Every once in a while, a race car comes along that not only changes the game, it rips up the rule book and throws it in the trash. Up until 1965, the Indianapolis 500 was dominated by big, bulky, front engine cars. Then Colin Chapman brought his small, light and lithe Lotus 38 mid engine race car to Indy and stood the world of motor racing on its head.
2 years later, Andy Granitelli brought a turbine powered, 4 wheel drive car to Indianapolis. Parnelli Jones drove it to a commanding lead but the car suffered a mechanical failure just 3 laps from the end of the race. The race sanctioning body quickly banned turbine engines and four wheel drive. The car never raced again.
Also in the 60’s, a Texan named Jim Hall pioneered innovations in aerodynamics that continue to influence motor racing even today. Perhaps the most outrageous of his creations was the Chapparal 2F, which featured a wing as big as a billboard. Whether you love or hate the modern emphasis on “aero” in racing, it’s all Jim Hall’s fault. In the past 50 years, though, race car technology has followed a path of evolution, not revolution.
No longer. Race car engineer and designer Ben Bowlby has given the racing world the Delta Wing race car. For an in depth look at its development, read the interview with Bowlby in Racecar Engineering. Like Colin Chapman before him, Bowlby strives for minimum weight. Unlike Jim Hall, he seeks the lowest possible aerodynamic drag. Couple these design objectives together and you get a race car that uses a smaller, more fuel efficient engine.
Bowlby likes to say his car is half the weight of a conventional race car, has half the aerodynamic drag, half the horsepower and consumes half as much fuel. That means the Delta Wing spends less time in the pits taking on fuel and tires during a race. Less time in the pits means getting to the finish line ahead of everyone else. Here is his Delta Wing creation as seen from above.
The design is too outrageous, too weird and too different for most people. Recently, IndyCar rejected the Delta Wing design for its new standard racing chassis. No engine manufacturer wanted to be associated with a car so strange. But Nissan saw the potential in the Delta Wing design and signed on to become a major sponsor of the project.
In 2012, the LeMans racing series permitted the car to run in competition on a non-point scoring basis. Everyone wanted to see if the car would be fast enough to be competitive and would actually go around corners at racing speeds. It did both and very well, too. Here’s a video of the Delta Wing on track.
With the Delta Wing, Ben Bowlby and his colleagues didn’t just think outside the box. They smashed it and dragged the pieces out to the curb. My prediction is that it will influence the thinking of other race car designers for years, perhaps decades, to come. And that’s why it gets my vote as the Car Of The 21st Century.