If Olin Built a Race Car...

As a rising junior, this summer has felt like the last block of free time I can expect to enjoy before having to worry about things like "jobs" and "the real world". My family therefore decided to take a last grand vacation through Europe. It was quite the adventure and if you want to hear all about it, you should head on over to the Olinsider or my personal blog. I'm sure "work hard, play hard" is a mantra that Olin students can all appreciate, but there are traits like "dedication", "defying the odds", and "passion" that they understand, too. So why the picture of the funny car?

WARNING: I may be a little obsessed with motor racing...or a lot obsessed...or actually just stark-raving mad about it. So forgive me if this post gets a little technical, rambly, and/or melodramatic.
It is often said that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the greatest race in the world. National Geographic recently ranked it as the greatest sporting event in the world, period. I first went in 2007, when Peugeot brought a pair of cars to try and rival the dominance of Audi. Both teams were using diesel power, an idea that people laughed at when first suggested. But diesel worked and continues to trounce petrol-powered cars.

This year would see another round of innovations coming to Circuit de la Sarthe. First, Toyota arrived to try and rival Audi's new hybrid technologies, technologies that demonstrated incredible performance on the track and ultimately won the race. But the big innovation everyone was talking about was the Deltawing. I saw the concept Deltawing at Petit Le Mans in Atlanta, GA, last October. It looked amazing, but I remember thinking that the laws of physics couldn't possibly allow a car with a front end no wider than a shoebox to go around corners.

The Deltawing Prototype at Petit Le Mans. No engine, no testing, and no proof it would work.

But it did go around corners. Quickly, too. After 21 years of the wide, low, big-winged monsters that dominated endurance racing, this thing was just........weird. Wrong. Silly. A toy. But it worked, it really did!

Unfortunately, fate is not without a sense of irony. After the incredible effort to simply get the car to the race (only 8 months elapsed from first design to race day) and then after having such an amazing start, it was over just 6 hours in to the 24. Even more ironically, it was knocked off the road by one of the Toyota hybrids which also suffered sufficient damage that it dropped out of the race, too. Everyone - literally, everyone, whether they be fans, drivers, crews, or commentators - were gutted when two of the most exciting cars of the race were gone.


Ben Bowlby, the chief engineer and genius behind the Deltawing, stated

"the greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do."

And he wasn't just speaking for himself, he spoke for the entire team. When the Deltawing crashed, the driver could have simply walked away saying "...that was a drag, that other guy broke our car and ruined our race." Instead, he spent the next hour and a half trying to fix the car. He borrowed a photographer's phone to send pictures of the damage to his crew as a translator relayed instructions to him. He almost disassembled the entire car and practically had to be dragged away. And then he cried. And then everybody else cried. Talk about dedication. 

Video of Satoshi Motoyama desperately trying to repair his injured Deltawing.

And so endeth the Deltawing. The other Toyota was hit by a careless GT car, going airborne into the barriers at a brisk 120 mph. That left fans with a somewhat lackluster 18 hours of racing left, i.e. unless all four Audis dropped out of the race, the results were already set. In terms of wheel-to-wheel entertainment, it wasn't much to talk about, but I still get to say I saw the Deltawing at Le Mans.

Getting to see this odd little car wasn't just cool for a racing fan, it was an inspiration for everyone. It's the sort of project I imagine Olin students getting involved in. Something crazy, ridiculous, doubted by many, without the resources of larger competitors. The Deltawing was never eligible for a race win, but just competing at all felt like a victory to that team. I mean, they only took 8 months to throw out the entire book of conventional race car wisdom, design something totally new, build it, test it, figure out how to make it work, and then show up at Le Mans ready to race. It's nuts!

And that's exactly how I would describe most Olin projects.  I look around campus, and I see that dedication, excitement and sheer drive to compete. So whilst this post was definitely an opportunity for me to geek-out on racing cars, I hope it speaks (a little bit) to the people, the passions and the characteristics that drive us to challenge the paradigms, push the envelope, try something different.

Ben Bowlby talking about the final preparations - and anxieties.
Posted in: Because I Wanted To, Just Plain Fun