in four distinct classes, with the fastest entries vying for overall victory in a race that lasts an entire day and night. It is, in effect, four races happening simultaneously. Drivers must contend with passing and being passed by cars from other classes for the duration. Leading the pack are the Le Mans prototypes, purpose-built thoroughbreds capable of reaching 210 miles per hour. The slower half of the field consists of race-spec versions of street-going Ferraris, Aston Martins, Porsches and Corvettes, entrants known generically as GT cars. Starting in 28th place is a car that belongs to none of the official categories. Called the DeltaWing, its slender, black, needle-nose fuselage and wicked dorsal fin make it look more like a missile than a racecar. And if it's as fast and efficient as its creators claim, it will challenge a century of racecar design tradition.
For most of its history, Le Mans has been a proving ground for new forms of automotive technology. This year, two of the fastest cars in the race are hybrid-electric vehicles. The Audi R18 e-tron quattros feature electric motors attached to their front axles. The Toyota TS030 Hybrids carry supercapacitors that soak up energy while braking and discharge it for a quick burst of extra speed on straightaways. But the DeltaWing is an order of magnitude more radical than either of these cars. Its novel shape enables it to clock competitive lap times with an engine only slightly more powerful than the one in a standard family sedan. As the car's designer, Ben Bowlby, puts it: "The DeltaWing goes the same speed with half the weight, half the drag, half the power and half the fuel consumption."
Technically, the DeltaWing isn't competing with the Audis or Toyotas or any other cars in the field. It's the 56th entry in a 55-car race, filling the single demonstration slot reserved for experimental vehicles. Today the DeltaWing's three drivers will aim to complete each 8.5-mile lap in three minutes and 45 seconds. This is, for the record, about 20 seconds slower than the Audis and Toyotas. By cranking up the boost in the turbocharged engine, the DeltaWing could easily go faster—a lot faster. It could also have been fitted with a much bigger fuel tank, which would have allowed it go twice as far before pitting for gas. But to avoid any chance of a noncompeting entry upstaging the actual racers, officials have given the DeltaWing a target average lap speed of 135 miles per hour.
The car easily hit the target during practice. Surviving the race, though, will be a colossal challenge. The DeltaWing's four-man core design team has been working on the car for barely a year. Virtually every component was designed and built from scratch. The crew was still fitting parts to the car the day before it first turned a wheel, less than four months ago, and Nissan, the car's primary sponsor, didn't officially come on board until after the inaugural test. Top teams prepare for Le Mans by testing their cars for 24 or even 36 hours nonstop. The DeltaWing ran about 12 hours total before arriving here. What are the odds that a hastily assembled prototype representing the biggest departure from racing tradition in decades will complete one of the toughest tests of endurance in all of motor sports? "Nobody comes to Le Mans not to finish," says Jerry Hardcastle, a chief engineer with Nissan, the supplier of the car's engine. "But I will be smiling every minute the car lasts after two hours."
Well written article about a very interesting vehicle and even more interesting group of people. In conclusion, the author notes only two possible futures for the DeltaWing: create a set of equivalency rules to allow this dramatic departure from the current norm to compete with the norm, or scrap the rules altogether and establish weight and/or energy allowances for any vehicle used in competition. I would propose a third alternative. Here (the region around Charlotte, NC) in the heart of NASCAR country, an new type of entry level racecar was introduced some years ago. Like the DeltaWing, this new breed could not be fit into any current class of racing vehicle. So a new class was created just for this car style, called the Legends. A new class could be created for the DeltaWing, allowing interested parties to buy into and build their own, with sponsorship and any other financing means available, similar to what a NASCAR start-up would do today. Expensive? Sure. But wouldn't it be great to see an entire field of these sleek land missiles setting new world records in competition against each other? Just a thought.
Keep the great reads rolling!
F-Zero X type races are coming closer....
Fascinating. Thank you.
To the batmobile!
Great feature article. Le Mans should have an open class with only necessary constraints (for safety). Having an experimental entry winning the race would add excitement to that class of racing. I'd have to see more to buy into it entirely but the premise of eliminating dirty air practically makes it sale to me.
You can see the accident here:
... on first view it almost looks blatant but watch it a couple of times. The other driver does not even see the DeltaWing for quite a while as another car blocks the view of the lower profile Nissan. It certainly did look like pinball!
" Le Mans should have an open class with only necessary constraints (for safety)"
Actually, the LeMans race many years ago had a prize for efficiency. It took into account factors such as weight, engine displacement, fuel consumption, etc.
Cool car, great story. Take it Bonneville.
"Hello Commissioner Gordon. I'd like to uh...report a car theft... No it wasn't Robin joy riding this time."
"Its novel shape enables it to clock competitive lap times with an engine only slightly more powerful than the one in a standard family sedan."
I don't know about you, but around where I live, which is outside the US, the average sedan has about 120hp, far below the 300hp this vehicle has. I'm talking about an average Toyota Corolla, Mazda 6, Volkswagen Passat, or Ford Focus. You know, an average sedan.
High praise an applause to Ben Bowlby, the Gurney's and all involved with putting the Delta Wing on the track!
Thank you Mr. Lerner for an excellent article.
Motorsports have "been shedding fans, losing sponsors and struggling" because it shares a disturbing aspect of current American society. We are so focused on the safety of keeping our foot on first base that we don't see the rewards of stealing second.
Mr. Bowlby has much more true American spirit than most of the people born in the United States during the last 60 years.