Breaking Battery - 1998 Panoz Esperante GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid
A SPARK OF PREMATURE GENIUS
American sportscar manufacturer Panoz was founded in 1989 by Don Panoz and his son Dan. Don Panoz had made a fortune as the inventor of the nicotine patch, but had an even bigger fascination with motorsport. In 1997 the company introduced the quirky 6.0L Ford V8 powered Esperante GTR-1 homologation special for use in GT1 racing. The car was unique in that it was the only purpose built GT1 entry with its engine mounted at the front, rather than the mid-engined designs of Porsche’s 911 GT1 and Mercedes’ CLK GTR.
By 1998 the Esperante GTR-1 had developed into a serious contender for its more advanced opposition, particularly giving Porsche a bloody nose on numerous occasions. The car utterly dominated the American IMSA series that year, winning 7 out of 8 rounds and securing both titles.
The Batmobile-like Esperante GTR-1 was a very competent outsider in the GT1-field.
At around the same time work started on an innovative new concept. Panoz had been lacking success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with all three of their cars failing to finish in 1997. To get an edge over the competition the company dreamed up a radical new concept.
In an agreement with British race engineering firm Zytek, Panoz decided to develop the GTR-1 into a hybrid vehicle. The idea was to add an auxiliary 150 horsepower electric motor to the drivetrain to assist the big and thirsty 600 horsepower Ford V8 under acceleration. This theoretically meant less effort from the petrol engine was required, resulting in less fuel used to power the car.
The heavy battery pack was mounted on the passenger side to aid balance.
Decreased fuel consumption would lead to fewer pit stops and longer stints, allowing the car to rack up more laps and stay out when competitors were stuck in the pits. To further help the car along Zytek and Panoz engineered a regenerative braking system. This early form of KERS stored the energy otherwise wasted during braking, ensuring longer battery life.
With the plans for the innovative machine now laid out, British chassis engineer Reynard began construction of the car. The completed car was finished in a striking midnight purple with bright yellow lightning bolts to celebrate its hybrid drive. It was referred to as the Q9 Hybrid officially, but nicknamed “Sparky“. Customer team David Price Racing took delivery of the car and started a regiment of extensive testing.
After taking most of the 1998 season testing and perfecting the car, David Price Racing then entered it into the Pre-qualifying Session for the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans. This session was traditionally held a full month before the actual event to weed out any cars too slow to run in the race.
Pre-qualifying Session, Le Mans 1998.
Panoz’ regular Esperante GTR-1 factory cars were also present, making Panoz eager to see how the Q9 Hybrid would stack up to the base car. Driving the standard cars that session were Eric Bernard (FRA) for #44 and David Brabham (AUS) / Andy Wallace (GB) for #45. The Q9 would be piloted by Brits James Weaver and Perry McCarthy.
The standard GTR-1’s showed good pace by setting the 12th (#45) and 13th times overall behind the factory Toyota, Porsche and Mercedes entries. Sadly the Q9 Hybrid couldn’t quite keep up. The extra weight of the electric motor and its vast battery pack severely slowed the car down. The original Esperante GTR-1 only weighed about 890 kg (1962 lbs), where the Q9 Hybrid topped the scales at a lardy 1100 kg (2425 lbs).
A disappointing 31st on the leaderboard was all it could manage. The lackluster pace of the new hybrid car lead to Panoz reconsidering its viability. After some deliberation the plans to race the car at Le Mans were subsequently shelved.
However, Panoz did not want to waste the Q9 Hybrid’s expensive development program. Shying away from the European series the company decided to enter the car into the first ever Petit Le Mans held at Road Atlanta, a track Don Panoz happened to own. Sparky‘s handlers this time were John Nielsen (DK), Doc Bundy (USA) and Christophe Tinseau (FRA).
Sparky at Petit Le Mans, 1998.
The trio took the car to a more respectable 11th place on the 29 car grid, showing promise for the race. After a largely uneventful run the car scored a 12th placing from 16 finishers in its first ever competition outing. The standard GTR-1 of Scott Pruett (USA), Eric Bernard, Andy Wallace and David Brabham finished not too far ahead in 8th. Sadly, Sparky never raced again.
Petit Le Mans, 1998.
The Panoz Esperante GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid was simply too far ahead of its time. Battery technology had not improved to the point where it could run without being affected by a significant weight disadvantage.
The disappointing pace that resulted from this drawback ensured the car would never race again. Hybrid technology would not be taken seriously in endurance racing again until a decade later.