The Nissan DeltaWing Has the Potential to Fundamentally Change Racing
It looks somewhat like an open-cockpit variant of the Batmobile, minus the rocket booster – sort of.
It bears some resemblance to the land rockets that go skipping across the Bonneville Salt Flats in the Utah desert in search of land speed records – kind of.
It looks like it belongs in a university science fair as the work of a group of super geeks who spent their entire postsecondary careers designing, engineering and cobbling it together so that it could run on solar power or a bunch of battery packs – almost.
The one thing it doesn’t look anything like is what it actually is, a race car. Yet that is exactly what the Nissan DeltaWing is – an unconventional looking race car that will soon make its competition debut in one of the biggest races in the world – the Le Mans 24 Hours.
With the race less than a month away at this writing, the Nissan DeltaWing is being run at race tracks around the world by Highcroft Racing – a two-time championship winning team in the American Le Mans Series that will be running the car at Le Mans – in a furious effort to get as much testing in as possible before it heads to France for its much-anticipated debut.
Although the car won’t be competing in a conventional class at Le Mans – its entry has been categorized as ‘outside the classifications’ by race organizer Automobile Club de l’Ouest and it will be slotted into the 56th place on the grid reserved for showcasing innovative technology – Highcroft and its Project 56 partners are eager to prove the car can actually race and hopefully, in time, win.
The Next Indy Car
The forerunner to the Nissan DeltaWing was first unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February 2010. Back then it was simply known as the DeltaWing, and was a candidate to become the future car for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
After the unveiling the car provoked a lot of strong reaction (much of it negative) from fans, drivers, team owners and the media alike. Much of the criticism centred on its polarizing, take it or leave it looks, with a long nose and small and close-set front wheels.
Questions flooded in. How will it turn with its wheels so close together? How safe is it? How can it be more aerodynamically efficient with such a narrow front end and such a wide rear? What about weight distribution? And on and on it went.
Designer Ben Bowlby, the former chief designer at Lola Cars and technical director at Chip Ganassi Racing who began working the project in January 2009, patiently answered questions and explained the rationale behind the concept countless times in the months after the reveal.
The rationale for the DeltaWing is fairly straightforward, yet proved to be a hard sell to the IndyCar brass – half the weight, half the drag, half the fuel consumption and half the horsepower of a conventional race car, but with equal performance at reduced cost.
Ultimately, after months of considering which direction to take for its 2012 car, IndyCar decided in July of 2010 that it would stay with its current chassis supplier, Dallara. Too much negative fan and media reaction sealed the DeltaWing’s fate, although it did retain support amongst some influential members of the Indycar community, including Chip Ganassi.
After being passed over by IndyCar, the DeltaWing made headlines in the motorsports world again about a year later, when a new group of backers announced that they would bring it to the racetrack, only this time instead of a single-seat IndyCar, this version of the DeltaWing would be a closed-wheel, two-seat sportscar designed to run at Le Mans.
Unlike IndyCar officials, who never seemed to warm to the concept, the new consortium has embraced the DeltaWing’s radical nature. The group, comprised of Bowlby, Highcroft Racing team principle Duncan Dayton, American racing legend (and two-time Le Mans winner) Dan Gurney and his company All American Racers, and American Le Mans Series founder Don Panoz, announced in June 2011 their plans to bring the DeltaWing to Le Mans in 2012. Their enthusiasm for the project (dubbed Project 56, in honour of the special grid spot at Le Mans) was evident from the first official statement.
“The DeltaWing project really represents a unique opportunity for all automotive industry sectors; the OEMs and suppliers, whether it be engines, drivetrains, lubricant and fuel companies, tire manufactures it is such an innovative concept that it provides an incredible platform for them to market and prove their capabilities,” Dayton said in a statement.
“Almost every aspect of the car is really basic engineering but the combination of the total package should be astoundingly good,” Gurney said in a separate statement.
“After looking at the project and the technical aspects of the car I was asked if we were selected to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, would I like to be involved or in our case, would we like to build it. I didn’t hesitate for a moment my response was absolutely yes,” he continued.
Enter Michelin...And Nissan
Michelin signed on as official tire partner last fall, which lent credibility to the effort, but Nissan’s announcement in March that it would become the engine partner for the newly renamed Nissan DeltaWing cemented the car’s relevance to the mainstream automobile industry.
Heralding the project as ‘groundbreaking’, Nissan confirmed that a racing variant of its 1.6 litre direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinder engine (similar to the unit found in the Juke) would serve as the car’s powerplant.
“As motor racing rulebooks have become tighter over time, racing cars look more and more similar and the technology used has had less and less relevance to road car development. Nissan DeltaWing aims to change that and we were an obvious choice to become part of the project,” said Andy Palmer, Executive Vice President, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. said in a release.
Unveiling and Testing, Testing Testing
Franchitti completed two laps around the 3.740 mile Sebring International Raceway circuit in front of thousands of fans, and the team conducted a fan forum which drew a significant amount of interest from those in attendance.
In the months since then, the team has logged thousands of testing miles at tracks around the world, including Sebring, Buttonwillow, Snetterton and Magny-Cours. The driver lineup for Le Mans has been confirmed, with Japanese Super GT champions Michael Krumm and Satoshi Motoyama joining Franchitti for the world’s premier sports car race. Spaniard Lucas Ordonez, winner of the inaugural Nissan GT Academy has also signed on as the team’s official test driver.
As for the testing itself, things seem to be moving in the right direction.
“The engine was great, the gearbox was great – it was a proper testing day when we were really able to get down to business doing damper work, brake work – all in all it was a very positive test and we’re now very much looking forward to the next run,” Franchitti said after a session in Snetterton in mid-April.
“We’ve made some changes to the car including the steering which is now a lot better. Everyone was wondering before the car ran whether it would turn – in fact it probably turned too well and we have made some improvements in that area,” Krumm said, following the same test.
All the positive testing vibes notwithstanding, how the car will perform in the world’s ultimate endurance race is difficult to predict. Whatever specific expectations the team may have for the race haven’t been publicly expressed. One could reasonably assume that running the full 24 hours is something the car’s stakeholders would like to accomplish, but it’s pure guesswork after that.
No car with the Nissan DeltaWing’s pedigree has ever raced at Le Mans, so one would expect that its backers’ expectations will be modest. The car is very much an experiment, a ‘what would happen if we do this’ sort of proposition.
Can a car with half the weight, half the drag and half the power really compete straight up against multimillion dollar entries from the sport’s goliaths like Audi? Can it really deliver the same performance, while delivering fuel and cost savings in the process? Answering these questions will take time, and one race, even if it is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, won’t be enough.
If, however, the car shows enough promise at Le Mans, it could alter the auto industry’s perception of motorsports which could lead some players to re-evaluate their racing programs. In time, it could become a game changer. Regardless of how it performs, however, the Nissan DeltaWing will certainly provide another compelling reason to watch the race with interest.
Weight: 475 kg (1,047 lbs.)
Brakes: Carbon discs and pads
Horsepower: 300 HP
Fuel cell capacity: 40 litres (10.6 US gal.)
Wheel base: 2,900 mm (114.1 in.)
Chassis construction: lightweight composite
Aerodynamic drag: Cd 0.24
Front tire: 4.0/23.0 R15
Front track: 600 mm (23.6 in.)
Rear tire: 12.5/24.5 R15
Rear track: 1,700 mm (66.9 in.)
Weight distribution: 27.5% Front, 72.5% Rear
Overall length: 4,650 mm (183.1 in.)
Overall width: 2,000 mm (78.7 in.)
Height: 1,030 mm (40.5 in.)