I recently returned from my first trip to watch the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. While I was there, a nagging thought I’ve had in the past kept sneaking into my brain: since when did race cars become so ugly?
I believe this thought arose when I was in the presence of Audi’s latest LMP1 design, the Audi R18 e-tron quattro (below). While the car traces its lineage back over 15 years to the R8 that began the company’s winning ways at Le Mans, it retains little of its predecessor’s beauty. Previous Audi prototype cars – from the R8 to the R10 to the first closed-cockpit R18 – managed a delicate marriage between design and purpose; the latest R18, though, is all function with no form.
We shouldn’t be surprised, as this ultimate class of endurance racing may take its cues from the other ultimate kind of racing: Formula 1. Not that F1 car designs were headed in a great direction before 2009, but that year the organizing body changed the rules and ushered in an era of gigantic front wings, little rear wings, and much fewer flicks and flaps around the body to manipulate aerodynamics. The result? You’ve seen the front wings these days; they look impossibly intricate and complex. They are not designed so much as wind-tunneled into shape; the breeze is their creator.
And then there’s NASCAR, whose car designs are dictated by dozens of templates each team must use to create a shape that doesn’t violate the rules. There’s little room for variation between the cars; most of what you see that makes each car unique comes down to the grille and headlight stickers that are applied.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want all of racing to reflect the design of actual productions cars like GT classes in so many series. Those are incredibly fun cars to watch race – the Corvettes, Astons, 911s, Ferraris, and so on – but they’re limited by keeping one foot in the realm of production cars. I like that F1 and WEC cars are the pinnacle of performance technology, and even in NASCAR, those brutes are great fun to watch going over 200 miles per hour and be the supercars their mainstream counterparts can’t.
My hope is that one day these series will bend back towards car designs that allow for a designer’s perspective to exist alongside an algorithm’s recommendation. In that vein, we invited a few designers to create for us their best guess at what LMP1, F1, and NASCAR might look like in 2030. See for yourself, and let us know in the comments if we improved upon the cars of today or just made things worse.