WARP SPEED

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - BY PAUL ENGLERT

We buckle into Porsche’s Le Mans-dom­i­nat­ing 919 Hy­brid – and drive it!

DRIV­ING PORSCHE’S LE MANS-WINNING HY­BRID IS LIKE BE­ING TRANS­PORTED TO A PAR­AL­LEL UNI­VERSE – ONE WHERE SPACE AND TIME BLUR IN YOUR BRAIN

YOU’RE SIT­TING NEXT TO 520 AMPS AND 800 VOLTS OF ELEC­TRIC­ITY. ARE YOU CRAZY?

JEREAL bars taste aw­ful at five o’clock in the morn­ing. But the sticky, card­board-flavoured con­fec­tions have the en­ergy that I ur­gently need to­day, so I take a sip of wa­ter and force them down like a good boy.

Just four hours later I’m in Spain watch­ing Porsche fac­tory driver Neel Jani warm­ing up a 919 Hy­brid at Mo­tor­land Aragon. While it’s not the der­e­stricted Evo ver­sion (the car that set the mind­scram­bling 5:19.54 new out­right Nur­bur­gring Nord­schleife lap record), the LMP1-spec 919 hardly looks slow. Within a few laps Jani moves the brak­ing point on the start/fin­ish straight much closer to the en­try of Turn One and sets a ref­er­ence time of 1:23.503sec. These num­bers will haunt me through­out the day. Why? Be­cause af­ter prep time in the Porsche sim­u­la­tor, a de­tailed safety brief­ing and even more de­tailed in­struc­tion on how to find my way around the 919’s cock­pit, I’m be­ing al­lowed to play at be­ing a Porsche fac­tory test driver for the day. And yes, that does in­clude a ‘works’ con­tract. Well, of sorts.

Jani returns to the pits – job done. The four­cylin­der turbo cuts out, the elec­tric mo­tor slowly turns it­self off once the 919 is static, the car is jacked up and rolled into the garage. All is quiet. Ear­lier, while walk­ing the 4.93km track, I had no­ticed some dis­con­cert­ing wet patches, but the Le Mans 24 Hours-winning Swiss racer is full of laid-back con­fi­dence. “Ev­ery­thing’s dry, it’s very easy out there,” he smiles. This does not re­as­sure me.

But there’s no time for self-doubt or hes­i­ta­tion as chief en­gi­neer Olivier Cham­p­enois gives me the sign to climb into the 919. Hel­met on, hands al­ready sweat­ing in Nomex gloves, I slowly squeeze my­self into the car­bon mono­coque cock­pit. Al­though I’ve man­aged to shed a few extra ki­los in prepa­ra­tion for this day, I still feel wedgedin like a cork in a bot­tle. Hope­fully I won’t have to find out whether I can evac­u­ate the cock­pit in seven sec­onds, as per the safety brief­ing... The rac­ing har­ness is tight­ened fur­ther, ra­dio checked, then the frag­ile-look­ing three-kilo­gram door clicks home. Now it gets se­ri­ous.

My heart rate is into triple dig­its by the time me­chan­ics pull the tyre warm­ers off four freshly toasted Miche­lin slicks and bolt a mag­ne­sium wheel to each cor­ner. As I’m pushed out of the garage, my brain goes into panic mode, my heart feels like it’s bounc­ing off my ribcage and my breath­ing gets heav­ier.

Of course, I im­me­di­ately for­get ev­ery­thing I’ve just been told. How do I start the en­gine? Which but­ton do I press first? When do I use the clutch? And then my brain screams: “You’re sit­ting next to 520 amps of DC cur­rent and 800 volts of elec­tric­ity – in a car! Are you crazy?”

My thumb fum­bles for the ra­dio but­ton on the wheel. Cham­p­enois an­swers calmly and gives clear in­struc­tions. “Ig­ni­tion on, Hy­brid on. Pull the clutch in and keep it pulled. Sec­ond gear.” At the same time my synapses switch to sur­vival mode, de­spite my men­tal melt­down. “En­gine start!” The two-litre turbo V4 howls. “Push throt­tle and you can go!” It’s now or never.

The elec­tric mo­tor on the front axle pulls me out of the garage into pit lane where I can let the clutch out and the in­ter­nal­com­bus­tion en­gine starts tak­ing over. Fi­nally

THERE IS NO ABS IN AN LMP1 CAR, BUT IT DOES HAVE TRAC­TION CON­TROL

alone, my heart­beat be­gins to slow, my head feels free of dis­trac­tions.

But there’s no room in my brain to think about ‘ref­er­ence times’ or even to re­mem­ber that I’m sit­ting in chas­sis num­ber seven­teen-zero-five – the 2017 World En­durance Cham­pi­onship­win­ning car. Then the V4 chugs, hes­i­tates and hints at stalling just be­fore pit exit, as if to say, “Hey, idiot, this is not a first-gear high street run!”

This hic­cup is meant to re­mind me that the en­gine doesn’t ‘do’ less than 3000rpm and to­day I should keep it within the 6500 to 7400 win­dow where it’s happiest. So I ac­cel­er­ate out onto the track, run through all seven gears, and start to get a feel for the hy­drauli­cally as­sisted steer­ing, and try to keep the tyres up to tem­per­a­ture. And get used to left-foot brak­ing. Hap­pily, Jani had not been ex­ag­ger­at­ing, the track is com­pletely dry. Here we go.

Full throt­tle on the pit straight, the V4 pushes with all its might and the elec­tric mo­tor dis­penses ev­ery­thing the lithi­u­mion bat­tery pack next to me has – a to­tal of 671kW. First gear, sec­ond, zap! The bat­tery is dead. Sec­onds later I’m still at full throt­tle when the 200m brake marker for turn one flashes by, then the 150m board. Full-on, emer­gency brak­ing... now! Way too early. Try again. Some­where be­fore the 100m mark, I jump on the brakes with all my might and change down three times. The dis­play now re­ports fully charged bat­ter­ies.

The 919 Hy­brid might use an elec­tric mo­tor, but this has noth­ing to do with every­day elec­tric car driv­ing, be­cause the bat­tery cells from man­u­fac­turer A123 have an ex­tremely high power den­sity and can de­liver and recharge ul­tra-quickly (it can ab­sorb 1.5kW/hour of en­ergy). En­ergy den­sity, on the other hand, is rather low as the 919 Hy­brid charges its bat­ter­ies un­der brak­ing and ac­cel­er­a­tion.

When you brake, the elec­tric mo­tor on the front axle acts as a gen­er­a­tor. When you ac­cel­er­ate, ex­haust gases drive a tur­bine con­nected to a sec­ond gen­er­a­tor that can spin up to 120,000rpm. All very clever, but I hear noth­ing of this engi­neer­ing com­plex­ity in the cock­pit, I’m far too pre­oc­cu­pied with high­speed cor­ner­ing.

In the sim­u­la­tor you are told to go full throt­tle ev­ery­where and why wouldn’t you? In re­al­ity this is highly in­ad­vis­able. “Box, box,” Cham­p­enois crack­les over the ra­dio and I pull in and a look at my time: 1:30.43sec.

“You’re ex­it­ing cor­ners well but you’re spend­ing too much time on the brakes, and in the fast cor­ners you’re still well be­low the car’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties”. Er, yes, ‘the car’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties’...

Chas­tened, I crawl back into the cock­pit, fire ev­ery­thing up again and head back out. This time I leave my brak­ing much later and here and there I lock the in­side front wheel. On one lap I miss the turn-in point by sev­eral me­tres, but I try to re­lax and feel what the gum­ball Miche­lins are do­ing.

Aero­dy­nam­ics play a big role in brak­ing. You can come off the throt­tle at high speeds and feel the drag slow you down, but with de­creas­ing speed you have to brake more care­fully as the ro­tors are highly likely to lock-up. There is no ABS on an LMP1 car, but it does have trac­tion con­trol, luck­ily. “Box, Box!”

I’m quicker with a 1:27.76 lap. “There’s still room for im­prove­ment on the brakes,” Cham­p­enois analy­ses. Jani nods in agree­ment. “You’re do­ing it right, slowly build­ing up. Now try some full-bore laps. You’ll see, you can do it.”

Stint three, fresh tyres fit­ted. I hit 260km/h at the end of the start/fin­ish straight, brake up to the apex, pull 2.7g of

BRAK­ING FOR TURN 10, MY NECK MUS­CLES GIVE UP AT 3.7G

de­cel­er­a­tion, snatch third gear and feed in the boost. I don’t lift at turn Two and try go­ing flat through Three, but give in and back off at 220 km/h. My head keeps say­ing this isn’t go­ing to work, then the 919 does ex­actly the op­po­site. Some­how it all seems even calmer at this rate as the car sticks it­self to the road.

Turn Four, 235km/h, I slide out over the kerb, caus­ing the un­der­side to scrape ex­pen­sively. Turn, brake, pull three times on the left pad­dle, and im­me­di­ately the bat­ter­ies are empty again. I’m still too early on the brakes at the slow­est cor­ner, but it doesn’t mat­ter be­cause I’m back on the gas and hurtling out of the other side be­fore I know it.

I can barely keep up with the shifts as elec­tric mo­tor boost and speed in­creases. The car is pulling 1.7g of ac­cel­er­a­tion and my hel­met is glued to the head­rest. Brak­ing for Turn 10, my neck mus­cles give up at 3.7g and I have to rest my head. The pros can do this for hours.

The elec­tric mo­tor only pulls up to 270km/h at which point the 373kW petrol en­gine is on its own, but with the aero kit con­fig­ured for Aragon the car tops out at 290. I’m still ac­cel­er­at­ing, though, as the car dumps elec­tric power be­fore load­ing up again at the last cor­ner. My time flashes up – 1:25.39sec. That’s it, I’m done, lit­er­ally. “Box, box,” I ra­dio. My time has im­proved by al­most five sec­onds, but I’m still two sec­onds off Jani’s time (and he surely could have gone quicker). It’s all about the car.

The 919 Hy­brid is an ex­treme ma­chine, a For­mula One car with a roof. To drive it fast feels like some­one has pressed a but­ton and sent you spin­ning into a par­al­lel uni­verse that uses com­pletely dif­fer­ent laws of physics. It’s a uni­verse where man is the limit, not the car. It’s the most de­mand­ing drive ever and a mas­ter­piece of Porsche engi­neer­ing.

BE­LOW LEFT Cock­pit is cramped and you need to be able to exit in seven sec­onds in the event of a crash BE­LOW RIGHT Just sit­ting in the 919 is enough get your pulse rac­ing and for­get ev­ery­thing you’ve been told OP­PO­SITE Porsche’s Le Mans win­ner is barely waist high, in­creas­ing the sen­sa­tion of speed for the novice

ABOVE RIGHT The 919 is mon­i­tored by en­gi­neers in the pits; there’s nowhere for journos to hide if they stuff up

TOP LEFT Com­pact 2.0L V4 un­usual for an LMP1 car. Gar­rett tur­bocharger pumps power to 373kW

OP­PO­SITE TOP Com­plex F1-style ‘wheel’ packed with but­tons and di­als and dis­play to con­trol the car’s main func­tions

875 KILO­GRAMS ABOVE The 919 Hy­brid can ac­cel­er­ate from 0-200km/h in 4.8sec and v-max tops out at 340km/h

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