As you read this, the Nissan DeltaWing, perhaps the most talked-about race car of this era, is before its much anticipated appearance at Le Mans. If it weren't for the dogged determination of its British creator, Ben Bowlby, a few forward-thinking individuals—one, an American motor-racing icon—and when it counted, Michelin and Nissan, the DeltaWing might have suffered the same fate as too many other bold, unconventional ideas that surfaced before their time.
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Not that the 45-year-old Bowlby was short of experience with more conventional race cars. At Lola, where he rose to chief designer, he'd penned Champ cars, F3000 cars and sports prototypes, and after joining Chip Ganassi Racing as technical director in 2003, he oversaw successful IndyCar, Grand-Am and NASCAR programs. Regardless, by late 2008, Bowlby was restless.
"I thought, `What are we doing here? We're spec racing in everything that we do.' I was frustrated. As a design leader, I was not designing cars."
On his own, however, Bowlby was investigating an admittedly wild idea—three wheels versus four. This he tested, cleverly, with 4- and 3-wheel versions of an RC car, mounting a miniature GoPro video camera to record the results before drawing up a "virtual" 3-wheel race car, actually, two narrow tires placed close together up front with the engine and center of gravity between two wide tires at the back.
By Bowlby's calculations, the DeltaWing, so named for its long nose and triangular jet plane shape, could run the same speed as a conventional Indy car, but with half the mass, half the drag, using half the horsepower and burning half as much fuel. This kind of efficiency was in tune with the "green" direction major automobile companies were pursuing. In February 2009, Chip Ganassi was the first to see it.
"I showed him a clay model of what the car could look like and the radio-controlled electric vehicle. And he loved it and said, `Let's do it.'"
As is now well known, the DeltaWing was initially proposed as the 2012 Indy car—and rejected, the sanctioning body opting instead for a more conventional Dallara proposal.
Undeterred, Bowlby revamped the concept as a sports prototype and began talking to others about it. One of them was Dan Gurney, no stranger to out-of-the-box thinking.
"I was kind of curious about it," Gurney remembered, "so I talked to Ben and Chip and some of the others involved. `How legitimate is the DeltaWing concept?' That was where my curiosity was. The idea that maybe the internal combustion powerplant, which is part of my life, is under a certain amount of threat right now and maybe some of the aspects of the DeltaWing could allow it to compete in the 21st century, for efficiently moving people around and so forth. That appealed to my competitive juices, and so I was curious whether that could happen."
At Petit Le Mans, in October 2010, Bowlby conferred with American Le Mans Series (ALMS) founder Don Panoz and through him, met and made a presentation to ACO (Automobile Club de l'Ouest) representatives from Le Mans.
"For the first five minutes of my presentation," Bowlby remembered, "they sat around and talked amongst themselves and completely ignored us. For the second 10 minutes, they were like this (eyes wide open, in rapt attention), and then the president, Jean-Claude Plassard, stood up and said, `Congratulations, that is the spirit of Le Mans! You must apply for the 56th Garage!'"
The DeltaWing had just been offered the ACO's special entry for an experimental car to run outside the rules for the 2012 race. It was huge, and it got Dan Gurney's attention.
"When I found out the ACO said, `Hey, this is a great idea,' I started talking with Ben seriously."
Seeing a possible future for the DeltaWing with his green-leaning ALMS series, Panoz signed on, as did Michelin, for whom the prospect of using half the normal number of tires on a Le Mans entry played right into their longtime "sustainable energy" campaign.
Duncan Dayton, who had Le Mans experience and whose Highcroft Racing team had won back-to-back ALMS championships in 2009 and 2010, heard about Bowlby's project at the 2011 . With his Acura engine program at an end, he was immediately interested.
"I talked with Chip and he said, with all he's got going, he couldn't quarterback it anymore and asked if I'd do it for him. I said sure. I just love that it's different. I've been a student of the sport for a long time, so I know a lot about the history. And in my mind, there hasn't been a lot of innovation in the last 50 years. There's four or five really, truly innovative ideas.
"You know, Jack Brabham puts a Climax in the back of a Cooper in 1959, Jim Hall and Colin Chapman, with wings and ground effects that revolutionized the sport. And carbon fiber revolutionized the sport. But there's not been a major shift in the way sports racing cars are designed or the way they worked in decades.
"When I saw the DeltaWing, I thought, `That's a better mousetrap,' and the way it's going with environmental concerns and the use of fossil fuels, what a great opportunity to try to extend their useful life."
With help from Panoz and Bowlby, Dayton submitted a proposal to the ACO and immediately received an official invitation. Game on.
Though no engine deal or major sponsor was in place, Dan Gurney stepped up and pledged to build the DeltaWing at All American Racers. It had been a decade since they had produced a race car, but AAR was ideally suited to the task. Their facilities included state-of-the-art computer design systems, a model-making department, a functional moving-floor 1/3-scale wind tunnel, as well as skilled personnel with a wealth of experience creating bespoke race cars from the ground up. And at the helm, one of American motor racing's great risk-taking original thinkers. Ben Bowlby couldn't have found a better partner.
"It just wouldn't have happened without Dan," says Bowlby. "He has so much experience, and he certainly knows how to build a race car. He also knew if we didn't start then, it wasn't going to happen. Dan and Justin (Gurney's eldest son and AAR CEO) and the great people they provided to actually make the car really made this project possible."
In July 2011, Bowlby set up shop in a special drawing office put together over Gurney's museum at AAR. He would share this space with two AAR veterans, John Ward, who'd been responsible for the 1981 Pepsi Eagle Indy car, and aerodynamicist Hiro Fujimora, co-designer with Ward on AAR's 1992 and 1993 IMSA championship-winning Toyota Eagle Mk III. Soon they were joined by two more of Bowlby's former co-workers, Simon Marshall from Lola, and Zach Eakin from his team at Ganassi.
Thanks to Gurney, Bowlby now had an initial budget and the tools and people to turn his concept into a race car. What he didn't have was an engine. Presentations were made to a number of car companies. Only one responded, albeit cautiously at first. In October, Nissan contracted Ray Mallock Ltd (RML), the renowned motorsports technology company in Northamptonshire, England, to build a 1.6-liter direct-injection turbocharged 4-cylinder racing engine, conveniently the same size and configuration as featured in the new Nissan Juke. Critically, however, full support for the program and the Nissan name were withheld until the radical concept could be proven viable.
More than 5000 miles apart, the DeltaWing's engine and chassis programs were underway. The two would not meet until February 2012. For Bowlby and AAR, it would be a seven-month thrash, working seven days a week, often with others coming in at night to help. And whatever the design crew came up with, AAR's expert machinists and fabricators would build on site, often aided by the legendary Phil Remington, whose wizardry played so large a role with the Scarab, Cobra and Ford GT40 programs.
"Yes," laughed Bowlby, "Here's 91-year-old Rem, still knocking things together every day, sometimes telling the younger guys, `If you take another 30 thou off of that it'll fit better.' And of course, he's right. Amazing."
To save valuable time, a Prodrive-built central tub section from the ill-fated 2010 Aston Martin AMR-One Le Mans car was purchased. It had already passed rigorous FIA safety tests and would fit within Bowlby's specifications, which now called for a wheelbase of 120 in., 5 in. shorter than the original open-wheel version, with front and rear track measurements of 23.5 and 67 in., respectively.
AAR would build everything in front of and behind the tub, with Simon Marshall responsible for the front section, John Ward the rear. Efficiency was the mantra and often the product of mixing old ideas with new technologies and new materials. And always, by "adding lightness."
In the case of Marshall's narrow front-end design, it meant carbon fiber for the chassis and a tightly packaged double A-arm coilover suspension, each shock and coil spring unit weighing only 1.6 lb. At the rear, Ward used a light, decidedly '60s-appearing space frame to support the non-stressed engine and transmission and a clever if complex suspension system that Bowlby jokingly refers to as "push me, pull you."
The suspension features pushrods, large rockers and pullrods, a unique vertical triangular piece that both swivels and rocks to transmit energy to the coilover shocks. It also serves as an anti-roll bar of sorts.
Zach Eakin designed a bespoke 5-speed transaxle that weighs less than 73 lb. and can be configured to run in several ways, from an open diff all the way to a torque-vectoring unit using a small electric motor.
"It's brilliant," says Bowlby, "like a limited slip, but we actually take control of the relative speed of the inside and outside wheel. Something close to it was used in the World Rally Championship but was banned because it was too good."
EMCO, who made the special narrow gears for Eakin's transmission, is one of several well-known technical partners making unique applications for the DeltaWing. The first was Michelin, who leapt at the challenge of building the 4-in.-wide 15-in. front tires, but all had to be light, long-wearing and capable of 200 mph. Their target is to halve the number of tire changes of a conventional car at Le Mans.
The brake system is unique as well. Contrary to conventional cars, the DeltaWing has 72.5 percent of the mass and 76 percent of the aerodynamic downforce at the rear, which is where 50 percent of the brake force is applied. The whole brake package—all four corners—crafted by Friction Performance of South Carolina weighs 29.2 lb., about half the norm for a race car. By the way, that's just 2 lb. more than a single front brake assembly for a Nissan Juke.
Even the 15-in. BBS wheels are bespoke, 1-piece magnesium, forged in Japan and flown to Germany to be machined.
Aerodynamic development has, for the most part, been guided by advanced computer modeling and constant testing in the AAR wind tunnel by Hiro Fujimora. But ideas from AAR's past have also played a part. Bowlby found that grafting the underbody contours and side vortex generators from John Ward's 1981 Eagle Indy car significantly improved what is commonly referred to as ground effects. The DeltaWing even has a new version of the classic Gurney flap—it moves. By default tipped up for increased downforce, it can be flattened on the straights by the driver, a Bowlby-Gurney DRS, if you will.
"Why not?" asks Bowlby. "We're an experimental vehicle, outside the rules."
On Tuesday, February 29, just days after the engine arrived and was installed at AAR, all the major players and a few close friends of Dan Gurney gathered at the dusty Buttonwillow track near Bakersfield‚ California, to witness Bowlby's radical DeltaWing roll under power for the first time.
For the faithful, it was like being at Kitty Hawk over a century before, but the truth is, there were many unanswered questions. Since the first announcement, inevitably, some pundits had dismissed the DeltaWing as ugly, ill-conceived and unworkable, a complete folly. Certainly, it would tip over the first time it turned, the loudest critics proclaimed—that is, if the damn thing would turn at all, with those two ridiculously skinny tires so close together at the front.
We know now it did turn, and rather well according to the three drivers who got in it over the next three days. The first of them, two-time Grand-Am champion Alex Gurney, AAR's chief tester and director of marketing, actually marveled at the car's turning ability. "It went right where I pointed it. Whatever steering input I made, it went there. It doesn't lean at all and it doesn't take a set; it just turns."
Marino Franchitti, the first driver to be announced to drive the DeltaWing at Le Mans, emphatically agreed after his stint. But perhaps the most important opinion voiced was from seven-time Le Mans veteran and Nissan contract driver Erik Comas, who was there with longtime Nissan racing engineer and consultant Ricardo Divila specifically to vet the DeltaWing prototype for Nissan.
"This is a real race car," Comas pronounced with conviction, "and we haven't even gotten close to its potential." Two weeks later, at Sebring, Nissan formally announced its full commitment. Franchitti took a few demonstration laps, then stayed on for a week of further testing with Michael Krumm, the second driver announced for Le Mans. Both are now in Europe, for the first time running with the Nissan engine at full boost.
"We made history, Dan," a grateful Bowlby told Gurney before leaving the West Coast. The next chapter, though, is yet to be written, and it will be played out on the world stage at Le Mans. But it won't be an outright victory over the likes of Audi or Toyota, cautions Bowlby.
"Those guys are doing a fantastic job because they're up against the absolute limit of the regulations. They're spending an enormous amount of money, and they're doing incredible things.
"Our job is different. We're not competing for a race win, but we are showing what is possible, and so the ACO has laid down a lap time for us, 3:45, which should be about in the middle of the LMP pack. But our top speed will be similar and our cornering speed will be similar.
"The ACO has given us this opportunity to demonstrate a new approach. If we can finish the 24 hours with a little tiny stack of tires that we've used, and a couple of empty fuel drums compared to the competition, well, that's a big story...`Wow! You can do this using half the fuel?'"
That's Ben Bowlby's game changer.