Under the circumstances, teething pains are inevitable. During the first qualifying session on Wednesday, driver Michael Krumm put all four wheels on the curb at a fast right-hander and launched the DeltaWing into the air. It flew 20 feet before landing so violently that the onboard fire-suppression system went off. Then, this morning, during a warm-up session held in the rain, an electrical box shorted out when water leaked through a bad seal.
Now, a half hour into the race, the DeltaWing is already having trouble. Engineers staring at the dozen laptop computers in the team’s cramped garage, poring over the performance diagnostics continuously beamed back from the car as it rounds the track, spot a worrisome spike in water temperature. After several minutes of debate—it’s fine, let it run; no it’s not, it’s going to overheat catastrophically—an engineer makes the call: “We have to stop now.” As the mechanics prepare for an unscheduled pit stop, the DeltaWing comes into view on a TV monitor in the garage. The source of the trouble suddenly becomes clear: A plastic bag has gotten lodged in the radiator inlet. Maybe this car does have a chance of crossing the finish line. When Krumm slides into the pits, a mechanic yanks out the plastic bag, and the car roars back onto the track, with just 23 more hours to go.
Historically, transformative racecar designs have arrived about once every decade, each one changing both the physical shape of the cars and the nature of the sport. In the 1950s, engines moved from the front to the back of racecars, thus eliminating the driveshaft and optimizing weight distribution, which improved handling. In the ’60s, cars sprouted wings that redirected airflow to pin the tires to the ground for better traction and higher cornering speeds. The ’70s brought ground effects, which sucked cars toward the pavement even more effectively using underwings cut into the bottom of the chassis. In the ’80s, lightweight, superstrong carbon-fiber chassis became standard. But starting in the 1990s, electronic aids such as active suspension combined with aerodynamic advances to make racecars so fast and so dangerous—contributing to the death of Formula One icon Ayrton Senna in front of a television audience of 300 million people—that rule-makers began slowing cars down. They banned the most exotic electronic aids. They intentionally compromised aerodynamic efficiency. And since then, racecar design has stagnated. “Most racecars are exercises in staying inside the envelope,” says Ricardo Divila, a Brazilian racecar designer whose credits include Formula One cars, the technical apogee of the sport. “Look at airliners. Boeings and Airbuses look alike because they’re optimized within a very narrow window of specs. It’s the same with racecars.”
The DeltaWing, by contrast, is the boldest racecar design in decades. With fuel and driver, it weighs about 1,250 pounds, roughly half as much as a conventional Le Mans prototype. The needle nose and clean bodywork reduce drag to the point that the car can hit 200 miles per hour with an engine that puts out a mere 300 horsepower.
The DeltaWing is also the most polarizing racecar in recent memory. From the moment the project was announced in 2010, armchair engineers have said that the DeltaWing’s narrow front track and four-inch-wide front tires would compromise its cornering ability, that its lack of wings would rob it of downforce and make it susceptible to flying off the road. (Last year the team sent out Christmas cards picturing Santa behind the wheel of a DeltaWing and an elf asking, “Are you sure that thing is gonna turn?”) The car is aesthetically controversial, too. Although fans liken it to the Batmobile or an SR-71 Blackbird, detractors call it hideously ugly. “Flying penis” is a common epithet.
Yet Bowlby and his team say that their unorthodox car can help revitalize a sport that’s been shedding fans, losing sponsors and struggling to adapt to a world in which the profligate consumption of fossil fuels is increasingly unfashionable. “Racing is going to die if we can’t capture the imagination of a new generation of motor-sports fans,” says Duncan Dayton, the owner of an American Le Mans Series team and an investor in the DeltaWing project.
For most of the past century, racecar designers have prided themselves on their role in improving all cars. Technology perfected in racing, from fuel injection and twin-cam engines to disc brakes and seat belts, made its way from exotic racecars to everyday econoboxes. But as the pace of racing breakthroughs slowed, so did the process of technology transfer. Today racing is such a singular and rarified discipline that there’s almost no relationship between racecars and street cars. Could DeltaWing bridge the two by making low-power speed cool? It’s certainly difficult to imagine a street car directly modeled on the DeltaWing. But the DeltaWing could demonstrate better than any vehicle that speed and economy aren’t mutually exclusive. “We have half the horsepower, and we burn half the fuel,” Dayton says, “and we can still make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.