IN THE HOTSEAT

Porsche’s 919 Hy­brid is one of the most suc­cess­ful en­durance rac­ers of mod­ern times. But what’s it like to drive – prop­erly? Richard Meaden gets the once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity to find out

Evo India - - CONTENTS - WORDS by RICHARD MEADEN PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by DREW GIB­SON & DAN BATHIE

Richard Meaden tastes neck­snap­ping nec­tar at the wheel of the men­tal Porsche 919 Hy­brid

AS AN EX­PRES­SION OF EV­ERY­THING Porsche rep­re­sents in this, its 70th year, the 919 Hy­brid LMP1 pro­gramme stands tall. Tech­no­log­i­cally bold, bru­tally func­tional and bril­liantly fast, it came, saw and con­quered in the most fe­ro­ciously com­pet­i­tive era of top-flight en­durance rac­ing the world has ever seen. With a rac­ing record as im­mac­u­late as Porsche’s you’d ex­pect noth­ing less, yet with such an un­tar­nished rep­u­ta­tion at stake the risk in mak­ing a less than glo­ri­ous re­turn to the world’s tough­est en­durance race was con­sid­er­able. Es­pe­cially with the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship firmly in the grip of VW Group sta­ble­mate Audi.

Thank­fully those steely souls at Porsche Mo­tor­sport didn’t shy away from the fight, in­stead de­vel­op­ing an en­tire LMP1 pro­gramme from scratch for the 2014 sea­son. Over the next four sea­sons the 919 evolved through a re­mark­able se­ries of ever-quicker and more ef­fi­cient ma­chines that took a hat-trick of Le Mans 24 Hours wins, three World En­durance Cham­pi­onship ti­tles, 17 wins from 34 races (in­clud­ing seven 1-2 fin­ishes), 20 pole po­si­tions and 13 fastest laps. These achieve­ments en­sured the 919 Hy­brid en­tered the pan­theon of iconic rac­ing Porsches and laid claim to be­ing the ab­so­lute pin­na­cle of com­pet­i­tive en­gi­neer­ing en­deav­our.

Me­dia drives of con­tem­po­rary Le Mans cars are not with­out prece­dent. In­deed I’ve been lucky to drive two of Audi’s all­con­quer­ing ma­chines – the ac­tual 2011 LM-win­ning R18 TDI and the 2014 vic­tor, the R18 e-tron qu­at­tro – but these tests were de­lib­er­ately lim­ited to the briefest of tastes. You grab even such fleet­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties with both hands, but be­yond the sim­ple thrill of get­ting your lucky arse in a Le Mans win­ner such lim­ited ex­po­sure de­nies you the story you re­ally want to tell, namely what it’s like to gen­uinely try to drive one of these space­ships.

So imag­ine my de­light when ed­i­tor

Stu­art Gal­lagher in­forms me that not only has Porsche ex­tended an in­vite to drive the fi­nal-gen 919 Hy­brid, but is promis­ing it will be an op­por­tu­nity

to drive it prop­erly. With the full sup­port of the LMP1 race team and for enough laps to gen­uinely ex­plore its per­for­mance. Phase One of this once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity means a trip to Weis­sach. More specif­i­cally Porsche Mo­tor­sport’s sprawl­ing pur­pose-built LMP1 fa­cil­ity. Hav­ing ne­go­ti­ated se­cu­rity we are ush­ered into the build­ing, which has a slightly eerie at­mo­sphere due to the LMP1 pro­gramme be­ing moth­balled at the end of the 2017 sea­son. There are still peo­ple at work, but it’s just a skele­ton crew tend­ing to the 919 we’ll drive the fol­low­ing week, and also fet­tling the 919 Evo, which is skulk­ing in its work bay hav­ing set a lap record round the Spa GP cir­cuit. Lit­tle do we know that at the time of our visit it is be­ing read­ied for its at­tack on the Nord­schleife a lit­tle later in the year.

One area still very much in use is the Sim­u­la­tor Room, which is where we’re head­ing for an in­ten­sive ses­sion to fa­mil­iarise our­selves with the car, learn the cir­cuit (Mo­tor­land Aragón in Spain), be ap­praised by Porsche Mo­tor­sport en­gi­neers and given some vir­tual coach­ing on how to op­er­ate the quick­est and most fe­ro­ciously com­plex closed-cock­pit race car there has ever been.

A race team’s Sim Room is one of its most closely guarded se­crets. I’ve been in a num­ber of them – those at McLaren and Toy­ota Mo­tor­sport be­ing par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive – but the feel­ing is al­ways the same; that you’re be­ing al­lowed to en­ter an in­ner sanc­tum. Amus­ingly, hav­ing sur­ren­dered our phones and signed all kinds of dis­claimers at the main gate, when we breeze into the Sim­u­la­tor Con­trol Room (akin to the mix­ing desk in a record­ing stu­dio) there’s the un­mis­tak­able whine of a For­mula E car com­ing from the Sim Room it­self. Judg­ing by the edgy glances be­tween the Porsche Mo­tor­sport en­gi­neers we maybe ought to have knocked first.

They needn’t have wor­ried; I’m far too pre­oc­cu­pied by the prospect of ‘driv­ing’ the 919 to worry about get­ting a scoop on Porsche’s elec­tric sin­gle-seater. Like all big sims, the fo­cal point is a dis­mem­bered cock­pit sec­tion perched on a raised plat­form on the other side of the Con­trol Room’s sound­proofed glass. Bask­ing in the sickly glow of a vast wrap­around screen it looks like some­thing you’d find in Tony Stark’s Man Cave.

Chris Har­ris (the only other UK me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tive to be in­vited to the 919 drive) and I have two hours each to try the sim. With one-to-one guid­ance from the en­gi­neers it’s an in­ten­sive and in­valu­able op­por­tu­nity. Mon­key goes first. I stand and watch for a while. We’re both wor­ried mo­tion sick­ness will take hold of us and cut our ses­sions short and sure enough af­ter about 20 min­utes he’s re­quest­ing a break and a glass of cold wa­ter. I have a rare pang of con­science so make my ex­cuses and head off for a seat fit­ting while he swal­lows hard and tries not to be sick.

The fit­ting is my first chance to get be­hind the wheel of a proper 919; not the eas­i­est process as I soon dis­cover. Perched on the left-hand side­pod, you grip the up­per edge of the dor­sal air in­take’s nos­tril with your right hand while si­mul­ta­ne­ously draw­ing your knees up and thread­ing your legs down into the cock­pit, fol­lowed by your hips, torso and shoul­ders. If you’re a lithe and ath­letic pro­fes­sional rac­ing driver this mo­tion is a well-oiled slither, ap­par­ently as sim­ple as pulling on a pair

of trousers. If you’re a lumpy and arthritic jour­nal­ist it’s like fight­ing your way into a wet­suit. Once in you’re snug as a bug, feet high, legs gen­tly bent at the knee, el­bows tucked in and shoul­ders clamped in place. It’s oddly nat­u­ral, like sit­ting in a loose, up­right foetal po­si­tion. The cock­pit it con­fined, but beau­ti­fully laid out, with big, clearly la­belled switches that are scaled and po­si­tioned to be read­ily found and used in a high G-force en­vi­ron­ment. The steer­ing wheel is ac­tu­ally an ob­long, with squidgy, su­per-tacky grips and pep­pered with push but­tons and ro­tary knobs, again with ul­tra-pos­i­tive hap­tics for ease of use.

The fit­ting is per­fect prep for my sim ses­sion, as the ini­tial creep of claus­tro­pho­bia is out of my sys­tem by the time I en­ter the stuffy, win­dow­less Sim Room. It has a heavy at­mo­sphere that hums with elec­tri­cal en­ergy and smells like the TV and hi-fi sec­tion of a large de­part­ment store. It seems odd to be dressed in civvies, but race boots and gloves are all you need, plus a head­set for two-way comms with the en­gi­neers in the Con­trol Room. I’ve never been to Mo­tor­land Aragón, so I’m hugely grate­ful for the chance to learn it in pix­e­lated form. Like­wise to be­come fa­mil­iar with the pro­to­cols as­so­ci­ated with start­ing the 919. We’ll be pulling away on e-power alone, spared the chal­lenge of smoothly man­ag­ing a grabby car­bon clutch, but there’s plenty to learn. There’s also the safety pro­ce­dures that need to be drilled into us due to the lethal volt­age con­tained within the hy­brid sys­tem.

The sim is the best I’ve driven. Maybe it’s be­cause I’m com­pletely fo­cused on learn­ing as much as I can about the real 919, but where I nor­mally strug­gle to sub­mit to the driv­ing sen­sa­tions the sim­u­la­tor is try­ing to repli­cate, I’m soon com­pletely im­mersed in the vir­tual chal­lenge of pi­lot­ing a 919 Hy­brid around Mo­tor­land Aragón. By the time we say our good­byes and head for Stuttgart air­port the test is be­gin­ning to feel very real in­deed.

Just a hand­ful of days later we’re in the wilds of Spain. Sur­rounded by olive groves and moun­tain scenery, the Tilke-de­signed Mo­tor­land Aragón is so re­mote it’s like some kind of se­cret mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity; Area 51 for teams wish­ing to pile se­ri­ous miles on cars still in devel­op­ment. All the big teams come here for ex­tended en­durance test­ing. Con­se­quently Porsche Mo­tor­sport knows Aragón very well, hav­ing used it as the back­bone of its early en­durance test­ing of the first-gen 919, and a re­li­able base for its an­nual, re­peated and en­tirely sadis­tic 30 and 40-hour tests con­ducted in the build-up to each and ev­ery Le Mans 24 Hours. The 919 could prob­a­bly drive round here on its own.

The pit garage is an or­dered hive of ac­tiv­ity as the team fusses around the 919, tend­ing to its ev­ery need with race-honed drills that are clearly se­cond na­ture. With its body­work re­moved the 919 seems in­sanely com­plex and un­be­liev­ably com­pact. The petrol en­gine – a tur­bocharged 2-litre V4 de­vel­op­ing 500bhp – is the size of a small overnight bag and buried be­neath pipework as­so­ci­ated with the ex­haust en­ergy re­cov­ery sys­tem, which con­trib­utes 40 per cent of the to­tal en­ergy re­cov­ered. At the front end the MGU (Mo­tor Gen­er­a­tor Unit) con­trib­utes the re­main­ing 60 per cent, with the to­tal 400bhp or more of hy­brid

ONCE YOU’VE TASTED THE NECK-SNAP­PING NEC­TAR NOTH­ING IS EVER QUITE THE

SAME AGAIN

en­ergy trans­mit­ted via the front axle. That’s a com­bined to­tal of around 900+bhp in a car weigh­ing 875kg be­fore fuel or driver.

Strapped in the car with the door closed and crash hel­met on, the hus­tle and bus­tle is muf­fled and re­mote. It feels very strange to be at the epi­cen­tre of all this ac­tiv­ity, but the ap­pre­hen­sion and weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity that’s usual in these highly un­usual cir­cum­stances is at least par­tially mit­i­gated by hav­ing those sim laps logged in my head. I’m still daunted by what’s to come, but at least I know where the track goes, how the car op­er­ates and what it’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing. Whether I can trans­late that vir­tual knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence into the re­al­ity of driv­ing the 919 is some­thing I’ve never been more de­ter­mined to find out.

Pushed out onto the pit apron on go-jacks the 919 and I are spun through 90 de­grees to face the pit exit. Cas­tors re­moved there’s a sharp hiss and the car drops onto its Miche­lin slicks. A calm voice fills my ears with sim­ple re­minders on which but­tons to push. Then we pull away, e-mo­tor whirring as the 919 ac­cel­er­ates to 64kmph be­fore the petrol mo­tor kicks-in with a ser­rated rasp, at which point I de-latch the pit speed lim­iter and ac­cel­er­ate out onto the cir­cuit.

The 919’s light steer­ing and firm pedal ac­tion feels oddly fa­mil­iar and beau­ti­fully pre­cise and the track is spool­ing through the wind­screen just as it did in the sim. We had the op­tion to drive a 911 round here first, but I didn’t see the point. Driv­ing a mere mor­tal road car would only dumb down my sim-honed ex­pec­ta­tions and snap me from the down force in­doc­tri­nated trance I’ve tried so hard to sus­tain since the visit to Weis­sach.

Porsche has al­lowed me three seven-lap runs in which to test the 919 and my­self. That may not sound like much, but it equates to 15 fly­ing laps; more than enough to probe the lim­its of car and con­fi­dence. Or in­deed ex­ceed them, which doesn’t bear think­ing about. There’s talk of spindly neck mus­cles wilt­ing be­fore each of those seven-lap runs is up, which is some­thing I hadn’t con­sid­ered. We’ll have full ac­cess to data traces for each of our runs, in­clud­ing an over­lay with that of Neel Jani, fac­tory Porsche driver and pi­lot of the 919 Evo dur­ing its record-break­ing lap of Spa.

I’ve told my­self that by the end of the test I will have kept my right foot pinned through the flat-out cor­ners. It’s some­thing I’ve never man­aged to do in a high-down­force car, and some­thing I’m never go­ing to be bet­ter pre­pared for than now. The first few laps leave me se­ri­ously ques­tion­ing whether that’s a good idea, but such is my be­lief in the car and so pow­er­ful my de­sire to ex­pe­ri­ence the 919’s

GET IT RIGHT AND IT’S LIKE RID­ING A CHAM­PAGNE CORK AS IT LEAVES

THE BOT­TLE

I’VE DRIVEN SOME RE­MARK­ABLE CARS, BUT NOTH­ING COMES CLOSE TO THE 919 HY­BRID

Be­low: Porsche’s 919 sim­u­la­tor at the LMP1fa­cil­ity in Weis­sach. Be­low right: Meaden in an ac­tual 919 Hy­bridfor his seat fit­ting

Fac­ing page and right:Meaden takes to the Mo­tor­land Aragón cir­cuit for his 15 un­for­get­table fly­ing laps in the 919Hy­brid

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