DeltaWing designer Ben Bowlby’s yearlong odyssey to convince the automotive world of the merits of his highly advanced road racer ended sadly and abruptly against an unforgiving wall in France.
His innovative, 1045-pound, Nissan-powered concept was recklessly forced off the track by Toyota driver Kazuki Nakajima during a midrace restart in the sixth hour of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Damage was so extensive that DeltaWing driver Satoshi Motoyama was unable to make it back to pit road (crew members can’t work on the car outside the pits). Before the incident, the car was running strongly enough to have finished well against the most technically sophisticated prototypes of this era.
A year earlier, almost to the day, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest granted Bowlby permission to demonstrate his highly controversial design in their classic enduro. Bowlby had spent almost every waking hour of every day searching out, educating, gathering, and then leading one of the most internationally diverse and brilliant teams in the history of auto racing. In retrospect, that feat alone — because few of the team members had actually met each other prior to meeting Bowlby — was as impressive as the speed, reliability, and poise of their collective effort when it finally rolled onto the 8.5-mile French circuit on the first night of practice. Only the dedicated few in the DeltaWing’s tiny garage on pit road seemed to understand just what was about to occur. The tiny, 1.6-liter, Nissan-engined DeltaWing was fast. Even though the radically shaped racing car was in its own special class, it was quicker by some ten seconds per lap than all the highly vaunted, much larger-engined GT racers from Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, and Aston Martin.
With just half the power, half the weight, and, most important, half the aerodynamic drag of a conventionally designed racing car, the DeltaWing — Bowlby was certain — would use half the fuel, brakes, and rubber during the race. By easily outperforming all others on this self-evident scale of “halves,” he’d prove that his vision of the future was in keeping with the environmentally friendly direction of the ACO’s rules. Bowlby’s calculations were spot-on that first night and then later during the first six hours of the race. During that brief span, the DeltaWing became a crowd favorite. When, in a moment of impatience, Nakajima ended Bowlby’s dream, there was a unified gasp of disbelief.
The DeltaWing’s future is uncertain. It could well run again in this fall’s Petit Le Mans, the season’s final ALMS race at Road Atlanta, but after that it’s unlikely that any sanctioning body will allow the car to run unless sufficient numbers are built to establish a class. Since it has been raced only in France, the car’s absence from American circuits would indeed be a shame for devoted American race fans. After all, most of Bowlby’s design was conceived in America and constructed at Dan Gurney’s All American Racers shop in California.
Nissan’s Smart Play
The bold, almost last-minute decision by Nissan Europe’s Darren Cox to back the DeltaWing project turned out to be the automotive marketing coup of the year. Although the chassis was almost complete, it still lacked manufacturer commitment for an engine weeks before it had to test. Bowlby’s team had offered their project to several big players, but all were skeptical of the car’s feasibility. Even with support from heavily involved, proven technical partners like Michelin, All American Racers, EMCO Gears, and Performance Friction, plus established names like Bowlby, Dan Gurney, Don Panoz, and racing team owners Duncan Dayton and Chip Ganassi, the project was in peril of foundering.
Nissan’s Cox knows racing, trusted the team’s credentials, saw the potential for worldwide exposure the project would create at Le Mans, and signed on. For a small fraction of the cost that Audi spent winning Le Mans with its technically brilliant hybrids, Nissan Europe had the U.K.’s Ray Mallock Limited (RML) quickly reengineer its latest, almost-stock 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder — essentially the same as what’s used in the Juke — to power the DeltaWing. Nissan emerged in the media, and on the Le Mans circuit, looking just as technically innovative as the German giant. With large NISSAN lettering inscribed all over the car, every image was worth thousands in marketing exposure.
DeltaWing’s long flight
Chip Ganassi tasks Ben Bowlby to come up with a radical new race car.
DeltaWing prototype, weighing less than 1000 pounds and featuring a 24-inch front track, competes against four conventional prototypes to become the next Indy car.
IRL passes over the DeltaWing in favor of a new Dallara. “Somehow, somewhere, someplace, we believe the DeltaWing will be raced,” Bowlby says.
Bowlby meets with Le Mans sanctioning body (ACO).
Dan Gurney’s All American Racers approached to build a running race car.
The DeltaWing, still no more than a full-size mock-up, secures approval to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans out of the experimental Garage 56.
First Michelin tires designed specifically for DeltaWing arrive.
Nissan signs on to supply engine. First public demonstration at Sebring.
Ben Bowlby quote:
“The car did what we had all hoped it would do. It ran at the pace the ACO had asked us to run. And believe me, there’s a little bit of headroom: we can go quite a bit faster.”