Here's what IndyCars have in common with smartphones: both have moved towards a sameness in form factor, with any design differentiation between models limited to fine details. In both categories this is a shame, but perhaps more so in racing, which is supposed to be about innovation, experimentation and risk-taking. "Breakthrough designs seemingly have gone the way of the dinosaur in modern motorsports," is how an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune put it.
But racecar designer Ben Bowlby, having been prompted by IndyCar driver/owner Chip Ganassi, is shaking that category up with his radical-looking DeltaWing design.
To be clear, the British-born, Indianapolis-based Bowlby didn't set out to create a car that merely looked different; it was form-follows-function, as he endeavored to solve a specific problem involving racecars and downforce. Every IndyCar/F1 car has a low-lying wing forward of the front tires. This creates downforce, or "aero grip," as the car whips along and the airflow presses the wing downward, sticking the front wheels firmly to the track surface. But when one IndyCar gets behind another, the turbulent "wash" coming off of the car in front disrupts the downforce on the front wing of the car behind, compromising that car's steering capacity. In broad strokes, it means that as you begin catching up to another car, your ability to overtake it is paradoxically reduced.
Bowlby's solution was to get rid of the front—and rear—wing altogether:
Why? Because his radical design does not require the wings to generate downforce. Instead he designed two tunnels running underneath the car that use the airflow to press the car downwards. This "twin-vortex underbody downforce system" is unsusceptible to wash coming off of a car in front of it, and thus it is stable enough to pass in situations where other IndyCars could not.
Ben Bowlby (left) and blogger James Gurney holding a resin model used for aerodynamic testing. [Image via Gurney Journey]
Bowlby solved this design problem, but was met with the bigger problems designers all know and hate: Skepticism and risk-aversion from the people who can nix our dreams by refusing to sign off on something. Bowlby's design was rejected by the IndyCar league, the very organization he'd designed the car to compete in. Though Bowlby had the backing of auto racing legend Dan Gurney's All American Racers manufacturing shop in California (where he'd conceived the design), without having a league to race in, an independent cannot hope to gain the backing of a major auto manufacturer.
Undeterred, Bowlby turned his sights on other organizations and applied for the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans race. The DeltaWing was again rejected for regular competition, but was permitted to run in the race as part of the "Garage 56" category; this special designation was created to allow experimental cars to race alongside the sanctioned ones to evaluate their roadworthiness, though they're barred from winning prizes.
If you've got an inherently superior design, or even an experimental design that looks promising, it must be gratifying to have industry vets express their support, as you'll hear in the video below. After learning they'd gained approval for LeMans, Bowlby and another DeltaWing backer, the Highcroft Racing team, were optimistic about their chances:
Unfortunately, Fate had more obstacles in place for the DeltaWing. Stay tuned for Part 2.