DeltaWing Racer Two Steps Closer to Reality
By John Oreovicz
Tech-savvy racing fans have been eagerly following the progress of the DeltaWing project, which is set to make its competition debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June as the 56th entry reserved for new and unique automotive technologies.
Ben Bowlby’s radical design has the support of Highcroft Racing and the first car is under construction at Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in Santa Ana, California. Two more elements to the attack were unveiled recently: the tire manufacturer and the first driver.
Both are entering uncharted territory.
Marino Franchitti will quite literally be the Delta Wing’s “test pilot” when the car rolls under its own power for the first time as the calendar turns to Spring. The DeltaWing is so different to accepted race car design that when Franchitti hits the track, he really will be reprising the role of aviation pioneers like Chuck Yeager.
The million dollar question: Can the DeltaWing, with its narrow front track and 4-inch-wide front tires, actually negotiate corners?
“I am so excited about getting the opportunity to drive the car,” said Franchitti, who is the younger brother of 4-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti. “I have no doubt in my mind that it is going to turn, but I am really looking forward to finding out how it is going to feel and how it will work as a package.
“I have nothing to compare this against,” he added. “Like the car itself, I will be going in with a clean sheet of paper and will start exploring the limits.”
DeltaWing has teamed with Michelin to develop the unusual 4-inch wide front tires that are so critical to the car’s small frontal area and low drag. The car will be able to utilize standard size rear tires.
“Michelin races to learn and races to win,” said Silvia Mammone, Michelin motorsports manager and project leader for the Michelin DeltaWing. “There is tremendous focus in the auto industry worldwide on making vehicles lighter without sacrificing performance, and we hope to learn a great deal from our collaboration with the DeltaWing program.”
Photo courtesy of Michelin
In February the car, on the new Michelin tires, will run in a full-scale wind tunnel to validate computer data.
“The time has come to bring the real car to life and the first step is to run the car at Windshear at full size on a moving ground plane wind tunnel,” said chief designer Bowlby. “We’ll have the real Michelin tires, the real suspension, the real bodywork and cooling systems – everything that you will see on the car at the race track. The plan is to ensure the simulations we have done meet reality.”
Of course, the crucial missing part of the DeltaWing package is the engine. Bowlby envisions a turbocharged, 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine producing 300 horsepower will be enough to propel the car to competitive speeds.
DeltaWing is also hoping to gain financial support from the engine manufacturer it partners with. But until they see how the car operates in the real world, manufacturers have been hesitant to commit a seven-figure budget to such an experimental effort.
“They’re going to have to run the car on a track to prove to the doubters that it actually works,” said one source affiliated with a manufacturer that has been courted by DeltaWing. “It’s too big of a risk to devote that kind of money to something that is completely unproven, no matter how confident they are in their computer simulations.”
For his part, Franchitti is eager to begin his participation in the development of a machine that could prove to shake up race car design as we know it.
“It kind of feels like when the first rear engine Formula 1 car hit the track, or the first car with a wing, or the first ground-effects car,” Franchitti said. “In recent times, we really haven’t seen major advances like this. Technological steps have been quite small and now it is very exciting to be a part of something this huge. I am really honored to be given this opportunity.
“Being somebody who loves the history of the sport, I am really looking forward to experiencing something that my heroes experienced,” he added. “Those opportunities don’t come along every day. I’m looking forward to being that guy who can say, ‘Yes, I turned the wheel and ‘round the corner it went!’”
John Oreovicz is a long-time motorsport writer who writes for a varity of publications, including ESPN.com.