"I hope I will die as the CEO of Delage."
In case you questioned Laurent Tapie's commitment to building a hypercar company from the ground up, the serial businessman turned automotive CEO is dead serious – literally – about his new passion project. His goal is to put Delage, at one time one of France’s most successful sports car brands, back on the map.
To do that, you need to know a bit about Delage’s history. Established in Paris in 1905 by Louis Delage, the company encountered immense success on the track in its early days. Delage set records at Le Mans, won at Indy – still one of only two French brands to do so – and developed a V12 engine in the late 1920s that made fellow pioneers Ettore Bugatti and Enzo Ferrari blush.
But even with podium success and a highly sought-after V12, the Great Depression and a (second) world war forced the company into bankruptcy in the 1950s. Eventually, the brand left stewardship of the Delage family entirely. But when Laurent Tapie "re-founded" the company, as he likes to say, it wasn’t about the brand, it was about the car – and finding a foothold in a booming hypercar industry.
"I read an article about the incredible figures of hypercars, in terms of sales – Pagani and Koenigsegg were already selling ten times what they used to sell 10 years ago, same with Bugatti," Laurent told me during an interview at Delage’s soon-to-be-opened Ft. Lauderdale showroom.
"So I said, 'okay, the market is there, and maybe I have a chance to make my own car.' I started by defining the car, not the brand. And I said that if I wanted to make a car, then it had to be unique, it had to be different. So I made this quite brave choice – I must say – of something really radical."
The D12 is basically the definition of radical. Delage’s 21st-century hypercar boasts a 1,100-horsepower hybrid V12 and an F1-derived design with a two-seat tandem layout that puts the passenger directly behind the driver, legs splayed out on either side like a log flume ride.
But even Tapie is quick to admit that the D12 is likely to scare off the less enthusiastic crowd, and he sort of prefers it that way.
"I know this car is not going to please most of the buyers who are not necessarily passionate – those that buy a car because they have a status … so I've created this project where I know the first model I have will be ignored by 80 percent of the clientele, but I believe it will be a must-have for the 10 or 20 percent of hypercar buyers. Those who pick a LaFerrari FXX K rather than a normal LaFerrari because they want the best performance car, even though it isn’t street-legal. But [the D12] is street-legal."
To make something this special, Laurent needed to put together a team. His first and most important recruitment was Benoit Bagur as technical director, a motorsports legend who brought with him more than 35 years of experience in the World Rally Championship and the World Touring Car Cup to the table.
"If I have something I’m most proud of for this project is the team. Because honestly, I have a team that’s really hard to compare with anyone else. I have 16 FIA world titles with this team – sixteen. Our technical director was champion of the world in FIA touring twice."
After joining Delage, Bagur took an active role in filling the company’s talent well, too.
"The rest of the team was built around him and by him. So when it came to the chassis and suspension, he told me we should recruit Mauro Bianchi, a French engineer who patented the contractive suspension that revolutionized Formula 1 in 1998."
By recruiting Bianchi, the man partly responsible for McLaren’s Formula 1 success in the ‘90s, Delage is the only auto manufacturer in the world allowed to use the F1-derived contractive suspension on the road. That’s the same suspension that led to seven Formula 1 titles, by the way, and it’s a Delage exclusive.
"It’s patented; no one else can have it. We have an exclusive deal with Bianchi."
With a team in place that now included Bagur, Bianchi, and former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve, the project officially kicked off in 2018. The design and engineering process took two years to complete, and the show car required another five or so months to finish. But in the spirit of putting the cart before the horse, the prototype was developed entirely with no true identity.
"So I said, 'Now it’s time to decide what will be the name of the car.' My team is French, I am French – so the first thing I looked into was the story of France. And any Frenchman who knows cars knows that we have two great brands in our history: Bugatti and Delage."
Typically, trying to secure a historic trademark such as Delage is an immensely difficult task. But since the brand was no longer under the ownership of the Delage family, Tapie had to go to an unlikely source.
"The owner [of the trademark] was a fan club, which was lucky for me because when the owners of the brand are a family, they see you with dollars in their eyes and they immediately think it is going to be worth millions and millions, and most of the time you don’t make a deal. In this case, it was a non-profit organization of fans."
But members of the Delage club were less concerned about money than they were about making sure the brand fell into the right ownership.
"When I met them I thought it would be difficult initially because they were almost sarcastic. It was like, 'You’re the tenth guy that we’ve seen in 10 years. Every year we have one guy coming wanting to take Delage.'"
Laurent was able to convince them on the strength of his plan, explaining his team’s cumulative 16 FIA titles, existing car design, and solid financials. That just led to one final question: "Do I put the Delage badge on the car or another one?"
Laurent signed the deal for Delage on October 7, 2019 – his birthday.
Gallery: Delage CEO Laurent Tapie Interview
"I’m not superstitious, but sometimes I had some signs that the stars were aligning," he told me. "Maybe because I work for the first time in my life with passion … every morning I wake up I’m enthusiastic, I go to sleep and I’m already thinking of the next day, because I’m in my passion, you know? This is a long-term project, I want this brand for a long time. I hope I will die as the CEO of Delage … because it’s such a pleasure."
Later this year, the brand plans to embark on its first US tour immediately after gracing the lawns of Pebble Beach. Laurent tells me that the Americas are already Delage’s "priority market," with 10 of the 30 units scheduled to make their way to the continent. And buyers in the US specifically are among those most eager to get their hands on one.
"I’m not superstitious, but sometimes I had some signs that the stars were aligning."
The first customer examples of the D12 will begin production at Delage’s manufacturing facility later this year, with early examples making their way to owners by the end of 2023. Tapie says the D12 will soon get a sibling as well.
"We are already working on the second model … it’s going to be more of a Chiron-type. The plan is the make the reveal at Pebble Beach 2024."