BY CODY FACTEAU
I spent this past weekend glued to the computer as I live-streamed the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Twenty-four hours awake, for the most part, can do scary things to a sleep-deprived teenager, let me tell you. Fueled by Slim Jims and No-Bake Cookies, I was a little tired, a little wired, but man, it was worth it! I mean, after all, it was Le Mans! It's the single most important race, in my opinion, of all time. So many new innovations were prototyped at Le Mans, like disk brakes, headlights and windshield wipers, just to name a few. Speaking of prototypes, I'd like to focus this story on the DeltaWing.
I should start by saying; the DeltaWing didn't participate in this year's Le Mans. It debuted at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans. The DeltaWing project began in 2009 when Ben Bowlby started to design a new Indy Car series vehicle. His ideas were radical, his design incredibly futuristic, some thought, too much so. Bowlby was financially backed by Chip Ganassi, owner of major squad Chip Ganassi Racing, and the prototype was unveiled in February 2010 at the Chicago Auto Shop. In July, Indy Car decided to pass on the radical ballistic shaped DeltaWing, skeptical of its ability to perform properly without barrel-rolling. Bowlby then worked with Don Panoz to present the idea to the representatives from the Automobile Club de l'Quest, organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They applied for and received an invite to compete in the 2012 race, filling the 56 Garage slot reserved for experimental vehicles.
Six hours into the race, this techie underdog -- and crowd favorite -- was booted into the wall by one of the front-running Toyotas. In the pits, Bowlby wondered aloud if his baby might ever get another chance. But, it did, just four months later at Road Atlanta, in the American Le Mans Series. Despite starting dead last in the 42-car field, driver Gunnar Jeannette passed eight cars on the first lap. Being such a feather weight saved wear on the DeltaWings tires, so it skipped multiple tire changes and allowed it to place as high as third before finishing fifth overall. It was a remarkable showing for a rookie with barely more power than a typical V-6 sedan. Another thing you should know, the DeltaWing consumed 55 percent of the fuel of most other racers.
Now, let's talk design. The DeltaWing was designed to reduce aerodynamic drag dramatically. As the name implies, it has a delta wing shape, with an unusually narrow front track, just two feet and a traditional 5ft 7in track in the rear. The car lacks any front or rear wings and the downforce comes from the underbody. With insanely skinny, 100-millimeter-wide tires packed tightly together up front, the DeltaWing looks more like a land-speed candidate than a traditional race car. It looks ready to barrel-roll at the first hint of a curve, but in fact it has the unique ability to pull nearly 4 g's through corners.
A lot of changes are in the works for the DeltaWing this year. To begin with, none of its original backers are involved with its racing plans, including the designer, Ben Bowlby. This is strictly a Michelin project now. Don Panoz remains and there has been a lot of work going on to prep it for the three races planned this year. A new 1.9-liter race engine with a billet block, direct injection and twin turbos, based off two different Mazda engines is now part of the program. Lighter than the Nissan engine formerly used and running on the dyno now, the output is at 345 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. The first race this year, the 12 Hours of Sebring at the Sebring International Raceway, took place in March 2013. It was driven by Oliver Pla and Andy Meyrick. Pla qualified the car in 15th place, 10 seconds off the pace of the Audi R18 that qualified on pole, and five seconds slower than its nearest rival in the P1 class, but five seconds ahead of the fastest GT class car. After struggling with temperatures all week, the car went into terminal engine failure after only 10 laps. It may be down for the moment, but not out for the count, as the DeltaWing is planned to bring a coupe version to its next race.
So, why did I want to do a story about the DeltaWing and Le Mans? Le Mans is all about innovation, prototypes, thinking outside of the box and being open to the possibility of change. It makes sense that the DeltaWing first debuted there. Everything about the DeltaWing says, "I'm different, I'm the future of racing." Yet, this was something Indy couldn't see. Being different isn't a bad thing, in fact, it's THE thing that paves the way for phenomenal changes and unbelievable achievements within the automobile industry. Different is good!
(Rumor has it, that sometime in the near future; you could possibly buy a street version of the DeltaWing coupe. How cool is that!)
Cody Facteau is a 17-year old homeschooler from East Burke. He enjoys anything to do with cars, particularly the Classics. He loves Le Mans racing, his favorite TV shows are Gearz with Stacey David and Top Gear (BBC), and hobbies are Lego's and Xbox 360. Check out Cody's Car Talk on Facebook. Career goals? What else, cars!