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Delta Wing story playing out exactly how it should have

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Marino Franchitti test-drives the new Nissan-powered Delta Wing Le Mans prototype. The revolutionary car, designed by Ben Bowlby, began its life as a concept for the 2012 IndyCar. (Photo: Nissan)
Marino Franchitti test-drives the new Nissan-powered Delta Wing Le Mans prototype. The revolutionary car, designed by Ben Bowlby, began its life as a concept for the 2012 IndyCar. (Photo: Nissan)

It's all over the press, with responses ranging from pop culture giddiness (the Batmobile in real life!) to snarky - and, for IndyCar fans, well-worn - observations about its phallic shape.

Make no mistake, the Delta Wing is the darling of not just the racing world, but the world in general right now. The exotic-looking race car once proposed to be the next generation IndyCar is now, with the benefit of some added headlights, a buzzworthy sports car ready to take on the world at Le Mans later this year.

For my part, I'm glad to see it finally taking the track. While I am not a fan of its aesthetics, the philosophy behind it is intriguing enough that a successful proof-of-concept feels to me like a boon for the racing industry.

Having said that, I confess that I am not quite sanguine about the reasoning from those IndyCar fans who are pointing to the Delta Wing as a lost opportunity for the series... because, truthfully, the Delta Wing's story is playing out in the best possible way.

The Delta Wing, it must be pointed out, was a non-starter from the get-go with INDYCAR. After years of the status quo, it was big enough of a challenge to write an amended set of technical regulations for a new car as well as a new set of competition regulations for 2012. And while few could have predicted the impending turnover in key INDYCAR administration positions when the Delta Wing was first unveiled, hindsight certainly shows that introducing a car as radical as the Delta Wing to IndyCar competition in the middle of a personnel upheaval of such magnitude would have resulted in virtual chaos.

More than the physical car itself, the underlying paradigm of the Delta Wing - a far more extreme version of the current safety-cell/aero-kit philosophy that will be developed cautiously over the next two seasons - remains a fascinating concept. In practical terms, however, there was no way to create the infrastructure for developing the theoretical Delta Wing variations imagined by the car's designers, or, in fact, even the production minimums to supply the entire IndyCar field with the prototype configuration by the start of the 2012 season. One only need to look at the struggles faced by Dallara, a company which has been building IndyCars for the better part of two decades, to produce a functional DW12 - a car that is at best an evolution of past designs - in time for the series' season opener to understand how enormous a task it would have been to conjure 50 Delta Wings out of thin air.

The $15 million Delta Wing prototype that will be unveiled officially today at Sebring by its designers and Nissan, the company underwriting the project and powering the car, is going to be the subject of intense short-term interest from all directions. If there is a "Danica effect" for race cars, the Delta Wing will enjoy it in spades.

But the Delta Wing will hit the racetrack as a concept car, not a legitimate mainstream racing machine. It is entered at Le Mans in an experimental category and cannot earn competition points. For the Delta Wing and Nissan, Le Sarthe will be the world's biggest auto show. And, like most auto shows, the general public will likely focus intense interest on the Delta Wing just as they would KITT from Knight Rider or the actual Batmobile, while the rest of the cars will likely only be patronized by the harder-core aficionados. When Le Mans is over, the casual onlookers will go back to what they were doing before, having successfully sampled this exotic new thing - the odds that they will fall in love with sports car racing in general as a result are very low.

That could have been INDYCAR, some say when they look at the Delta Wing. Well, let's be honest - it was INDYCAR already, back when Danica Patrick was the attention-grabbing ringer. We've been through this whole process before, you know. That Danica was and is a legitimate race car driver - just like the Delta Wing is the forerunner of a perfectly genuine next-generation racing platform - is immaterial in the higher-level assessment of her "wow-factor." The fame and attention, as I have written before, is a bubble that surrounds the subject and moves with it, leaving precious little residue behind.

In the greater scheme of things - particularly in the context of the tragic end to the 2011 season - there are too many other issues surrounding INDYCAR for a trip down the Delta Wing rabbit hole. The incremental advances of the DW12 and the new turbocharged engines, with the hindsight available to us now, are enough to spark interest without introducing a full-on upheaval. The ICONIC committee's decision to go this route, once derided as "backwards thinking" and nepotistic, now look sage and prescient today as INDYCAR balances new rules, indoctrinates new faces in its ranks, faces safety challenges, and works to reshape itself after years of stagnation.

The Delta Wing is a singular achievement, but at this point in time it works best in the singular sense, like the Tyrell six-wheeler or the STP Turbine. As pioneering as it is, it is not ready for prime time yet. It could be that the principles behind the Delta Wing will become incorporated into IndyCar racing down the road, but that timeframe is measured in years.

So sincere congratulations to everyone involved with the Delta Wing project. You have accomplished a tremendous achievement and have set the racing world onto the new trail you have blazed. All the same, given the context of the past two years, and with all due respect... better you than us.