Discussion of the DeltaWing concept has arisen once again, and also once again at the instigation of Gordon Kirby who wrote an article Rediscovering racing’s true self, and Peter De Lorenzo via his article IndyCar’s death warrant. In these articles, Kirby and De Lorenzo dote on the DeltaWing and its superior engineering concepts. When one talks with a typical race fan about the DeltaWing, however, what one hears most often is something along the lines of, “It’s a brilliant engineering exercise, but …well… it’s ugly isn’t it.” Is the look of a race car REALLY that important of an issue that it can destroy an otherwise ideally engineered machine? Well, maybe. There is a reason why engineers aren’t the only people involved in making can openers. Designers play a role, too. Apparently, its not enough that the can opener simply open cans effectively and reliably, but they must also appeal to our sense of aesthetics as well. They must, after all, look sexy. Don’t believe me? Take a walk down the kitchen gadget aisle next time you’re at the store and look at the designs. All smooth curves and soft grips, ergonomic shapes and what not. Now lets translate this to motorsports. Is it simply enough that the car goes fast, faster than its competition, and is more efficient in doing so? The engineer part of me says, “Well of course. That’s the whole point of the sport, afterall, be first and better yet if you can do so with less expense.” The artist/marketer part of me thinks, “But isn’t not just about going fast, is it? Its the pageantry, the spectacle. Its about the SHOW.”
When people argue for the DeltaWing, they talk about how brilliant the engineering concepts are behind the car, and they’d get no argument from me. Furthermore, when you bring up the argument that its has all the sexiness of a lawn dart, you’ll often hear about how revolutionary cars of the past were thought odd and unlikely to work. Most notably, you’ll hear of the transition from the front-engine roadsters to the rear-engine cars we know today. However, the first rear-engine car to which the DeltaWing supporters refer in their arguments is the Ford-powered Lotus 38 driven by Jimmy Clark. The big difference here is that the Lotus was, …well… a Lotus. It was beautiful! Not only was it fast, but it was a dead sexy car, sleek, low, and appealing. In fact, if you think back to some of the great race cars of the past, we don’t just remember them for their dominance. We remember them because they were beautiful machines. The Ford GT40 was simply magnificent as was the Porsche 917. Magnificent machines that were inspiring and fearsome all at once, a predatory elegance.
Surely form must follow function, but function can’t be everything. Think what you want about how motorsports should be about getting across the finish line first, but never forget that its also about the show. This is where I think the DeltaWing fails, or at least where it failed to win over the IndyCar community. There’s no show, its all function. The only way it remotely approaches being “sexy” is in the inherent phallicity of its shape. A resemblance that has led many twitterites to use some rather interesting nicknames for the car. The DeltaWing group did make sure to state repeatedly and with some vehemence at Indy this year that the grey beast we know now is not necessarily the shape of the final prototype that will hit the track. That being the case, I’m not yet going to completely disregard the DeltaWing, nor will I support it fully. I will wait to see what they put on track late next year. I just hope they don’t completely focus on function and don’t forget that they also need to sell the spectacle.