Ben Bowlby vowed to create a race car that could compete with its rivals on half the power and half the fuel. Critics said it wouldn’t work. To prove them wrong, Bowlby put the DeltaWing to the test at Le Mans. PM was there on the pit lane to record the results. By Steven Cole Smith
In the 80 years of racing at Le Mans, the track stewards had never seen anything like it. As the sleek black car eased its way on to the grid, they could not help but marvel at the long, thin nose and the bulging, Batmobile-like tail. Even among the various classes of cars – the winged prototypes, the Porsches, the Ferraris – that surrounded it, waiting for the race to begin, the DeltaWing stood out like a beacon. Its custom-made front tyres each measured only 10 cm wide. They sat less than two-thirds of a metre apart, making the craft look like a jet-propelled tricycle. For months, it had been hailed as the future of motorsport, the most efficient race car on the planet, but many questioned whether the thing could even turn.
A half-mad experiment orchestrated by the engineer Ben Bowlby, the car had barely been tested. Bowlby’s one-time boss, Chip Ganassi, who owns IndyCar, Nascar and Grand-Am teams, summed up the project in what would become the DeltaWing mantra. “Here are the key points,” he said. “Half the cost of the current car, half the weight, half the drag, half the downforce, half the fuel – same speed.”
For his part, Bowlby wanted to turn heads, too. Dismayed by the lack of innovation in racing, he longed to give his three children a reason to click on the TV and wonder at the technical prowess in the sport he loved. Without question, his dream machine looked fierce. If you peeped under the carbon-fibre body, though, you couldn’t help but see how delicate the DeltaWing team’s hopes were. The rear axles were not much bigger around than those on a riding lawnmower. The front suspension had been assembled using springs the size of a Red Bull can. They resembled something you’d find on a mountain bike. To get the DeltaWing down to fighting weight – under 550 kg with driver and fuel – the crew had to sacrifice some heft. Bowlby himself had said it would be a “mighty miracle” if the car finished the 24-hour race. His backers hoped it would run long enough to prove its point.
Now nearly 600 million people were watching worldwide to see how it did on the track.
Ben Bowlby has been designing race cars for 25 years, first for the international manufacturer Lola Cars, then as Ganassi’s technical director. Like most engineers, he’d thought a lot about how to do things better. And like his motorsports peers, he always found himself stifled by racing’s rule books. “I realised that I was part of a dinosaur industry,” he said.
In 2008, at Ganassi’s urging, the bushy-browed Brit began sketching a revolutionary vision, a lightweight rocket powered by a modest engine. He knew that the world’s car manufacturers were pushing for e ciency. With uctuating fuel prices, rising costs and mounting cries for environmental awareness, they were clamouring for sensible solutions. By contrast, motorsport was inching down the road towards eco-conscious racing. Bowlby dared to give it a great big shove.
To test his idea, he built a small radio-controlled model. To his delight, it worked. With backing from Ganassi, he created a full-sized model in Indianapolis in 2010. The IndyCar series was planning to unveil a new chassis for the 2012 season, and the two men threw themselves headlong into the competition.
Ultimately, the concept was just too radical. The racing world had not taken such a great leap forward since the late 1970s when Lotus’s winged ground-effect cars stormed the Formula One circuit. IndyCar opted to stick with the Italian manufacturer Dallara Automobili. Bowlby was crushed.
His hopes for a thumbs-up had vanished – or so he thought.
Three months later, he pitched the idea to the French board that oversees the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Intrigued by the notion of a fuel-efficient race car, the group o ered him a berth in its newly christened Garage 56, a showcase for experimental cars. The DeltaWing would not compete, but it would get to run with the 55-car field.
Bowlby had one year to streamline the design, build the car and test it. To succeed, he’d have to shave nearly 500 kg from the typical Le Mans prototype. That meant rethinking everything, from the tyres to the transmission to the brake and exhaust systems.
With little prospect for a series-wide licensing deal, Ganassi was ready to move on, so Bowlby talked his way into the All American Racers shop, founded by Dan Gurney.
Besides being one of America’s best car builders and a legendary driver, Gurney, now 81, is regarded as a novel thinker, the first man to wear a full-face helmet in Formula One, the guy who started the tradition of spraying champagne on the winner’s podium. “I don’t know when a car tickled my innards the way this one does,” Gurney said. “I can’t remember an innovation that has the visual impact that the DeltaWing does, and the technology makes so much sense.”
The DeltaWing’s first on-track test, at Buttonwillow Raceway Park, a dusty little road course in the California desert northwest of Bakersfield, was scheduled for the first week of March. The car needed an engine. Bowlby and team pitched many manufacturers; only Nissan of Europe bit. The company agreed to supply the 1,6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engines on one condition: the DeltaWing had to prove itself on the track.
A handful of reporters were present when the car took its first tentative laps, then broke down. It took a few more, then broke down again. Despite some wiring glitches and minor brake and transmission issues, the car cobbled together enough laps to demonstrate that, yes, it was fast, and, yes, even with those tiny front tyres, it could handle racing turns.
Day after day, the thrash continued. The crew of about a dozen worked tirelessly in the small concrete garage. Each problem was met and resolved in a climate that resembled that of a high-tech start-up or the early days of the space programme – people toiling, sometimes without pay, on a project that might make history. They’d work until dark, set up lights, and work some more until 1 am, when they’d all head to the Motel 6 and sleep until dawn.
Nissan dispatched its own drivers and engineers to put the car through its paces. To protect the company’s interests, they arrived in plain clothes. The DeltaWing passed the test.
On 13 March, Nissan announced that it would power the car. Due to the tight deadline, however, the company contracted with a British race workshop to custom-build an engine based on Nissan’s design. In the end, the only genuine Nissan part included was the throttle-body assembly.
When the DeltaWing rolled on to the Le Mans track on 16 June, Michael Krumm of Highcroft Racing was sitting behind the wheel. Organisers had advised the team to have fun during the 24-hour endurance test – so long as the car didn’t interfere with the racing. Among the field were two classes of prototype cars and two classes of GT cars such as the Porsche 911 and the Ferrari 458. Bowlby had predicted that the DeltaWing would qualify at speeds comparable with some prototypes, and it did. Krumm – who would share the driving duties with Marino Franchitti and Satoshi Motoyama – admitted he could have gone faster. His top speed was measured at nearly 310 km/h.
The fans at Le Mans cheered when the DeltaWing took to the grid. At 3 pm, the race got under way. Thirty minutes in, Bowlby’s team encountered its rst challenge. A piece of plastic flew into the opening for the radiator, and the engine began to overheat. Next it was brake trouble and then issues with the gearshift – both a result, Bowlby said, of faulty of-the-shelf parts.
In the end, it wasn’t technology that did in the car, but human error. Several hours into the race, Motoyama took the wheel. Soon after, a Ferrari 458 Italia clipped the side of a hybrid Toyota TS030. In a chilling reminder of what happens when you push a car to speeds of 300 km/h, the Toyota went airborne, sailing into a steel barrier behind a wall of cast-off tyres. It took more than an hour to remove the battered cars and attend to the Toyota driver, who had fractured two vertebrae. In the meantime, Motoyama circulated behind the pace car with the rest of the field.
Just after the 6-hour mark, racing resumed. On the first lap, Motoyama did what he’d been instructed to do, pulling to the far right of the track, well clear of the hard-charging cars behind him. Kazuki Nakajima, rookie driver of the remaining Toyota hybrid, was not nearly as careful. In a split-second lapse of judgment, he drifted into the DeltaWing’s side, sending Motoyama into a concrete wall.
For a moment, a stunned silence swept the DeltaWing garage. A flurry of activity followed.
Race rules permit the driver, and only the driver, to work on the car. While safety crews pulled the DeltaWing behind a barrier, members of the crew rushed to the crash site with tools in hand. For more than 90 minutes, Motoyama toiled on the vehicle, dashing to the fence for advice. The front steering was broken, as well as one of the rear drive axles. As darkness fell, reality descended on the team. The DeltaWing’s day was done.
Motoyama walked through the gate into the crowd. Beneath his Arai helmet, he cried.
The car was loaded on to a flatbed and taken to the impound lot. A crane lowered it into a parking space. The truck crew finished up and drove away, leaving the car and three big pieces of carbon fibre in a dark corner of the fenced parking area.
In the hours after the crash, Bowlby shared his thoughts with a member of the Highcroft team. The car had achieved its goals, he said. It kept pace with the prototypes using basically half the fuel and half the tyres. “Let’s hope we can bring it back as a race car,” he added, “not just an experimental vehicle.”
Don Panoz, the mercurial chain-smoking millionaire who helped bankroll the project, is eager to make that happen. Next month the car will appear in the Petit Le Mans race in Atlanta, he says. And he plans to race DeltaWings next year in his American Le Mans series. The question mark is Bowlby, who did not have a single day o in the 12 months before Le Mans. He has no financial stake in the project. Indeed, as the pressure to deliver intensified, the engineer seemed to sag under the weight of the expectations. As he hugged his crew and said farewell in the garage, he looked taller, as if a great burden had lifted.
Doug Fehan, head of the Chevrolet Corvette racing programme, fielded two cars powered by massive 5,5-litre 375-kW V8 engines at Le Mans. An hour after the DeltaWing crash, he sat in the pits and offered an epitaph.
“Ben Bowlby is one of the bravest men I know,” he said.
“He gave up everything to follow this dream. In the end, he knew one of two things would happen. People would walk up to him and say (in a mocking tone), ‘So, you designed the DeltaWing.’ And his career would be over.
“Or they’d say (with reverence), ‘So, you designed the DeltaWing.’ And he’d be a hero.”
Fehan smiled. “He’s a hero.”
Better by half
With these five goals in mind, the DeltaWing team set out to create the world’s most efficient racing car. Did they succeed? Yes – with a few concessions.
Half the drag
Once you exceed 100 km/h, aerodynamic drag plays the biggest role in limiting a car’s speed. The DeltaWing’s slippery profile has a drag coefficient of 0,24 versus the 0,47 of the vaunted Audi R18s.
Half the mass
At 475 kg, the car is roughly 400 kg lighter than its Le Mans peers. Thanks to the sleek nose, 72,5 per cent of the weight is positioned over the rear wheels, making the car surprisingly nimble.
Half the power
With less drag and less weight, the DeltaWing’s 225-kW engine provides enough get-up to compete at Le Mans’ LMP2 pace. The car qualified for the race at a speed of 309 km/h.
Half the fuel
The DeltaWing took to the track with a 40-litre fuel tank, hoping to squeeze 12 laps out of each pit stop. The diesel-powered Audis were hoping for 13 laps on 63 litres.
Half the tyres
An Audi R18 claimed victory and bragging rights in 2011 using nine sets of treads. With one tyre change in 6 hours of racing, the DeltaWing was poised to crush that mark.