1998 was before endurance racing turned into a mileage game. This was before Audi’s diesel-powered assault in the 2000s. Back then, Mercedes, Mclaren, and Porsche were dueling with wide, low mid-engined machines. But Dr. Don Panoz wasn’t known for following the pack. He tried something new, and while it didn’t work then, it would prove to be the future of the WEC.
Back then, hybrid technology was far from ubiquitous. The only hybrid cars on the market were the original Toyota Prius and the extremely limited production Audi A4 duo (a story for another day). In order to put together a car with an electric boost on the competition, Panoz couldn’t go to a large manufacturer. He had to go to Zytek Motorsport, electric power and racing nerds who had the tools he needed to pull off his big idea.
The result was a version of Dr. Panoz’s Esperante GTR-1 that could give its six-liter V8 a jolt from an electric motor on the rear axle to help with acceleration. Regenerative braking was used to charge the bespoke tubular batteries, which weighed about 350 pounds. The result was a car that could spend less time in fuel stops by conserving and reusing braking energy, which until that point was totally wasted by the rest of the competition.
Panoz was excited about the car. He called it “Sparky” (though the car was officially named the Esperante GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid) and covered it in his signature iridescent paint with totally rad yellow streaks down the side to show everyone just how special it was underneath. But while it looked the part, it took some time for the car to show everyone just what it was capable of.
The car went to qualify for Le Mans in 1998 but didn’t do quite well enough to make it. Panoz supposes that the mistake that doomed the car was not removing batteries to lower the weight of the car as it did its qualifying heats. Apparently the car wouldn’t be able to make the most of the full battery pack in the short heats, leaving the car with hundreds of pounds of dead weight slowing the car down.
Panoz’s car would eventually make it to Petit Le Mans that year where it would win its class, demonstrating to the world that hybrid power didn’t just have a place in endurance racing, but that it could actually succeed at challenging the more traditionally engineered entries.
Though the car did succeed, Dr. Panoz’s attempts to sell the technology to the larger teams and manufacturers went nowhere. The upstart with his purple front-engined new hybrid cars couldn’t catch the attention of the big boys despite his bona fides.
Since then, hybrid technology has more than taken off in endurance racing (in addition to out there on the production car market). Audi, Porsche, and Toyota all owe their recent dominance in LMP1 racing to the technology, and it will be the default set-up in the forthcoming WEC Hypercar class which starts this year. Though they didn’t listen to the good doctor when he came around in 1998, they’d come around eventually even if the doctor himself wasn’t invited along for the ride. It’s okay, though, his attention was elsewhere.
Don Panoz passed away last year at the age of 83. Though his hybrid never made it at Le Mans, it’s just another testament to his tremendous impact on motorsport and the automotive industry. Not every project he took on would be successful, and many didn’t receive the resources and attention they needed from the right people to properly take off, but the man pushed the automotive world forward with creativity and determination, and if Group C-smas was a holiday that taught values, those would be them.