Front-engined cars have been absent from the highest echelons of racing since the early 1960s. But in 1997, Don Panoz took a car to Le Mans ready to rattle the mid-engined establishment. It was called the Batmobile.
For serious road racing, you need a car with the engine in the middle: behind the driver but in front of the rear axle. While pretty in its physics on paper, the idea of mid-engined car construction was a difficult birth. In spite of its conception and very successful application by Ferdinand Porsche in the pre-war Benz Tropfenwagen (pictured left) and various Auto Unions, motor racing emerged from World War Two with front-engined cars.
But then physics came marching down on a racing establishment uncomfortable with the idea of horse-pushed carriages. 1958 would be the last season in Formula One won by a front-engined car, followed by Le Mans in 1962 and the Indianapolis 500 in 1964. Since these respective years, all of these races and championships have been won by mid-engined racing cars. Road cars soon followed, with the tiny fiberglass De Tomaso Vallelunga in 1964, then a year later the very car that gave birth to the word supercar: the Lamborghini Miura, with its transversely mid-mounted V12.
In Formula One and at the Indianapolis 500, it was pesky outsiders who convinced the ruling elite with their performances that mid-engined was the way to go. At Le Mans, a most unlikely development occured: reigning Ferrari replaced its front-engined 1962 330 TRI/LM Spyder (a derivative of a five-year-old design) with the radically new 250 P (pictured above at the Nürburgring) for 1963. The scuderia promptly won both at Sebring and at Le Mans.
It was all doom and gloom for the front engine as the Ferraris were followed by the Ford GT40 and decades of Porsches, beginning with the monstrous 917. But then in 1997, an American decided to give the mid-engine the finger. His name was Dr. Donald Panoz and he liked his six-liter V8’s up front, thank you very much.
The Panoz Esperante GTR-1 was a closed coupé with a Roush V8, named after the Panoz Esperante roadster with which it had little in common. In a sense, it was also mid-engined—but unlike every other mid-engined car, it had its engine between the front axle and the driver.
The GTR-1 had its share of teething problems in its debut year, but it returned for 1998 to take seventh place at Le Mans. One of the drivers was David Brabham, the son of triple Formula One world champion Jack "Black Jack” Brabham, who would go on to win last weekend’s race with Peugeot.
At the end of the 1998 racing season, the GT category that the GTR-1 raced in was eliminated. Panoz countered with a brand-new prototype for the next season: the open-top LMP-1. The car retained the GTR-1’s Batmobile proportions and its six-liter thunder-happy V8, presenting an even more Cyrano-esque nose.
The LMP-1 raced at the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race made famous by the flying CLR’s of Mercedes-Benz. Driven by Brabham and company, the car finished seventh, similar to its closed-top sibling at the previous year’s race. The LMP-1 would produce its best result in 2000 with a fifth overall finish—which it would repeat in 2003 behind the all-conquering Audis and Audi-derived Bentleys.
By then, the LMP-1 was an aging design, and it was replaced with the LMP07, which would prove disappointing. Panoz withdrew from prototype racing and returned to Le Mans in the GT2 class for 2005, to compete against Ferraris, Porsches and Spykers derived from road cars. Their first outing at the scorching 2005 race would produce no results, but a front-engined Panoz Esperante GT-LM driven by three Brits would beat both Ferrari and Porsche to win GT2 in 2006.
While Panoz’s front-mid-engined prototypes could never really hold up against mid-engined racing cars from major manufacturers, they proved that the front-mid engine construction was a viable concept. In the years that followed, a crop of supercars built on the same principle would emerge: the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and the Ferrari 599 GTB. The latter is now also available as a track-only version, for decades inconceivable in a front-engined Ferrari, showing perhaps that we have indeed come full circle since Enzo Ferrari first commissioned a mid-engined prototype for Le Mans in 1963.
All we need now is a team with the funding and the guts to follow through.