Racecar Profile: Elan NP01 - The Race Car You Would Design
By Tom Martin
December 31, 2014
We’ve talked to lots of racers about the car they drive and the car they’d like to drive. It hardly needs to be said that lots of drivers would like to try an F1 car or a WEC prototype or a full-on GT3 car, at least in their dreams. But when you add in the element of a car that drivers have to buy and maintain, those million dollar cars with rare and exotic parts and short service intervals are immediately off the table for almost all amateur racers. To get around the problem of dreaming, we’ve started asking the question differently: “What would you build if you owned a race car manufacturing operation and wanted to create a great race car for amateurs?”
There are many possible answers of course, since racers have varying motivations. But we think Elan and NASA have come up with a pretty good nominee for the race car you would build. They call it the NP01, and it will be available in 2015.
We talked to Will Faules of NASA and Mark Sanderson of Elan, who were involved in the development of the car, about the details.
What is the idea of the NP01?
NASA saw a gap in the racecar market for a car that is in between the popular and affordable Spec Miata and somewhat exotic and expensive prototypes like those from Radical (SR3), Wolf (GB08), Caterham (SP/300) and Elan (DP02). This gap is really more of a canyon, because a Spec Miata can be built for $20k while series-produced prototypes are in the $100k-$150k range. Elan’s new NP01 will split the difference with pricing in the $60-80k range.
There is currently a gap in car counts, too, between SM at one end and prototypes and formula cars at the other. Numbers are difficult to come by, but looking at the two most popular prototype cars, we estimate that there might be 100 Radical SR3s and 50 Elan PD02s running in the U.S. Contrast this with about 1800 Spec Miatas, a number that makes it the most popular race car.
Of course, there are many cars in between those extremes, but if we confine ourselves to series-produced cars, some of the main examples are the Ariel Atom, the Ford Racing Boss 302S, the Lotus Exige S. These are $60k to $100k cars that sell pretty well and which fit with varying degrees of comfort into the various sanctioning systems around the U.S. These cars sit in the middle of the car count spectrum, the popular Boss 302S having about 200 cars on track. However, these are spread across many series and states of tune.
While NASA doesn’t like to talk about it, in SCCA, there is also Spec Racer Ford. New SRFs start at about $30k and the car has been around since the mid-80s. SRF is the second most popular racecar in the U.S. , with about 1000 cars. SRF has a few issues of course – an open cockpit, pace that is just slightly above SM, and that ‘80s body style. The pace is slowly being addressed by the rollout of the Gen III car, but the other issues remain. Still, SRF is a model worth studying if you are a builder.
NASA’s thinking in conceiving the NP01, basically was something like “what if you could have the thrill and sexiness of prototypes at more of the price point, car count and running cost of Spec Miata or SRF?”
What Are The Specs?
NASA partnered with Elan to build the NP01. Frankly this makes sense, because Elan has prototype experience and a shop capable of volume production (50 cars per year). So let’s look at the major design decisions:
Engine: Sealed Mazda 2L MZR; 185 crank hp
A sealed engine makes sense in a spec series aimed at keeping costs down. And this is an automotive engine, capable of handling automotive stresses, which stands in contrast to motorcycle-engine based cars like the Radical and many other sports racers. The engine is also running in a moderate state of tune (the same engine makes 250 hp in the Elan DP02).
Chassis: single-seat, tube frame with mid-engine and transaxle
We might reduce this to the formula “tube frame for cost, drivetrain layout for performance and maintenance.”
Weight: 1550 pounds
Because the NP01 uses a tube frame and some beefy, non-exotic components, it makes the NP01 a few hundred pounds heavier than exotic sports racers. A benefit of this is the use of more robust parts. As a result, when you wash out wide in turn 8 at Mid-Ohio you are less likely to bend suspension pieces.
Power To Weight Ratio: 11 lb./hp
While not mind-blowing, this is chosen as a “fast, but not crazy” specification. Sure, you want crazy. But, as you will see, you probably can’t afford it.
Spec Miata: 20 lb./hp
SRF: 15.5 lb./hp
Elan NP01: 11 lb./hp
Spec Racer Atom: 9 lb./hp
Boss 302S: 9 lb./hp
Radical SR3: 7.5 lb. hp
Wolf GB08: 6.5 lb./hp
Porsche GT3 Cup: 6.5 lb./hp
The real question will be how the NP01 feels on track, since it generally will not be racing head-to-head with any of these cars. Our experience is that torque curves, gearing, sound and aero have a big impact on how a car feels. For example, the Radical feels slower in a straight line than the Mustang, even though the Mustang has an inferior power:weight ratio. And certainly a Cup car feels somewhat stronger than the Wolf, despite similar specs.
Transmission: Sadev SL75 6-speed sequential transaxle
Another automotive element, and a racing-based one at that, this transaxle was selected for reliability. The Sadev also is run well below its torque spec. The sequential shifting system also fits well with the anticipated pace of the car.
The gearbox will not be sealed, so that teams can do maintenance on the car. But the gear ratios are fixed by spec.
Body: closed cockpit, composite
The closed cockpit is a safety item, in NASA’s eyes. Simply put, there are some drivers who won’t run an open car. A side benefit is that a closed cockpit car tends have more styling character. Closed cockpit cars are also nicer in the rain, although they can be hot in the summer.
Aerodynamics: downforce from splitter, diffusor and rear wing
NASA clearly intends to make this car a step up, and wants to do that not only with power but with aero. Aero leads to higher cornering speeds and also more braking capability relative to purely mechanical cars. Learning to drive an aero car takes some time, but frankly at 9/10ths aero cars are still amazingly fun.
Price: $60,000 for the kit; figure $75,000 built plus options
There is, we suppose, no free lunch. So, you can look at the NP01 several ways. You can certainly see the value proposition that the NP01 brings to the table. For about 50-75% of the price of other prototypes, you get good performance, higher car count (in theory), and better reliability/run cost. You might also say that the NP01 makes a pretty reasonable step up from SM or SRF.
Of course, you can also say that you could buy a BMW or Mustang-based racer, running in NASA ST3 or SCCA T2, or Spec E46 or American Iron, for perhaps $40k-50k. Round numbers, these cars should be somewhat slower than the NP01 due to their weight, higher CG and limited aero (predicting lap time from specs is pretty tough, so emphasis here is on “round numbers”). These will not be spec cars, however, and eventually the car counts for the NP01 may be higher.
Will They Build It?
In this era of renderings and mock-ups there is certainly room for skepticism. And amateur racing isn’t exactly full of publicly-traded companies with thick balance sheets. That said, Elan is a major builder, with strong financial backing. They are a real company with real experience building real race cars.
In fact the bigger issue initially seemed to be that Elan is real enough that they insisted on eight firm orders before they would proceed with production. So, the question was “will Elan get eight orders?” Fortunately, in the first week after the NP01 was announced, Elan received eight deposits. It seems likely that first year sales could exceed 20 cars.
What Will Car Count Be?
Car count is part of the draw for a spec series. If you want to race, you want other cars to show up and you want enough of them so that drivers with similar skill levels can compete. SM regularly gets 20 or more cars on grid, and we’ve lined up at some races with 70 other cars in that class. In contrast, we’ve done CSR and P1 races with the SCCA, where there are only three sports racers in a group and all of them different cars.
Realistically, prototypes will never be like SM. But we’ve talked to many people in the industry who agree that if NASA can get 6-10 NP01s to show up for a race weekend, it will probably reach some threshold of competitiveness. That means NASA needs to get at least 50 cars sold, assuming they are spread around the U.S. population centers. Coincidentally, that is about Elan’s annual production capacity. It might not take long for this to become a hot class.
To help achieve this, NASA wants to focus those cars on a subset of its events. While they will have a run group for the NP01 at all 150 NASA weekends nationally, that wealth of events could lead to cars being scattered. So, NASA plans to designate about ten events in each region as “Prototype Weekends” in an effort to tell NP01 drivers where to go for the richest competition.
Will Run Costs Really Be Low?
As with any discussion of money, “low” is a relative term. But NASA has worked hard to keep costs down. The basics of this are:
- a robust car that doesn’t break very often
- a car whose performance doesn’t deteriorate much over time, extending refresh cycles
- a car with low cost components, especially those that might be damaged with contact
We’ve already discussed some of the design details that led to a robust car. One part of this is running the car’s components well below their design limits. Another part of this is using components that can withstand impact. Elan has done both in the design of the NP01. Only time will tell how well they executed.
The refresh cycle of the engine can also be an important cost element. The designers say that the engine should run with minimal power loss for three seasons. They assume 10 race weekends per season, which is about a 100 hour refresh cycle.
As far as easy service goes, the engine is not a stressed member, however the chassis is designed with an easily removed stressed bell housing. The engine mounts in the rear to the bell housing and in the front via a centered aluminum mount. Removal is pretty straightforward: remove the exhaust exit pipe, brake lines, harness connector, fuel line and water hoses, the four main bell housing bolts, front mount and slide the entire engine/suspension assembly rearward. The engine can then be easily unbolted from the bell housing. An experienced person should be able to complete an engine change in a couple of hours.
The design attends to replacement cost by using simple components designed with replacement in mind. For example, the uprights are the same on all four corners. And the front bodywork comes off in sections so that the entire nose doesn’t have to be replaced every time some nut job divebombs you.
Will Real Drivers Fit In The NP01?
NASA wanted to accommodate drivers up to 6’5” and 240 lb., so the cage is generously sized. The car comes with a shell seat and then drivers can use a bead seat kit to make an individualized, removable custom insert for their comfort and to dial-in seating position.
The NP01 Looks Like An Endurance Racer; Can It Run Enduros?
For a new car aimed at sprint racing, NASA has done a reasonable job accommodating enduros. Here are some key endurance-oriented features and options:
. Lighting package
. Extra capacity fuel bladder
. Dry break refueling
. Cool suit system
. Chassis jack (manual)
. Interchangeable seat inserts
Any Interesting Nerdy Details?
A few things you might like to know include:
. The car will come with an electronic dash and data logger. The vendor is still being determined, so data channels are unknown.
. The shifter will be lever operated. The car requires a manual blip (and probably clutch actuation) on downshifts.
. Wheels are 5 lug, so don’t plan on 2.6 second pit stops.
. Standard fuel capacity is still being decided, but should be in the 10-15 gallon range
. Spec tire is a 235-40/17 Toyo Proxes RR, a DOT slick
. Rear wing is adjustable, so teams with a wind tunnel will have an advantage
. Suspension is adjustable, including single-adjustable shocks
. Aero package is being finalized using computational fluid dynamics modeling
How Hard Is It To Build?
The car is delivered as a kit, a decision that yields several advantages. It keeps the cost down for DIY racers. Those who build the car will also be more familiar with its construction, making maintenance easier. Racers who elect to have the car professionally built, of course, have a level of regional support that has tended to be missing from some factory-built cars.
Elan ships the car complete, with building instructions. They have confined the building to nut, bolt, and connector assembly plus riveting, which is to say there is no welding or fabrication required. NASA and Elan estimate 80-100 hours to build the car. The actual time depends upon your experience and how many people you have working on the project.
Can I Buy A Ready-To-Race Car?
You can also have you car built by a race shop. Winding Road Racing, for example, will build you a complete car for the cost of the kit plus the build. Winding Road Racing will be taking delivery of kit number 5, and that car is currently available to be optioned, built and customized to a buyer’s needs. Additional cars will be made available based on demand. You can find more details on the Winding Road Racing site.
When Can I Get One?
Elan intends to begin delivering kits in the late summer (September, 2015). After that, delivery will depend upon your order number and upon Elan’s backlog.