It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and you can usually tell that something is a practical idea from the number of people who rush to embrace it. Threatened lawsuits over who owns the idea are also a clue that there may be potential in it. When the DeltaWing concept was first introduced at the 2010 Chicago Auto Show as a possible formula for IndyCar, Ben Bowlby’s needle-nosed idea had a lot of skeptical reactions. Now it has imitators including an “exploratory prototype” of a possible production car by Nissan, to be introduced soon at the Tokyo Auto Show.
Though it had skeptics, with initial backing from someone like Chip Ganassi, the DeltaWing did have some credibility, besides some sound engineering behind it. That credibility grew when Dan Panoz started putting money into a DeltaWing LeMans effort under that race’s special experimental class, bringing on Dan Gurney’s All American Racers to build the car and Highcroft Racing to run the team. Nissan signed on to sponsor the team and theoretically provide a powerplant, though in reality the DeltaWing that raced at LeMans in 2012 had an engine that was more General Motors than Nissan, based on a GM WTCC block, though it did have Nissan fuel injection. Though the LeMans effort proved that the DeltaWing was competitive speed-wise with the much larger displacement LMP2 cars, it was crashed out of the race. It also crashed in the 2012 American LeMans Series Petit LeMans endurance race, but was repaired and finished the race in 5th place overall.
After the ’12 Petit LeMans race, Panoz announced that the DeltaWing would be competing in the ALMS series for 2013, without Nissan’s participation. Ben Bowlby and Gurney’s AAR also left the team. The “Nissan” engine was replaced by one built by Panoz’s Elan Motorsports shop based on a Mazda block. Work was begun on a coupe version designed by Simon Marshall, who had worked with Bowlby on the original DeltaWing. The closed car was designed with the merger of ALMS and Grand AM into the United Sports Car Championship in mind. That series starts racing in 2014. Panoz also has announced that he will be making at least three DeltaWing coupes for sale to customers that want to take them racing in the USCC. The open car scored a podium at the ALMS race at Laguna Seca with a 3rd place in the P1 class, with Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge at the wheel, and a 5th overall at Road America. The coupe was introduced at the race in Austin, where it showed promise but DNF’d, as it did at VIR. The season ended on a high note, credited with a 3rd place P1 finish at Petit LeMans, though a gearbox failure meant it wasn’t running at the end.
Meanwhile, Bowlby has apparently gone to work for Nissan itself and it’s clear that the Japanese automaker’s interest in the DeltaWing concept goes beyond decals and sponsorship with first the announcement that Nissan will be racing at LeMans in 2014 with the ZEOD RC (Zero Emissions On Demand Race Car), a lookalike to the DeltaWing coupe, and now the teasing of the BladeGlider concept car, to be introduced at the upcoming Tokyo Auto Show. The idea behind the DeltaWing is to use two closely spaced narrow front tires to reduce frontal area and overall weight, and concentrate most of the car’s weight on the rear axle. That allows superior aerodynamics as well as good handling and braking performance. Less weight and superior aero means that smaller displacement engines can achieve equal speeds as more powerful cars, and in endurance racing that means fewer pit stops. Tire wear is also said to be reduced.
When the electric powered ZEOD RC was announced, Dr. Panoz responded by saying that the DeltaWing design was protected by a number of patents, that Nissan was actually publicizing the relationship between the DeltaWing and the ZEOD RC, and that his legal team was looking into the matter. It’s been suggested that the DeltaWing and the ZEOD RC might compete in court before they will on a race track. Panoz told Autoweek, that “we feel very strongly” that there is a potential problem. “It’s been interesting to watch people from Nissan trying to dodge the question, but the fact is that in their own press release they admit that the configuration of the ZEOD is the same as the DeltaWing. And we do have patents, in fact another one was just issued last week. We are in discussions with our legal advisors, and we’ll see what happens.”
The ZEOD RC can run on full electric power, though for the 24 hour endurance race at LeMans it will likely have some kind of on-board gasoline powered generator, though it’s racing specs haven’t been finalized. Said Ben Bowlby, “We’re building an extremely flexible platform with which we’ll be able to try multiple different options — even during the same multi-day test.” The Nissan ZEOD RC made its public debut at this year’s Fuji Speedway round of the FIA World Endurance Championship in October with a few demonstation laps.
Now, one wonders what the DeltaWing team’s response will be now that Nissan is apparently taking Bowlby’s concept and moving it from the race track to the street. It’s notable that Nissan is not calling it a concept. “More than a concept, Nissan BladeGlider is both a proposal for the future direction of Nissan electric vehicle (EV) development and an exploratory prototype of an upcoming production vehicle from the world’s leading EV manufacturer,” said the manufacturer in a press release.
Francois Bacon, Nissan’s division general manager for product strategy and planning, said that counter-intuitively the oddly shaped 1+2 three passenger car has superior handling. “Visually, you say, ‘It does not make me confident.’ But when you drive it, it’s really impressive,” he said. “We moved all the weight to the back, and the front is just for direction. Because there is no pressure on those wheels, it is highly agile. There are no side Gs on the wheels itself.”
Front track is ~3.3 feet and in the back it’s almost double that at 6 feet. The back end carries about 70% of the total weight of the car, which is reduced by using carbon fiber for the body. The BladeGlider is driven by two in-wheel motors in the back, powered by lithium ion batteries. The battery pack, as in the Tesla Model S, runs along the floor and like the McLaren F1, the driver sits in the middle with two passenger seats flanking behind. With an open cockpit, visibility is assured.
Despite the unusual shape, Nissan says that the BladeGlider can meet crash regulations and be street legal and safe. They say that the mostly hollow front end acts as a large crumple zone and that the narrow nose presents a smaller area of impact, reducing the chances of an accident. At the same time, however, that narrow front end will be subjected to greater localized stresses than if the same force was distributed over a wider area.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS