This bizarre, tricycle-shaped vehicle has been hotly discussed in the racing community since it was first introduced in February 2010. Looking more like a Buck-Rodgers spaceship than a racing car, the DeltaWing polarized the racing press and fanbase. Many predicted the car would fall over in a corner; many refused to accept the new design even if it worked, because it was so far from a traditional sports car.
Originally conceived as an open-wheeled single-seater meant for IndyCar, the DeltaWing project, brainchild of successful designer Ben Bowlby, was picked up by the Project 56 consortium—Duncan Dayton of the multi-champion Highcroft Racing team, legendary driver, builder, and team owner Dan Gurney of All-American Racers, and ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz—and re-envisioned as a closed-wheel sports car suited for Le Mans-style racing.
In a major move, Nissan stepped in to supply engines and engineering support. The addition of an important auto manufacturer to the project gave the DeltaWing a lot more credibility to some, but failed to allay doubts for others.
The new car was touted as the wave of the future—a car that would use half the power and half the fuel to go as fast as current cars because it would have half the drag and weight. The DeltaWing was entered in the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours in garage 56, which is reserved for experimental vehicles. As Project 56 press releases continued to make claims, the debate raged on.
Finally, on Until Friday, March 16, the DeltaWing proved to the public that it could go around corners. Problem is, it didn’t go fast.
For a car which has attracted as much attention as the DeltaWing, the organizers needed to make sure the debut lived up to the hype. Sadly, the car hit the track half an hour late, with no fanfare; many observers didn’t know it was coming until it had passed. The car ran two laps in the 2:30 range—45 seconds slower than the cars against which it is supposed to compete.
After so much build-up and such a let-down, one might expect fans to be bitter. This turned out not to be the case. Many were upset they missed it the first time, but fans trackside were overwhelmingly acceptant of the engineering oddity.
John Vincent, part of a group of fans which have been coming to Sebring since the 60’s, said, “I thought it was awesome. I just wish we had known it was coming by the first time—we missed it the first time.
“Would have been nice to know it was coming we kept waiting for it and waiting for it and we just didn’t know it was coming. Second time it was coming around it was awesome. It looks like a dragster.
His friend Dean Wittwer was disappointed the car didn’t go faster, but was fine with the basic design. “I think that it looks like the Chaparral of the ’60s, something different, totally different than anything here. Let it run,” he said.
“The only thing that worries me is safety. Is there enough protection for the driver there if he gets in trouble? He’s very vulnerable.”
Another member of the group who identified himself as Dennis the Menace, said, “I thought it was awesome. I like the sleek body, and it is low to the ground—it almost looks like a jet coming by, without the wings.”
Did he care that the DeltaWing was so far outside the sports car tradition? “No—if they raced a bunch of them I’d be here for it,” he stated. “They are neat.
To this trio of longtime fans, innovation was part of sports cars and the DeltaWing was the latest innovation.
Younger fans wanted to see more of the DeltaWing. Albert Riley was disappointed by the presentation but pleased by the product. He described the DeltaWing debut as “anticlimactic. It was a cool-looking car, I like the concept, but in terms of all the hype and everything it was like, ‘eh…'”
Riley hoped that ALMS wouldn’t start an all-DeltaWing class; “I’d like to see it go and compete against everything else,” he said.
His friend Steve Theiss felt the same way. “It was disappointing that it took so long to get it out there. I would have liked to see it get up to speed.” As for the car itself? “I thought it was interesting. I like to see it compete with the other vehicles.”
If the fans’ main complaint against a controversial new vehicle is that they didn’t see enough of it, one could say that even though the debut was disappointing, it was successful.
Dean Rasor, another longtime Sebring attendee, questioned whether the DeltaWing, with its 1.6-liter inline four, could keep up with the turbocharged V6 diesels and gasoline V8s in the P1 class.
“The determining factor will be, will the 4-cyilnder actually be able to propel it at a high enough rate of speed? We know that the wind resistance will be minimal, compared to a conventional car,” was his well-considered comment.
“Duncan Dayton has a reputation for developing automobiles, but will everything which was on the drawing board pan out? I envision them running a V6 in it for more speed.”
As for the car not being part of the sports car tradition, Rasor felt that it was.
“It’s a prototype; you’ve got to crack some eggs to make an omelet,” he said referring to changing entrenched ideas about what made a sports car.
“You have to be able to be innovative, which is something you’re not seeing in any other motorsports. ALMS is outside the box, whereas you go over to Grand Am, and you have spec racing. You go to NASCAR you have spec racing. Over there it is, ‘This is what you have to run or you can’t run.’
“Over here, we are movers and shakers and innovators.”
Friday’s debut—and the two laps the car ran on Saturday, before the race—proved the concept partway. Yes the car can turn without falling over. But it didn’t show that it could compete with even the a GTC car, let alone the fastest LMPs. Yes, the car safely navigated its way around the track, but it didn’t prove that it could turn fast laps for half the fuel.
The most important issue settled by Friday’s debut had nothing to do with the DeltaWing’s performance. What was settled on Friday was that sports car racing fans will accept innovation, won’t accept spec racing, and will accept this bizarre new entry onto the Le Mans grid—and ALMS grids in the future.