At 3 p.m. on the third Saturday in June, 56 cars stream past the starting line of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a multicolored, roaring blur. Two hundred forty thousand spectators have gathered around the 8.5-mile circuit in central France for the 80th edition of the race. Cars of wildly varying speeds will compete in four distinct classes, with the fastest entries vying for overall victory in a race that lasts an entire day and night. It is, in effect, four races happening simultaneously. Drivers must contend with passing and being passed by cars from other classes for the duration. Leading the pack are the Le Mans prototypes, purpose-built thoroughbreds capable of reaching 210 miles per hour. The slower half of the field consists of race-spec versions of street-going Ferraris, Aston Martins, Porsches and Corvettes, entrants known generically as GT cars. Starting in 28th place is a car that belongs to none of the official categories. Called the DeltaWing, its slender, black, needle-nose fuselage and wicked dorsal fin make it look more like a missile than a racecar. And if it’s as fast and efficient as its creators claim, it will challenge a century of race car design tradition.
For most of its history, Le Mans has been a proving ground for new forms of automotive technology. This year, two of the fastest cars in the race are hybrid-electric vehicles. The Audi R18 e-tron quattros feature electric motors attached to their front axles. The Toyota TS030 Hybrids carry supercapacitors that soak up energy while braking and discharge it for a quick burst of extra speed on straightaways. But the DeltaWing is an order of magnitude more radical than either of these cars. Its novel shape enables it to clock competitive lap times with an engine only slightly more powerful than the one in a standard family sedan. As the car’s designer, Ben Bowlby, puts it: “The DeltaWing goes the same speed with half the weight, half the drag, half the power and half the fuel consumption.”
Technically, the DeltaWing isn’t competing with the Audis or Toyotas or any other cars in the field. It’s the 56th entry in a 55-car race, filling the single demonstration slot reserved for experimental vehicles. Today the DeltaWing’s three drivers will aim to complete each 8.5-mile lap in three minutes and 45 seconds. This is, for the record, about 20 seconds slower than the Audis and Toyotas. By cranking up the boost in the turbocharged engine, the DeltaWing could easily go faster—a lot faster. It could also have been fitted with a much bigger fuel tank, which would have allowed it go twice as far before pitting for gas. But to avoid any chance of a noncompeting entry upstaging the actual racers, officials have given the DeltaWing a target average lap speed of 135 miles per hour.
The car easily hit the target during practice. Surviving the race, though, will be a colossal challenge. The DeltaWing’s four-man core design team has been working on the car for barely a year. Virtually every component was designed and built from scratch. The crew was still fitting parts to the car the day before it first turned a wheel, less than four months ago, and Nissan, the car’s primary sponsor, didn’t officially come on board until after the inaugural test. Top teams prepare for Le Mans by testing their cars for 24 or even 36 hours nonstop. The DeltaWing ran about 12 hours total before arriving here. What are the odds that a hastily assembled prototype representing the biggest departure from racing tradition in decades will complete one of the toughest tests of endurance in all of motor sports? “Nobody comes to Le Mans not to finish,” says Jerry Hardcastle, a chief engineer with Nissan, the supplier of the car’s engine. “But I will be smiling every minute the car lasts after two hours.”