After a quixotic four-year quest by engineer Ben Bowlby, the DeltaWing has proved to be the most radical, rule-breaking race car in decades. Starting with a tiny, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 224 kilowatts (300 horsepower), the arrow-shaped DeltaWing has half the power of rival racers. But with half the weight, aerodynamic drag, and fuel consumption, this 475-kilogram (1047-pound) missile can still reach 315 kilometers per hour (196 miles per hour).
Too bad IndyCar and other sanctioning bodies rejected the design, in part because of skepticism over its ballistic shape: With insanely skinny, 100-millimeter-wide tires packed together up front, the DeltaWing looked like a land-speed candidate that might barrel-roll at the first hint of a curve. In fact, despite an unusually heavy 72.5 percent rear-weight bias and no external wings, the DeltaWing’s downforce-producing body proved its ability to pull nearly 4 g’s through corners. Backed by Nissan, Michelin, and others, the DeltaWing was finally granted a special exhibition slot, called Garage 56, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in June. Six hours into the race, this underdog—and crowd favorite—was booted into the wall by one of the front-running Toyotas. In the pits, Bowlby wondered aloud if his baby might ever get another chance.
It did, and just four months later, at Road Atlanta, in the American Le Mans Series’ season-ending Petit Le Mans. In practice, the risk-loving driver Gunnar Jeannette was again struck on track, sending the car dramatically airborne. Yet despite starting dead last in the 42-car field, Jeannette passed eight cars on the first lap in the hastily rebuilt Nissan. Because the Nissan’s feathery weight saved wear on its tires, it skipped multiple tire changes, allowing it to place as high as third before finishing fifth overall. It was a remarkable showing for a rookie with barely more power than a typical V-6 sedan. The DeltaWing also consumed just 55 percent of the fuel of a Nissan-powered V-8 competitor that the team benchmarked during the event.
The DeltaWing’s future remains in doubt, despite plans to run some ALMS events this year. Yet like the winged Chaparral racers of the ’60s, the DeltaWing has proved doubters wrong.