Race cars should be exciting to watch. But they aren't. Instead, they blur together in an endless stream of lookalikes: if it weren't for the sponsor logos, most people couldn't tell a Red Bull RB-7 Formula One car from a Ferrari F2012.
But then there's the Nissan DeltaWing, the strangest, coolest race car to come along in decades. At first glance, it resembles a missile that has fallen to earth. The nose tapers to an impossibly long point, covering what looks like a single front wheel (there are actually two, mounted side by side.) The rear end is a deltoid, topped with a vertical tail that rises behind the driver like the fin of a giant shark.
The DeltaWing's unforgettable form has given rise to a number of nicknames, which include "Batmobile," "SR-71," and "The Flying Penis." But there's much more to the DeltaWing than its oddball shape – this unique race car is a harbinger of a radically different automotive future where efficiency will be the new performance standard.
That future is now looming: the U.S. and Canadian governments have passed tough new standards that will force car makers to increase fuel economy by 50 per cent and cut emissions in half by 2025.
Those gains won't come from powerplant improvements. The internal combustion engine is a mature technology – today's motors are many times more efficient than their forebears, but any further gains will be incremental. Hybrid powertrains work well, but again, dramatic gains are not on the immediate horizon. The pure electric vehicle is extremely efficient, but remains crippled by energy storage and transfer issues – limited range, overweight batteries and long charging times.
And so we come to the DeltaWing, a template for the automotive future – light, aerodynamically slippery and designed with outside-the-box thinking. The DeltaWing doesn't depend on power for its speed (its motor is a four-cylinder pulled out of a Nissan Juke street vehicle). Instead, it focuses on strategic design that lets it run with cars with twice the power – and do it on half as much fuel.
The secret is mass and drag reduction. The DeltaWing weighs just more than 500 kilograms (about 50 per cent less than a typical Indy car) and has extremely low drag due to its slim nose and lack of downforce-generating wings.
"There's never been anything like the DeltaWing before," says Nevada-based Peter Brock, designer of the legendary Shelby Daytona coupe. "This is a totally different way of doing things."
The DeltaWing was first conceived by British engineer Bruce Bowlby as a part of a design contest for the IndyCar race series. Bowlby's radical car was rejected by the IndyCar sanctioning body in favour of a more traditional design (the Dallara DW-12) but attracted the attention of several key players, including Dan Gurney, a champion race driver turned team owner and car builder.
Last summer, the DeltaWing ran at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in an experimental category known as Garage 56. Although it was knocked out of the race when another car slammed into it, the DeltaWing amazed a lot of people by lapping at competitive speeds on a fraction of the power and fuel required by its competitors.
But the significance of the DeltaWing extends beyond the racetrack and into the world of everyday driving, where transformational change will be required to meet the tough new efficiency standards.
"Watching this car is like seeing the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk," says Brock. "This is revolutionary. The stuff we've done before isn't really the way to go. The increments of gain are too small. You need to break things wide open. You need to make changes of 100 per cent, and that's what the DeltaWing does."
Car design is generally incremental, with small, evolutionary changes added to existing platforms. Even in the world of racing, dramatic change occurs only occasionally – like in the 1950s, when designers started putting engines in the back instead of the front. The next watershed moment came in the 1960s, when engineers learned that they could increase traction by mounting wings that pushed cars down onto the track.
Although aerodynamic downforce made cars faster in a race, that came at the cost of efficiency, because wings and wedge-shaped bodies created exponential drag increases that had to be overcome with more power – which also meant far greater fuel consumption.
Street vehicles, meanwhile, suffered from steady weight gain, which is an efficiency no-no. (Engineers estimate that every 50 kg added to a vehicle increases fuel consumption by up to 2 per cent.) The 1972 BMW 2002 Tii sports coupe weighed about 1,000 kg. Today, its modern counterpart (the BMW M3 coupe) weighs 1,680 kg. A 1970s Porsche 911 weighed as little as 1,000 kg. Today's model weighs about 50 per cent more, depending on options – one of the most popular versions, the 911 Carrera 4S, weighs 1,540 kg.
Even so, these cars can equal or beat the fuel economy of their much-lighter ancestors thanks to incredible improvements in the efficiency of their powerplants (current internal combustion engines minimize fuel burn thanks to technologies like direct fuel injection, digital ignition, variable valve timing and turbocharging).
Ruben Archilla, a senior design engineer with Mazda, says the efficiency improvements have been used to offset an endless series of automotive weight gains: "We've made the engines more efficient, but we've spent those gains on heavier cars," he says. "So we end up in the same place."
Weight increases can be partly blamed on improved safety standards – adding airbags, side impact beams and crumple zones comes at the price of mass. But the single biggest contributor is consumer taste, which invariably pushes vehicle design toward bloat and inefficiency.
The Hummer H1 (which became popular after action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger began driving one back in the 1990s) weighed more than 3,175 kg. In 1957, Ford introduced the Galaxie Skyliner, which weighed more than 1,815 kg, partly due to a folding metal top designed to appeal to gimmick-obsessed consumers. (The top required 18 metres of wiring and a massive collection of electrical components that included 10 power relays, three motors, 10 limit switches, eight circuit breakers and a safety interlock.)
When Henry Ford introduced the Model T, it didn't even have an electric starter (the driver had to insert a crank handle in the front and turn the engine over by hand). Today, features like stereos, air conditioning and electric seats are virtually de rigeur.
Car companies are already working on ways to cut weight. They're exploring lighter materials like carbon fibre, aluminum and magnesium, as well as design improvements like optimized wiring and lightweight entertainment systems.
But incremental change won't be enough, according to experts: "The efficiency gains have to be major," says Brock. "It's not going to be business as usual this time."
The cars we'll be driving 20 years from now are going to be different. They'll be lighter, sleeker and smaller. And I think we're going to look back at the DeltaWing and realize that it wasn't just a race car, but a symbol of the automotive future.
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