Toyota Motor Corp.’s return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with an electric hybrid is being upstaged by a gasoline racing car that isn’t even a contender.
U.S. businessman Don Panoz and his partners are defying conventional racecar design by pitting the Nissan DeltaWing against superior engine power and Toyota’s $50 million budget. The DeltaWing has four-inch front wheels, weighs less than half as much as a BMW Mini Cooper and resembles the Batmobile.
The endurance racing event draws more than 200,000 fans to central France. While the 1.6-liter DeltaWing lapped slower than the 3.7-liter hybrids of Toyota and race favorite Audi AG in practice, its unusual design is taking some of the spotlight from the automakers, said Le Mans historian Quentin Spurring. The 56-vehicle race, in which the Deltawing is an unclassified entry, begins at 3 p.m. tomorrow.
“It will wow a lot of people,” said Spurring, who is halfway through compiling an eight-volume history of the 89-year-old event. “I know of people who are going to Le Mans just to see this car.”
The 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is run on an 8.5-mile circuit 130 miles southwest of Paris, was started as durability test for carmakers such as Bugatti. Drivers take turns in a bid to cover the most ground. Organizer Automobile Club de l’Ouest has sought to preserve its status as a testing ground for technology by regularly tweaking the rules.
Toyota, returning to Le Mans after 13 years away including a winless stint in Formula One, wants to give its Prius and Yaris hybrid hatchbacks a sportier image by becoming the first winner with a part-electric engine, Rob Leupen, director of business operations at Toyota Motorsport GmbH, said in a phone interview from Cologne.
Audi, which won seven of the last eight editions, wants a sales boost for vehicles like its Q5 hybrid, Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi’s motorsports unit, said. The goal for the 475-kilo (1,050-pound) DeltaWing is to produce a fleet of similar racing cars or road cars, Panoz, 77, said.
Panoz founded Dublin, Ireland-based drug-maker Elan Corp. in 1969 and took it public in 1984. He retired from the company in 1996 and set up Elan Motorsport Technologies. The Braselton, Georgia-based company has built more than 300 racing cars for Champ Car among other series, according to its website.
Dan Gurney, the 1967 Le Mans winner, is among Panoz’s partners on the DeltaWing project. Nissan Motor Co Ltd. is providing the engine. The design by British race-car creator Ben Bowlby was rejected as a new formula by the U.S.-based Indy Racing League in 2010.
“A lot of people, looking at the design, thought this car might fly or not corner,” Panoz said by telephone from Paris. “We did not fly in testing.”
Scotland’s Marino Franchitti, younger brother of three-time Indy 500 winner Dario, will drive the Deltawing with Germany’s Michael Krumm and Satoshi Motoyama of Japan.
Toyota is spending as much as 40 million euros ($50 million) on entering its TS030 hybrid at Le Mans and six other endurance races this year, according to Leupen. Ullrich declined to comment on Audi’s budget. Audi, the first winner with a diesel engine in 2006, is also fielding a diesel as backup to its hybrid R18 E-tron Quattro. The DeltaWing project has cost as little as $5 million, Panoz says.
The hybrids can use a power boost of recouped energy in selected zones at the expense of holding 58 liters of fuel, two liters less than the maximum.
Strictly speaking, the DeltaWing can’t win Le Mans because it has different technical specifications. The race organizer has handed it Garage 56, set aside for experimental vehicles.
While a victory for Audi or Toyota’s racers may boost their brands, it’s unlikely to increase their hybrid car sales because neither is a fuel-saving breakthrough, said Simon Empson, managing director of Broadspeed.com, a discount car website based in the U.K.
“It’s an irrelevance in the showrooms,” Empson said. There is no evidence of demand for lighter cars like the DeltaWing, either, he added. “If anything, people want bigger, heavier cars.”
Panoz took the first electric hybrid to Le Mans in 1998. The Panoz Q9 had such a powerful electric current it would swipe credit cards from people’s pockets, he said. It didn’t qualify because of a mechanical fault.
“Now I want to show we don’t need electric motors, just good aerodynamics,” Panoz said.