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Friday
Jul132012

The Rumor Mill: July 13, 2012

By Christopher A. Sawyer

A recent not-for-attribution diner conversation with a Michelin representative put the whole DeltaWing program into greater focus. The French tire company did not have to take on this project, it had its hands full with new tire designs for a pair of LMP1 hybrids from Audi and Toyota, a new GT tire design and more. Developing from scratch a whole new set of tires for a vehicle with no predecessor and, therefore, no existing data, could have been a disaster given the existing workload, but Michelin accepted the challenge nonetheless.

“The engineers didn’t know what to expect,” says our source. “Sometimes cars can be much heavier than the target, and it’s not at all unusual for the aero numbers to be way off.” So Michelin prepared for the worst, designing tires in the computer for a number of different scenarios. They needn’t have bothered. “We were shocked when we saw the numbers from the actual car,” he says, “especially the aero values. [Ben] Bowlby (the DeltaWing’s designer) was within one-half of one percent of the theoretical aero values. We’d never seen anything like that — ever!”

What really makes the DeltaWing work is the combination of lightweight, low drag and a unique ground effects package originally deployed by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in 1980-81. That car proved effective on both road courses and ovals in CART. In fact, if you were to take the Eagle 8100’s two front wheels and mount them side-by-side in the nose, the result would look a lot like the DeltaWing, only sleeker.

Daniel Bernoulli postulated that if fluid — in this case air — is constricted through the throat of an orifice (in this case, the initial portion of a car’s ground effect tunnel), it will expand into the open (diffuser) section, creating a low-pressure region. This is what essentially sucks ground effects cars to the ground. The only problem is that air doesn’t come in and flow back in a straight line; there’s always leakage from the sides, even when sliding skirt systems are used.

Gurney, building on work begun by his designers at the time, John Ward and Trevor Harris, found that making the undertray exits smaller increased the vorticity of the air at the front. Normally, this would be a bad thing as vortexes are sort of like horizontal tornadoes that create drag. However, properly harnessed, they expand as they go rearward, creating a large hollow section that initiates a low-pressure wave along the underbody, and this sucks the car to the ground more efficiently. That, along with the extreme rear weight bias, allows the DeltaWing to run without a rear wing. Ironically, a small Gurney flap — a small right-angle spoiler added to the end of an airfoil section or piece of bodywork — keeps the boundary layer on the underside attached all the way to the trailing edge of the bodywork, and reduces drag by helping to increase the underbody’s performance.

But enough of the course in race car design and aerodynamics. The upshot of the discussion with the Michelin man was this: the French company was not only willing to take a chance on the design, it felt — and feels — the DeltaWing has tremendous potential on race tracks as well as city streets. “The idea of a lightweight, relatively low horsepower vehicle that can run, when fully developed, with the established front runners is very appealing,” he says. “It’s a different way of being ‘green’ and one that makes a clean break with cars that have tons of aerodynamic downforce, incredible amounts of power to overcome that downforce, and very little relevance to what’s taking place in the passenger car arena.”

Unfortunately, the entrenched interest in racing have little time for so radical a concept, and look askance at the DeltaWing, just as they did at its Eagle 8100 grandfather. (CART wrote rules that banned it, essentially ushering in today’s spec series racers.) The ACO, the governing body of Le Mans, is done with the DeltaWing, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the end of the road for the concept. Undoubtedly, Don Panoz — who has been involved from the beginning with the sports car version of the DeltaWing — will find a way to allow this vehicle to race in the American Le Mans Series; building the customer cars in-house in order to control cost, quality and technology. But what about the rest of us?

There is nothing preventing the DeltaWing group from creating a track day car around a simple welded-tube spaceframe. Why import an Ariel Atom, Lotus 211, Radical or KTM X-Bow when you could have a genuine all-American alternative for similar — or less — money? I have no doubt Michelin would be more than willing to supply the tires. To make it more visually palatable, perhaps Chip Foose or the kids from the College for Creative Studies and Art Center College of Design could be encouraged to work their magic.

For now, unfortunately, all we can do is sit by and watch to see how the DeltaWing program progresses, though I fear it is too bold and too different to move from oddity to reality. That’s a shame.

Britain’s specialist automakers, which include Aston Martin, McLaren, Caterham and 15 others, said the differing regulations (emissions and safety) found around the globe hit them especially hard. Different crash structures often are necessary, as are different emission controls, and many of the regulations are different to be different; they do not increase safety or cleanliness.

There are, however, some cases where changes are necessary. For example, U.S. rollover requirements specify curtain airbags that stay inflated longer (about six seconds, an eternity in a crash) to reduce the severity of what can be a long-duration accident. This requires a “cool” inflator and a sealed bag. Europe and China, on the other hand, require the same quick inflation of the roof-mounted airbag, but not the same duration of full pressure. That’s because U.S. roads are often higher than the surrounding terrain, and this transition “trips” a vehicle into a rollover. In Europe and China, the roads are either at the same height or slightly lower, and this makes rollovers less likely. Those regions require better protection against impacts with the trees or poles that line roadways, but use much of the same hardware as is found in U.S. vehicles.

I appreciate the specialist makers’ desire for less regulation and, thus, more access to global markets. There is no reason a single set of emission and safety regulations — or a winnowing of current regs to eliminate redundancy and ineffective region-specific rules — wouldn’t open doors without devastating the land and its occupants. But it will never happen. Government legislative bodies have bigger egos than your average Hollywood diva; it would be impossible to get them to decide whose regulations should stay and whose should go. Which is a shame. About 20 years ago a top Ford executive told me that the multiplicity of regulations added $46 billion to the automotive industry’s cost of doing business, a figure that has only risen in the interim. I have no doubt these regulations have restricted consumer choice more than they have saved lives.

Check Out Those Crazy Fins! The headline comes from the Director of Web Development, whose father started at GM design about the time the 1959 Buick was ready to launch. (To see what he his exclamation means, click here to view photos of some of the wilder proposals for the be-winged Buick.) The big Buick launched with two dihedral fins, but these proposals all show variations on a three-fin theme. How the trunks would open fully with a third appendage (though it would fit neatly between the double-bubble rear window in the first photo) or not poke an inattentive person loading/unloading the trunk isn’t clear. However, it’s sure nice to look at a time when car design wasn’t hampered by a mass of regulations… or practicality.

Speaking of the DWD, he sent along this video of a stop-motion video of the strip-down and rebuild of a Triumph Spitfire’s four-cylinder engine. The video took 3,000 separate still photos, and undoubtedly added a bit of time to the process. It’s an entertaining little film, and shows a tremendous amount of creativity on the part of its maker. Enjoy.

 

Renault Chief Operating Officer, Carlos Tavares, recently told Britain’s Autocar that the French automaker could support a premium brand, but that it would take 25 years for it to become self-funding. It would probably dust off the Initiale name previously used on special editions and a 1995 concept car. He also suggested Renault might launch an Alpine brand to build sports cars.

The Renault Initiale Concept of 1995 was powered by a 3.5-liter V10, had low shoulder and high roof lines, and the rear glass formed a boat tail.At a time when Ford has shed itself of Volvo, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Mercury; GM has cast off Hummer, Saab, Pontiac and Saturn; Renault wants to add to the number of badges under its roof. Dacia is its low-cost brand aimed at Eastern European markets, while Renault fills the broad middle sector on the rest of the continent. In addition, the company is partners with Nissan, which builds luxury cars under the Infiniti badge, and the firms have signed an agreement to collaborate with Mercedes. Moving into the luxury segment has the potential to steal sales from both Infiniti and Mercedes, though introducing a more style- than performance-driven brand might lessen its possibility while lowering component costs for all three by increasing volumes.

Autocar reports that Tavares hopes to leverage the next-generation Mercedes E-Class for a premium Renault. That car is expected to launch in 2013, though Renault probably wouldn’t have its own version before 2015. It would be joined by an Alpine close to the mid-engined concept of the same name recently shown, and — probably — a more affordable sports car based on Nissan’s 370Z. Also, the creation of a Renault sports car brand would create the volumes necessary for Nissan to build the small sports car it desires, by sharing it with the French.

Renault would have to improve its quality, its dealer network, and the desirability of its vehicles for this strategy to work. Perhaps that’s why Tavares says it will take at least 25 years. However, Renault has a bigger problem than trying to build two new brands: it is losing market share to both Hyundai and Kia. The more its base erodes, the less Renault will be able to support a premium brand. Perhaps it’s time the partially government-owned automaker to realign its assembly output with demand, close its underperforming plants, and work with its employees to design and build better vehicles. Then it can offer warranties equivalent to their lower-priced Korean competition, and go one better by offering free scheduled maintenance for the first three years of ownership. Then, and only then, would a move upmarket be warranted.

Toyota’s Crazy Car Project is just that: Crazy. Need proof? How about taking a rare, 1966 Toyota 2000GT, ripping out its internal combustion powertrain, and replacing it with an electric motor. Not enough? Okay, they also added solar cells to its hood and rear window. (The rear solar panels are transparent.)

 

Butchering a classic certainly gets attention; many critics have questioned Toyota’s sanity in using pristine 2000GT to make a point about electric power. However, most have missed the fact that Toyota wants to extend its reach in the low-emissions arena by launching an electric sports car. And, though a CVT will be used in Toyota’s electric city car, the sports car — which also will come in a hybrid version — will have a manual transmission. The car’s inverter will be used to modulate the torque based on which gear the driver selects, especially in the hybrid version.

Interesting technology, for sure. However, you have to wonder what happened to the Yamaha-designed 2.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine that used to power this beauty. Perhaps Toyota’s Crazy Car Project folks will use it, the 35 kW lithium-ion batter pack, and the 161-horsepower electric motor to build an analog to Porsche’s 918 Spyder. Then they could put it under a 1966 Toyota Corona. Now that would be crazy!

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