A car that could be a monumental failure. A gamble so daring, so all-in, that we will be talking about it for years, no matter what happens. It’s called the Green4U Panoz Racing GT-EV, and a model of the all-electric, all-wheel-drive car is set to debut at the company display at the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans. If the ACO, the sanctioning body for the 24 Hours, likes it, the car might be awarded the Garage 56 exhibition(now simply referred to as “innovative car”) entry for the 2018 race. Or not. Like we said, it’s a gamble.
Before we tell you about it, consider the two main figures behind the project before you judge whether or not it might work. (And it might not. No one, even these two, will deny that.)
Brian Willis, vice president of engineering and design for Green4U Technologies—which admittedly sounds like a lawn-care company—started his 30-year career in motorsports working for Skip Barber. Then he became Paul Newman’s track engineer. Then he got his master’s degree in engineering from MIT. Then he went to work for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, helping design and develop the legendary, all-conquering No. 99 Toyota GTP car. Then he went to Nissan to work on its GTP car. Then Swift, then Bobby Rahal’s IndyCar team, then Williams/BMW designing the BMW LMP that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1999. Then he came to work for Don Panoz on his race cars. Then he went to work for Team GOH on its Audi R8 LMP, which won Le Mans in 2004. Then Aston Martin. Then he went to work for Multimatic, the Canadian design, construction and racing company, on their race cars.
Green4U is basically a parent company that absorbed DeltaWing Technologies. Check out the website, Green4U.com, and you’ll see that the company has a lot of grand plans to build all-electric vehicles.
What better way to make a name for the company than build the first all-electric sports car endurance racer? That’s what Willis has been working on. And he had it all figured out, except for one problem: “It would have weighed about 4,500 pounds,” Willis says. Or about 1,100 pounds more than a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup car.
Can’t be done, Willis told Panoz. At which point he “shook his fists, pounded the desk and shouted, ‘Why the hell did I hire you?’” (Again.) Willis went back to the drawing board. Literally. Oh, and did we mention that Panoz insists that the race car spawn a street car?
So, to oversimplify, Willis came up with this: a car that has tandem, fighter jet-style seating on the left side—the passenger, if there were one, would sit behind the driver. On the right side, a battery. It would last somewhere around 100 miles in race conditions at Le Mans, or about 55 minutes, at which point the driver would pit, just as you would for fuel in a conventional car. But on the GT-EV (yes, it is a GT car, not a prototype), the right side of the body would swing up and out of the way. The pit crew would unplug the depleted battery and slide in a new one.
Sounds easy? Like the AAA guy showing up to put a new DieHard in your stranded minivan? Yes, it’s exactly like that, except this battery will weigh about 1,000 pounds.
So, we ask Willis, how the hell …? He isn’t sure yet, but try this out: a turntable on wheels that the crew rolls up to the race car. A pair of (strong) mechanical arms lift out the old battery and places it on the turntable. The crew rotates the turntable 180 degrees, and the arms lift the fresh battery into place.
The old battery goes behind the wall to recharge. Will two batteries be enough? “Oh, no,” Willis says. Maybe 10. Maybe more.
Willis is hoping for about 450 kW of power, which is roughly 600 horses. Obviously, the car will be weighted slightly—or more than slightly—on the right. But that’s fine for Le Mans: “Ninety percent of the turns favor right-side weight there,” Willis says—and he should know, having two (or, cough, three) Le Mans victories.
So how did Willis get the weight, size and battery consumption to manageable numbers? Presently, the car is about 192 inches long, 72 inches wide and 48 inches tall; by comparison, it’s about 14 inches longer, 5 inches narrower and about the same height as a Chevrolet Corvette Z06.
Active aerodynamics, for one thing. The slicker the car, the less horsepower it needs and the less electricity it uses. The nose of the GT-EV is incredibly efficient, if Willis does say so himself.
There’s also a lot of carbon fiber to reduce weight. The car is built along a foot-wide rail that contains the motors that power the front wheels (yes, regenerative braking is a big factor, especially up front where the majority of stopping takes place) and provides a rigid center section to underpin the rest of the car.
And yes, it does have to undergo the ACO and FIA crash tests—which aren’t written for an all-electric car, but everyone will cross that bridge when they get to it.
As far as suppliers go, for the most part, Willis and his crew are still reaching out. With battery technology evolving at a race-car pace, it’s possible a supplier won’t be selected until late in the game, when Green4U simply takes the most efficient battery available at that given moment. Of course, they’ll take a long look at suppliers used by Formula E, the all-electric open-wheel series that still requires two separate cars per driver to finish a 50-minute sprint race.
Panoz has visions of a street car using the technology from the race car.
But often, when Willis inquires about certain technology a company might have: “They say, ‘That’s a great idea. As soon as you invent it, we’ll be glad to build it for you.’” So he is inventing it.
As for the road car, Panoz says it will rival any sports car on the road, and it’s expected to cost somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000. Obviously, it will have just one battery pack, which will recharge like other electric passenger cars.
Work continues, and it will for a while, at the Green4U headquarters in Braselton, Georgia.
Which is not to be confused with the Green4U medical marijuana dispensary, or a lawn and garden maintenance company in Portland, Oregon. But if the Green4U Panoz Racing GT-EV doesn’t spark the interest Panoz and Willis hope it will, there might be some Green4U letterhead and envelopes available to those other namesake companies at a reasonable price.
And while confidentiality agreements prevent him from confirming or denying it, while at Multimatic, he was lead engineer for the Ford GT—both the street car and the 2016 Le Mans-winning race car. So Willis has three Le Mans wins, but he can only put down two on his résumé.
We’re leaving a lot out, including helicopters and submarines and Formula 1 and NASCAR. Suffice it to say, Willis is legit.
The other central character in this motorsports uprising is Don Panoz. In 1961, he co-founded Milan (now Mylan) Pharmaceuticals. He spearheaded research that led to the invention of the nicotine patch. (Panoz still chain-smokes, and yes, he gets the irony—if he didn’t, he’d be insufferable.) He left Mylan in 1969 and formed the Elan Corp., built on the foundation of being the patent holder for the patch. He has his nicotine-stained fingers in multiple pies, but since 1997, he has spent millions and millions on Panoz Motorsports—even though he’s never actually sat all the way through a race and probably never will.
Most recently, many of those millions were spent on developing the DeltaWing, which was essentially in stasis before Panoz took an interest in it. The DeltaWing was the 2012 Le Mans entry in the Garage 56 slot, which the ACO reserves for a vehicle that uses very advanced technology, and runs the race in an exhibition-only position. The DeltaWing was doing well until it was crunched by an unapologetic Toyota driver. The DeltaWing was retired at the end of the 2016 IMSA season, point made.
And now, Panoz is writing another huge check for the Green4U Panoz Racing GT-EV, and he wants another Garage 56 opportunity. (There isn’t one in the 2017 race—no submissions were deemed worthy.)
“This car is my holy grail,” Panoz says. At 82, he knows he might not have a lot of grails, holy or otherwise, left in him. And if you think the DeltaWing was a product of the far reaches of the Don Panoz ozone layer, wait until you see this.