DeltaWing – Its past, present and future
It really is that small, isn’t it? The Nissan DeltaWing en route to fifth overall at the 2012 Petit Le Mans (Anne Proffit photo)
Will change of tenet be a good or bad thing for the DeltaWing? Was it time to evolve? After only two races? Were there flaws in the original concept?
Those are only some of the questions I’m asking now that the evolution of DeltaWing as we’ve come to know it over the past three years has begun. I’m sure there were similar questions when this evolution began two years ago after DeltaWing had been rejected as the next Indy car.
Designer Ben Bowlby had to go a different direction then and he found acceptance with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), governing body of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The ACO anointed DeltaWing as occupant of its 56th garage for 2012, occupied solely by vehicles that are outside the realm of standard, invited race cars that compete in series such as the World Endurance Championship (WEC), European Le Mans Series (ELMS) and American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Traditionally there are 55 garages at The Sarthe circuit; DeltaWing was allocated No. 56.
Once accepted for the 2012 race, DeltaWing’s own “race” began to be prepared for the 24-hour hurdle. First it was adopted by Michelin, which produced special, bespoke tires for the unusual car that needed four-inch wide front rubber (10/31/15-inch) and rear 310/620/15-inch at the rear.
Then Bowlby aligned with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers (AAR) to build and test the new car. Legend Gurney and his right-hand man, the esteemed fabricator Phil Remington (who died last week) got straight to work, with Bowlby, sidekick Simon Marshall (formerly with Elan Motorsports) and Zack Eakin in Southern California. From there 18-hour days ensued – sometimes longer – to get the car built and ready for testing early in March 2012.
At the same time, Dr Don Panoz came onboard to lend his expertise to the program. At the time, his company was designated as the entity that would, eventually, build production examples of the DeltaWing for racing purposes, once it had been proven in competition at Le Mans and later at Petiti Le Mans, ALMS’ season closer.
In the midst of this Bowlby scrambled to find a proper engine for the DeltaWing. It was the final piece of the puzzle and didn’t come together until very late in the going. Nissan came onboard, together with Ray Mallock Ltd (RML) to use a four-cylinder, 1.6-liter, direct-injected and turbocharged engine that bore the Nissan stamp for this exercise (it has RML-developed architecture). Eakin designed a five-speed sequential gearbox for the car. With engine and gearbox installed the DeltaWing in business.
After a shakedown by Alex Gurney, the great sports car driver Marino Franchitti was among the first (and lengthiest) to test DeltaWing under the aegis of Highcroft Racing and see if a car that was half the weight, half the size, half the power of a customary LM P1 or LM P2 prototype could possibly work in the highly competitive world of sports car racing. The DeltaWing was obviously not racing for points at Le Mans; it was running for pride and to show that something new could work.
And, as many joked about it, that the DeltaWing could turn into corners with its triangulated shape and that tiny front end.
After a couple of months testing in the UK with RML’s crew at the fore, the Nissan DeltaWing made its Le Mans debut and was keeping out of trouble until just after a long, long late Saturday afternoon caution period for Anthony Davidson’s season-ending accident in the Toyota hybrid LM P1 prototype, which had contact with a GT car. Shortly after the restart, the Nissan DeltaWing was contacted by the second Toyota hybrid prototype and its day ended at the Porsche Curves, despite the extended efforts of driver and crew. Incredibly Franchitti, who’d done the bulk of testing never had a chance to race the car.
Petit Le Mans then became a “must” race to truly prove the DeltaWing’s veracity and ability to work in a competitive environment. At Road Atlanta, at least there would be spares available – and unfortunately necessary – as the DeltaWing had a second incident, this time with a GTC Porsche during the test day prior to the 10-hour or 1000-mile event.
A day later it was up and ready for qualifying and was competitive with the LM P2 cars, which is where Bowlby expected it to be. During the race, again running without the possibility of points, the Nissan DeltaWing persevered and eventually finished fifth overall, quite an accomplishment for the car, with drivers Gunnar Jeannette and Lucas Ordonez completing their distances.
At that point AAR was out of the loop and after Petit, apparently so was everyone else. DeltaWing began to shed its 2012 affiliations, beginning with Nissan. All along, the project was intended to go into production at Elan Motorsports, Dr Panoz’ company near Road Atlanta that was responsible for various Panoz sports racing cars in the past and also for the 2004 Indianapolis 500-winning Panoz Indy car, a Simon Marshall design.
Panoz had hoped to align with Mazda but that was not in the cards. Still he’s expecting to use a Mazda-based four-cylinder engine for the production-based DeltaWing, and is reportedly thinking of making it into a coupe for 2014, since ALMS’ new partner, the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series isn’t terribly fond of open cars. What that will do to DeltaWing’s thesis of low weight, less mass and lower power (for the same lap times as an LM P2) is anyone’s guess, but there have been coupes of lighter weight than open racing cars. I just can’t think of any right now!
When the alliance with Highcroft Racing ended, I don’t know, but that, too, is over. Team owner Duncan Dayton was busy prowling the paddock at late January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona [International Speedway] to place a toe in the waters. RML, too, is out of the loop, returning to its WEC/ELMS emphases.
Just last week, Michelin said their time with DeltaWing was done as well. There’s been rumors of an affiliation with Bridgestone/Firestone, which initially displayed the DeltaWing on its Chicago Auto Show stand when the car was being promoted as a future Indy car. There’s nothing to that rumor at this point in time.
The DeltaWing did not take part in ALMS’ pre-season test session last week but Panoz said it’ll show up in another month at Sebring for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. We’ll have to wait and see in that regard. While I’m sure Panoz will be a fine steward of this machine, I’m hoping he keeps Bowlby, Marshall and Eakin in the loop and on the team for this car. After all, it’s their baby.
By Anne Proffit