Breaking Battery - 1998 Panoz Esperante GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid
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 his company introduced the outlandish Batmobile-esque 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, as opposed to the more conventional mid-engined designs like Porsche’s 911 GT1 and Mercedes’ CLK GTR.
By 1998 the Esperante GTR-1 had developed into a serious contender for its more advanced and better funded 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 in the championship.
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 employed a radical new way of thinking.
In an agreement with British race engineering firm Zytek, Panoz decided to develop the GTR-1 into a hybrid electric vehicle. The idea was to add an auxiliary 150 horsepower electric motor, which would draw its power from a large battery pack placed beside the driver for added balance. The motor would serve to the assist the big and thirsty 600 horsepower 6.0L Élan Power Products Ford V8 engine under acceleration. This theoretically meant less effort from the petrol engine was required, resulting in less fuel needed to propel the car forward at the same speeds.
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 refueling in the pits. To further help the car along Zytek and Panoz engineered an innovative regenerative braking system. This early form of KERS stored the energy otherwise wasted in the form of excess heat during braking, hopefully ensuring longer battery life.
With the plans for the futuristic machine now laid out, British chassis engineers Reynard began construction of the carbon fiber monocoque. 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. It's purpose was to give up and coming teams and brand new designs a shake down on the difficult La Sarthe track, and to weed out any car that proved too slow to compete.
Panoz’ regular Esperante GTR-1 factory cars were also present, making the team eager to see how the new 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 future Black Stig 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 with its older sisters. The extra weight of the electric motor and its vast battery pack severely slowed the car down compared to the standard cars, despite the extra electric power on tap.
The original Esperante GTR-1 only weighed about 890 kg (1962 lbs), whereas 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 was not content on wasting 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).
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. However, the first Petit Le Mans would prove to be Sparky's first and last race.
The Panoz Esperante GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid was a car 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 massive drawback ensured the car would never race again. Hybrid electric technology would not be taken seriously in endurance racing again until more than a decade later.