TG chats to the Aussie race driver about how he specced his stunning Porsche 918 Spyder, and how he uses his fleet of lightweight Porsches
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Is this a hypercar that happens to be a hybrid. Or a hybrid that happens to be a hypercar?
Some say neither. We say both. The performance certainly is hyper. The straight-line figures are staggering, thanks to 875bhp delivered by a screaming V8, plus electric power, and four-wheel-drive. Porsche claims 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds, and 0-125mph in 7.2, and 0-186mph (300km/h) in 20.9. That’s Veyron-fast up to 150-odd mph.
And it’s not just a straight-line drag merchant. The 918 has famously lapped the Nurburgring in 6 minutes 57 sec. That number is on par with deadly rival McLaren’s claim for the P1 of ‘under seven minutes’.
But while the P1 is a track-attack 2WD
machine, the Porsche is more dual-purpose. Charge it from a socket and you can
drive several miles at hot-hatch speeds before you ever start the engine. Hence
the hybrid emphasis too.
Driven in the normal EU cycle it makes 94mpg
and puts out 70g/km. But you won’t buy it to save fuel or tax, because it costs
the Euro equivalent of £715,000.
How does it actually feel?
It’s a honey. My Top Gear colleagues who’ve driven
the McLaren P1 say that car will bite your arm off as soon as look at you. The
918 is rather different. Thanks to four-wheel-drive, four-wheel steer, a
computer-controlled torque vectoring system and a rear e-diff, it’ll do all it
can to keep you going in the direction you’ve pointed it. And with all that
electric assistance, you don’t even need to be too attentive to what gear
you’re in. Immense, instant-on thrust and traction are right there, anywhere
round the rev dial.
It turns in sharply. If it’s wet or the tyres
are cold and the ESP’s off, the back end will edge out under brakes, but really
that’s not the car’s natural state. In the dry you can brake deep into a bend.
There’s plenty of feel through steering wheel that’s sharp and progressive
rather than over-direct. Sure you can cut off the ESP, but even so it doesn’t
want big slides. Through the apex of slow or fast corners it’s very neutral,
and tells you the limits clearly. Ridiculously high limits, naturally. You can
get on the power very very early and it will just catapult out of most bends
and down the straight.
Get on the power even earlier, and it will
edge the rear out again, especially in the wet. But controllably. Or if the
stability controls are off and you’re in second gear, there’s no way the tyres
can cope with that power, and it’s an easy spin.
And what about that powertrain?
Two things strike you about the power. First,
the amount of it. And second, how easy it is to get at. At low revs you hear
the whine of the electric motors, but by about 3000rpm, that epic flat-crank V8
is starting to get your attention. At that point the noise is hard and
gutteral. Beyond, it’s a simple, hard-edged, take-no-prisoners howl that rises
and rises towards the 9150rpm top end, by which time every particle of your
flesh and bones is in a state of quivering excitement.
It needs absolutely no allowances from you.
The delivery is progressive and the throttle as instantly sharp as a knife-cut.
At low and middle revs, the arrival of the surge is as brutal as a big turbo
engine, but with none of the lag or softness. As soon as you so much as think
about moving your foot, the power’s there for you, propelling you into the next
I did some laps following Walter Rohrl who
was in a 911 Turbo S - itself a blindingly fast car by almost any standard. In
the slow corner before the main straight, I’d take an extra tight inside line,
just to exaggerate the feel of the steering and the balance. The Turbo S would
go catapulting off own the straight, becoming a thimble-sized spot in the
distance. I’d floor the 918. By half-way down the straight it’d have reeled him
in and I’d be cruising on part-throttle, wondering what’s for lunch.
And can it stop?
Because it’s got electric motors at the front
and rear, the 918 can do properly strong road-level braking using them alone.
That’s regeneration, recharging the batteries like a racing car using KERS.
This is strong enough to stop the car at 0.5g. But even that isn’t enough on
the track, so the car also has a set of huge carbon-ceramic discs. A new
electronic controller hands off the braking power between the regenerative
system and the discs.
There are times when that hand-off can be a
little woolly. And the initial bite is a bit disappointing too. But there was
never a moment on the track when I thought the car wouldn’t stop like I wanted
it to. And it’s so stable you can brake late and deep into a corner - another
handy way of catching 911 Turbos.
And on the road?
Again dominated by the V8’s feral sounds, and
the pops and chunters during light-throttle gearshifts. The ride is actually
pretty flat and surprisingly supple, the dampers breathing nicely and the
springs taking the harshness off. The steering is great, never twitchy, and
varying its weight nicely as you sweep over dips and crests around a corner.
You feel intimately connected.
What’s so darned special about
It’s derived from a race engine, the one out
of the 2005 RS Spyder race car. Every part is new though, to make sure it’s
durable and OK in traffic. Even so, the spec is pretty compelling. Even without
the help of the electric motors, it makes 603bhp from just 4.6 litres. It revs
to a dizzying 9150rpm, and uses a dry sump. At just 135kg, it’s astoundingly
light, and it exhausts through upward-firing pipes amid the V. Which sounds
like the arrival of a swarm of very angry mutant horror wasps played through
AC-DC’s sound system.
The capacity, power, torque and rev profile
of the Porsche’s V8 are eerily similar to the engine in the Ferrari 458
Speciale. And yet the Porsche is decisively faster. Which pretty
comprehensively rebuts the whingers who say Porsche should have made the 918 as
a lighter non-hybrid car. It’s clear the 314kg of battery, electronics and
motors are more than pulling their weight.
At the back axle, the V8 engine and the
electric motor are coupled together and drive through the seven-speed PDK
transmission. In any given gear, the motor is at its torquiest at low revs, and
then at medium-to-high revs the V8 hits its mighty stride and takes over. The
e-motor’s torque is 276lb ft at up to 2000rpm. The petrol engine hits 398lb ft
but not until 6700rpm. So the motor fills in while the engine isn’t quite
awake. There’s another, smaller, electric motor at the front.
There is really no other way you could get
this instant yet brutal power delivery with any other solution than the
small-capacity race-type engine plus hybrid. Lose the hybrid you’d be short of
torque. Try to recover the torque through turbos and you’d get lag. Try to
recover it by building a bigger engine and you’d lose the thrill of
How does the four-wheel drive
Although the rear electric motor runs through
the seven-speed gearbox, the front electric motor has just one gear, its ratio
chosen to give most drive at low-to-medium speeds. In fact at 165mph the front
motor is decoupled entirely to avoid over-speeding it. In other words, at high
speed the 918 is RWD only. But you won’t spin your wheels at those speeds
because you’ll be in a high gear, so 4WD is unnecessary. Whereas in low gears,
you’re extremely likely to get wheel-spin from the rears, so some balancing front
traction is welcome.
By controlling the electrical power to the
front and rear motors, the car can instantly vector its own torque. Plus
there’s four-wheel-steering keeping you stable. As soon as the rear wheels spin
up, the car is designed to send more torque to the fronts. No drifting please.
Does it run like a Prius and turn
its engine off?
Not in sport or race modes. Because of the
braking regeneration, the engineers say that most drivers (not the really hard
ones like Walter Rohrl, but most of us) will never deplete the battery when
lapping a track. Which means even going fast, this is an economical and
There’s also a ‘hot lap’ mode, allowing you
to go past a soft limit on the throttle pedal and drain the battery. The idea
is you arrive at the start of the long final straight at the ‘Ring and floor
it, and finish the lap with the battery down, the car spent. They really are
Does the aero make a difference?
As with other hypercars, the vast rear wing
has several positions. There’s also an extending rear spoiler below that wing.
They retract at slow speeds, but will go into a high-downforce mode for quick
cornering or a feathered mode for making an assault on the 214mph top speed.
They’re balanced by an active front diffuser.
There are also openable cooling flaps in the
front. They cause drag, so stay shut to keep drag down in slow-speed or very
high-speed running. The 918 has five separate cooling circuits for the engine
(oil), engine (water), gearbox (water-to-oil), electronics (water) and, because
people and batteries are both comfy at the same temperature, a shared battery
cooling and air-con system.
And the body? Carbon?
Oh yes. The tub and rear
engine-and-suspension frame are made by the same people who build the McLaren
tub - CarboTech in Austria. The Carrera GT had a similar tub, so Porsche has
experience here. The engine frame is also carbon fibre, and the panels, and
seat frames. Weight reduction is always a priority in fast-lapping cars but
here it was extra-vital to offset the mass of the hybrid system.
The masses are where you want them, too.
Everything of consequence is inside the wheelbase. The battery is extremely low
and central. The engine and box are so low down that they had to mount the
transmission upside down. (It’s not a 911 transmission, by the way, because the
extra torque and the mounting position meant every part had to change.)
Overall weight is 1634kg. Well, it is for the
version with the Weissach pack: lightweight magnesium wheels, more visible
carbon, a bit less soundproofing, fireproof seats instead of leather. This is
the one whose figures I’ve been quoting - the 1674kg ‘standard’ car - is very
slightly slower and less economical. Oh if you do see a 918, you’ll know it has
the Weissach pack by the aero-blades behind the rear wheel-arches. Those plus
the lighter weight are what helped squeeze the ‘Ring time under seven minutes.
The standard car has more soundproofing, the nice show-car wheels and a price
of £654,600. That makes it a £60k option price for the Weissach pack.
Any fancy chassis tech?
Well, the Carrera GT had pushrod suspension
like an F1 car, but with all the electrical stuff in the 918 it wasn’t possible
to package it. There are adaptive dampers, with a sport position, but you
probably won’t use that mode except on very smooth tracks. They say it’s too
firm even for the Nurburgring.
We’ve mentioned the four-wheel-steering. It’s
similar to what’s in the 911 GT3 and Turbo. The engineers say this makes a huge
difference in making the car feel light and agile in slow bends (because the
rears steer in opposite phase to the fronts), as well as stable at big speeds
(when they go slightly same-phase). Certainly it feels like a very light,
OK, the hypercar box seems pretty
well ticked. What about the hybrid bit?
The 918 also has a conventional road-hybrid
mode, the car switching between e-power and the V8 in pursuit of economy. Of
course this isn’t like a Panamera with a quiet V6: the noise of the strident V8
cutting in makes it a pretty unsubtle and clunky idea. No doubt it’s working to
an efficiency-maximising strategy, but from the driver’s seat it arrive and disappears
again on a quasi-random basis.
Hit the E switch and you have a 4WD electric
car, capable of about 15-20 miles in normal driving. And 0-62 in 6.2 seconds
without the engine. But in e-mode the braking is inconsistent in the pedal
weight and feel, both in initial bite and the final roll to a stop. You get
used to it, but it takes a while to adapt.
Let’s face it, unless they want to make a
secret getaway from the scene of a misdemeanour, no-one’s going to drive this
car without the engine on. Can’t say it often enough: the point of the electric
power is to add performance. Just to do it without ghastly consumption.
So if it’s 4WD and quiet in
cities, is it a realistic proposition to use daily?
Again against the hypercar grain, yes it is.
The visibility is good, the driving position comfortable. They’ve proved the
windscreen wipers work at 214mph top speed. The whole car has been durability
tested for two Le Mans distances at full-on track speed. You can put the targa
panels in the front boot. (The targa, by the way, originally used 944 cabrio
roof catches. They were among the few shared parts in the whole car, but then
they got modified too.)
Even the navigation and comms system is brand
new and highly bespoke. It uses a touch panels with swiping gestures, with an
additional colour panel above the lovely flying console. The graphics are
lovely and the responses pretty quick, though the touch switches are a bit too
touchy and I kept activating the wrong thing with a misplaced brush of a finger
or sleeve. And it’s connected to a concert-level Burmester 600W hi-fi.
So, in conclusion?
The 918 an astounding technical achievement.
An absolutely all-new car, using bleedin’-edge techniques wherever you look.
And it was done at record speed, apparently to Porsche’s usual elevated
quality. The engineers can’t have slept a wink these past three years.
They’ve absolutely met the goals. The 918 is
insanely fast, in a straight line and around a track. It’s a car that looks
after you rather than insisting that you’re as good as it is. And you can use
it every day. In that sense it’s the 911 Turbo of hypercars, rather than a true
successor to the Carrera GT.
So is it £800k-worth of raw excitement? Possibly
not. To cover all the bases you’re going to need a McLaren P1 and one of these.
Well, you didn’t come here for money-saving tips did you?
INITIAL TRACK THOUGHTS POSTED BY OLLIE MARRIAGE, 26 NOVEMBER 2013, 5.00PM
The official launch of the 875bhp hyper-hybrid starts today, but we managed to get some sneaky early access for these photographs at Valencia Circuit yesterday and thought we’d fire some initial impressions - and pretty pictures - across to you now.
Given the fact it’s lapped the Nurburgring in 6 minutes 57 seconds, you’d be right to think it’s a wee bit brisk. In fact it’s safe to say that it’s an utter mind-boggler, reeling up to vast speeds and then shedding them via the mighty, mighty ceramic stoppers. The brakes aren’t actually that nice to use, lacking some initial bite and then grabbing hard - probably a corollary of the fact they also perform a regenerative function. A similar criticism can also be levelled at steering feel - the 918’s wheel doesn’t writhe and tingle with wonderful feedback.
But you always know where you are with the 918 because the chassis set-up is so good. It’s accurate and immediate and so incredibly secure and planted on the road. There’s no roll, you just pour it into a corner at ever more dizzying speeds, and lean on the throttle ever earlier, letting the instant electric torque initiate the drive out before the 4.6-litre, naturally aspirated 608bhp petrol goes to work for the real top end stuff. And that engine is an utter work of art, the star of the show for me.
The 918 isn’t totally benign in the handling department, though. Go into a tight corner a bit hot and the back end will start to spread itself wide, and if, like us, you’re trying to conduct a spot of light drifting (the demands of photography, you understand), it’s a tricky thing to manage, largely because you’re never sure where the power’s being sent. It’s a timely reminder that the 918 is emphatically not a ‘traditional’ hypercar - though the petrol engine feeds the rear wheels, there’s an electric motor for each axle too. Better, then, to keep it straight and punch out of the corner as hard as you dare. That’s when the 918 Spyder is at its most devastating.
Pictures: Lee Brimble