By: Tony DiZinno, Sports Car Correspondent
- Dan Gurney will design first car
- Project aligned with Highcroft Racing
Project 56 seeks success in unclassified car come 2012
In February 2010, the radical DeltaWing concept car was first unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show. Descriptions, however, ran the gamut from complementary to crude regarding the car and its shape.
But one thing the armchair commentators can all agree on is that the DeltaWing is one of the most innovative and revolutionary creations in motorsports the past 30 years — and that in and of itself is a genuine accomplishment.
Hyperbole and polarization aside, the DeltaWing vision will meet its natural home as it will make its racing debut on the grandest stage of them all: the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans.
It’s more efficient, more relevant and more cost effective for the teams to run.
Thursday morning’s annual Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) Press Conference served as the announcement venue for the car which received an invitation from the Le Mans race organizers.
With a car so outside-the-box by any current set of regulations, the DeltaWing is the perfect candidate for Le Mans’ 56th entrant, a car designated by the ACO to compete unclassified at Circuit de la Sarthe in an attempt to showcase its new technology. Naturally, the DeltaWing effort for 2012 has been dubbed “Project 56.”
In layman’s terms, major differences about the DeltaWing compared to most current cars is how lightweight it is, how it generates downforce from the car’s undertray compared to front and rear wings, and the ability to hit 200 mph or more from a small amount of power. All three aspects will contribute to a much more efficient car from a performance and environmental standpoint.
The 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, of which discussions are ongoing as to who that will be, will produce approximately 300 horsepower. The wide-track rear tires pushes the vehicle weight distribution rearward.
Ben Bowlby is the project architect. The DeltaWing’s designer pitched the idea first as a concept for the 2012 IndyCar (see photo), and while some elements the DeltaWing group have thought of were part of that series’ own 2012 concept car designs, the DeltaWing itself was not.
“We’re talking about a completely different idea — a car that goes the same speed with half the weight, half the drag, half the power and half the fuel consumption,” he said. “It’s more efficient, more relevant and more cost effective for the teams to run.”
When Bowlby was looking for a place to race the DeltaWing, he met with ACO officials to determine how the car would fit in amid the four classes at Le Mans.
“We’re finalizing the design with the ACO in terms of what they’re looking for to comply,” he said. “It’s of high value and is going to take a lot to bring to France. We want to work with the ACO to achieve the performance of entering into the spirit of Le Mans with this production. Hopefully speed-wise, it could be within the range of P1.”
Bowlby now had the car and the outlet. Next was a team to run the car and spearhead the project. Enter Duncan Dayton and Highcroft Racing.
The 2011 season has already been a mixed blessing for Highcroft. After consecutive LMP class championships in the American Le Mans Series in 2009 and 2010, Highcroft was left sidelined after the team and engine manufacturer Honda Performance Development separated a few weeks before Le Mans.
In the team’s only run with the new-for-2011 P1 spec HPD ARX-01e, Highcroft assembled a car from pieces at Sebring. Within a week, the car ran fastest of the non-diesel cars and finished an outstanding second in the 12-hour race.
This could be the next real revolution in racing.
“We got to the point where we needed to have a partner to race the car with Le Mans experience,” Bowlby said. “It was relatively recently we spoke with Duncan about having a program. His team is perfectly experienced for Le Mans — technology capable and an American group. They have got great ambitions, and are a perfect fit.”
Dayton’s a successful owner and vintage racer in his own right who appreciates the sport’s history. To be involved with a car that could very well be the next big thing in motorsports in its initial program is a humbling, but important undertaking.
“When ‘Brabs’ (Jack Brabham) put a Cooper in the rear of his Climax, and then when Chapman discovered ground effects, those were incredible,” Dayton said. “This could be the next real revolution in racing.”
So, to recap: Car, check. Available race, check. A team to run the car, more checks.
How about bringing on board one of, if not the most successful American constructor in motorsports history?
Indeed Dan Gurney, who in 1967 won both the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT and the Belgian Grand Prix with his own-designed Eagle-Weslake, and All American Racers are involved on the project. Gurney’s Eagles starred in Formula One, sports car racing, and later returned to IndyCars from 1996 through 1999 in the CART series.
Now, one of America’s finest racing men is back with the boldest project in years. Even FIA President Jean Todt admitted during the preceding ACO Press Conference held Thursday morning that his only autograph he has ever asked for is Gurney’s, at Le Mans in ’67.
“It’s fantastic from an emotional standpoint,” Bowlby said. “What you have to appreciate is he actually presented a concept that is the DeltaWing concept in all but name 15 years ago. He was saying, ‘Get rid of the wings, making a car much lighter, uses the underbody for downforce, and uses a smaller 4-cylinder turbo.’”
Gurney will build the actual car, Bowlby said. This is not the same as the DeltaWing model that was rolled out in 2010 in Chicago and the Indianapolis 500 for display purposes. Highcroft Racing will conduct tests later this year, first in North America before possible outings in Europe.
Perhaps following Le Mans there is the potential of the DeltaWing racing elsewhere. Bowlby said the ALMS would “be a great fit, wouldn’t it?” when asked about the potential of taking the car there.
It’s also worth noting ALMS series founder Don Panoz is a part of the project, and will serve as a special advisor. The car’s bodywork will use R.E.A.M.S. – Recycle Energy Absorbing Matrix System – which also debuted on the Panoz Abruzzi at this year’s 12 Hours of Sebring.
For now, a year away from next year’s 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the green flag has officially dropped on the race to turn Project 56 from a pipe dream to an on-track product.
“We have a real feasible outlet here, and in fact, for the credentials of the car, doing 24 hours is the best place to showcase the technology demonstrated of higher efficiency and road relevance,” Bowlby said.