Tech that is now commonplace, like disc brakes, independent suspensions, turbochargers, or even hybrid powertrains was first put to the test on the track. While these innovations were successful, countless others looked good on paper, but failed to influence future designs of street or competition vehicles, mainly because of their profoundly unconventional aesthetics.
The first such example that comes to mind is the 1970s Tyrrell P34, a wacky Formula 1 car with six wheels. The car was surprisingly successful, earning a win and fourteen podiums in thirty races, prompting other manufacturers to develop similar designs. But, because six-wheeled racers looked way too strange for the world’s premier single-seat, open-wheel competition, FIA ended up banning the design.
The most radical race car prototype since the Tyrrell P34
That changed in 2009, when legendary American race car designer and engineer Ben Bowlby presented the sketch work for his DeltaWing project.
As the name implies, the car employed a delta wing design similar to that used in the aircraft industry for decades. This resulted in a wide, triangle-shaped rear end and a long, particularly narrow front which looked nothing like contemporary race cars. Fellow designers and engineers ridiculed the idea, but Bowlby was determined to turn it into reality.
An unconventional design born out of a simple idea
This allowed the use of smaller, lighter, and less powerful engines, which, in turn, would improve fuel consumption and reduce development costs. Moreover, Bowlby theorized that overall performance would be on par with conventional race cars.
With backing from motorsport royalty like Chip Ganassi Racing, Dan Gurney's All American Racers, and financing from Don Panoz, Bowlby began putting the car together, and a full-size mockup debuted at the 2010 Chicago auto show, where it was met with a lot of excitement.
A closer look at the car
One of the oddest parts of the car is its narrow front section. Since it looks like a Formula 1 or IndyCar racer’s nose albeit without wings and both wheels tucked inside, people wondered how on Earth it would navigate through tight corners.
Well, that was made possible by distributing 72.5% of the weight over the rear wheels and designing a set of narrow and ultralight wheel/tire combo. Measuring 22.8 inches tall and 3.9 inches wide (57.9 x 9.9 cm), the bespoke tires wrapped around some of the lightest alloy wheels ever designed for a race car. A DeltaWing front wheel was reportedly so lightweight that, even when equipped with the tire, it could be easily lifted with one finger.
With featherlight front wheels, roughly a quarter of the car’s overall weight loaded on the front axle, and a downforce-inducing underbody, the DeltaWing managed to turn surprisingly well, with driver Marino Franchitti (the younger brother of four-time IndyCar champ, Dario) parsing its handling after initial tests.
Attempting to revolutionize IndyCar
By this time, there was a lot of public interest in the project, but engineers and designers involved in the competition were quick to dismiss it. Still, the IndyCar top brass stated that they closely examined and seriously considered the DeltaWing.
In July 2010, a decision to go with an updated Dallara chassis was announced, putting an end to Bowlby’s IndyCar bid. However, this didn’t mean that the project was over, as the team decided to shift their focus to the world of endurance racing.
The journey to Le Mans
While IndyCar decided that the DeltaWing was just too peculiar for their competition, the French had a soft spot for radical designs, and an agreement was reached to allow the car to join the 2012 edition of the 24-hour race. It received the Garage 56 experimental prototype entry, meaning that it could enter the race, but would not be allowed to score points.
For the next year and a half, the car was thoroughly modified for endurance racing and eventually received a bespoke engine from one of the industry’s biggest names.
Nissan joins the project
The powerplant in question was not actually a bespoke unit, but rather a turbocharged and intercooled 1.6-liter, inline-four derived from the HR16DE that, among other vehicles, powered another automotive oddball, the Nissan Juke.
Capable of making roughly 300 hp, it seemed totally underpowered for a prototype racer, but since it weighed only 154 pounds (69 kg), it proved ideal for the innovative race car.
It had a surprisingly long racing career
Although it didn’t finish the race, the DeltaWing was the clear favorite among fans, and the enthusiasm around it encouraged Nissan to pry Bowlby away from his project and develop a similar car, called ZEOD RC, with hybrid power, which also raced at Le Mans the following year.
From 2013 onwards, the original project was headed by Don Panoz. The car morphed into a closed-top coupe, with a redesigned Élan chassis and a new 350-hp engine. It gained entry in the P1 class of the American Le Mans Series, where it competed for most of the season. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove groundbreaking, finishing in points only two times.
While it failed to revolutionize motorsport, the DeltaWing was a fascinating car that proved it could compete against conventional racers. It certainly deserves praise, not ridicule, even if it was never the superior machine that Bowlby initially envisioned.
I’m one of those who are glad that IndyCar didn’t choose it as its next-gen design, but I still consider it breathtaking. It would have been interesting to see a one-make competition where dozens of DeltaWings raced against each other. Not only would that have been exciting, but it would have allowed multiple manufacturers to improve the design and give birth to a new breed of race cars.
If you’re intrigued by the DeltaWing and want to know more, I recommend watching the YouTube video below by PROJECT DREAM.