Gordon Kirby

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A highlight of this year’s Le Mans 24 hours will be the competition debut of the Nissan-powered Delta Wing that will start the race from a special 56th grid position for experimental or technically innovative cars.

Without driver or fuel the Delta wing weighs 475kg and has an extreme rearwards bias with 72 per cent of the weight on the back wheels. The car has a very narrow front track with two four-inch-wide Michelin front tyres housed within the needle nose. Nor does the Delta Wing wear any wings, since all the downforce is generated through the underbody and controlled by a Gurney lap and an aircraft-like vertical tail in.

Conceived two years ago by former Lola Indy and sports car designer Ben Bowlby, the Delta Wing was greeted with ridicule and doubt by many race fans. But from its first test laps in California in March the car has looked good and it will be intriguing to see how it performs at Le Mans, where it will be driven by Marino Franchitti and Michael Krumm and run by Duncan Dayton’s highcroft team in partnership with Ray Mallock’s RMl group.

At its first test Bowlby was delighted to see the car turn perfectly without any understeer and also display excellent straight-line stability. “It was actually better than we thought,” Bowlby says.

“The tyre temperature balance, the brake bias and temperature balance, the traction, the braking and straightline stability, the high-speed grip – in all those areas it did what we thought it was going to do. From a dynamic standpoint we haven’t come across one element that isn’t what we expected. In fact, it’s even better.”

The Delta Wing, powered by a turbocharged 1.6-litre direct injection four-cylinder Nissan engine making 300bhp at 7500rpm, is designed to produce competitive lap times using half the power and half the fuel of a conventional car. The Delta Wing prototype was built at All American Racers in California.

“I’ve had faith in the concept since the beginning when I had a very thorough conversation with Ben,” says AAR boss Dan Gurney. “As we’ve watched it evolve we only gained more faith and it’s been a big thrill to be involved in and be able to add a little of our All American racers DNA into it.”

Assuming the concept is proven at Le Mans, Don Panoz hopes to begin building cars at Elan Motorsports Technology in Braselton, Georgia. AlMs boss Scott Atherton hopes the prototype will run in some AlMs races later this year, with Panoz production cars racing regularly in the AlMs in the coming years. Panoz stresses that the goal at Le Mans is not to win the race but to prove the functionality of the Delta Wing concept. “After we’ve done that,” Panoz says, “we have to decide whether that’s interesting new technology and goodbye, or we’re going to find a way to integrate it into racing. That’s the dream and the objective that we’re working on.”

Scott Atherton echoes Panoz’s hopes of introducing the Delta Wing to the AlMs. “If its competition debut at Le Mans is deemed a success,” Atherton says, “we would love to have the car committed as fast as possible to the AlMs. We would welcome it with open arms. Initially, our intention would be to allow the car to compete unclassiied so as to not upset the current status quo.

“At a minimum for 2012 we expect the car to be at Petit Le Mans,” he adds. “I want to nail down as many AlMs dates as we can – more than just Petit Le Mans at the end of the season.”

Don Panoz believes the lessons of the Delta Wing will enjoy wide application. “It goes beyond racing,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff with this car that can be applied to road cars. There’s improved efficiency, aerodynamics and construction techniques. There are a lot of things this car can showcase which can be used across the automotive industry.”

Depending on how it performs at Le Mans the Delta Wing may prove to be motor racing’s story of the year.

Gordon Kirby

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