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What's a Tesla race car like to drive?

Is a slicks and wings Model S any good? Paul Horrell - and his fireproof pyjamas - finds out

  • Early morning at a Spanish racetrack. A low, wide, slick-shod racecar sits in the pits, glinting under the sharp sunlight. Taciturn mechanics hover and swoop around like gulls following a plough, occasionally breaking the silence with the stutter of a torque wrench. A quiet, thin man in Nomex pulls on his helmet, wriggles in and tightens his straps. So far, so very routine.

    Then, suddenly, noiselessly, the car has absented itself, and is out on the track. No attention-grabbing exhaust or engine noise, no aurally hostile warm-up procedures. Just here, and then not here. Once it’s out and running, it’s so stealthy as to be beyond audible range for most of a lap, only announcing itself on the nearby corners by a drumming of its tyres on the kerbs, then a jet-like whistle as it whooshes past the pits on the straight.

    Photos: John Wycherley

    This feature was originally published in issue 292 of Top Gear magazine

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  • This is an early test outing for Electric GT. It’s planned as a self-contained eight-round race series from mid-2017, with a grid (ha ha) of 16–20 identical Teslas. Each race meeting will be its own circus, rather than running as a support race for a touring-car or GT or single-seater headline race. Easy to see why it would go its independent way. Just as Tesla the car company built its colossal buzz well beyond your usual car-enthusiast community, so this race series wants – needs – to draw a following from outside motorsport’s traditional fanbase.

    If you’ve seen high-level racing cars live, this is going to seem awfully slow. Sorry – there’s no polite way of saying that. Partly because the actual speed is probably below GT3 levels, but more significantly the perception of speed, because of the silence, is lower again. Also you can’t hear when a driver’s on or off the power, so you don’t know how any given driver is extracting or losing an advantage. Electric GT’s CEO and founder Mark Gemmell gets all that, but isn’t bothered. His background is in software design and entrepreneurship, and he’s working up a mass of ideas and schemes to bring the race followers virtually into the cockpits during the heat of race action.

  • Each car will upload a mass of live telemetry to the cloud. This data will be linked to apps, so race followers can see in real time not just lap times and race positions, but their chosen driver’s real-time accelerator and brake inputs, battery energy and temperatures, motor power, whatever. Gemmell is also contemplating putting giant LCD displays on each car, showing some of that data graphically. As for the noise, or absence thereof, Gemmell is recruiting musicians to produce soundtracks for the cars for live remixing in sync with the track action.

    Though he lives in Madrid, the Scotland that Gemmell departed two decades ago remains in his accent. But his vocabulary crackles like static electricity with the terminology of the digital age: connectivity driving interaction, engagement and empowerment. He’s designing protocols so fans, while watching all the in-car data, can send likes or upvotes to a driver which will appear live on that Tesla’s central screen as a heatmap. When drivers have a moment, they can swipe the screen to pulse the love back to the fans – “closing the engagement loop”, as Gemmell puts it. Because the fans will be logged in, right there you have invaluable user data to be harvested by sponsors.

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  • At the moment, Tesla isn’t officially involved. But then I guess spending money on car sales or brand-building are hardly priorities for Tesla when its wait-lists stretch into years and its CEO has 6.5 million apparently adoring Twitter followers. Anyway, Gemmell says should a better electric car come along, it could compete too.

    But Electric GT’s first car will be very much a Tesla. The one vehicle built so far, the one we’re testing today, runs a Model S P85’s standard battery, motor and power electronics. That doesn’t mean it’s a standard car. Electric GT technical director and test driver Agustín Payá (that was him, the quiet, thin guy in the opening paragraph, not Top Gear’s correspondent) has found ways to carve a full half-tonne out of it. The outer production skin is replaced by thin carbon-fibre panels, glass by Perspex. The suspension is lowered and stiffened. Extended arches melt over wide slicks, a splitter juts from the nose and the tail gets a fierce wing.

  • I open the flimsy, lightened door to a cabin that’s stripped bare to all its sheet aluminium extrusions, bolt holes and flanges. About the only recognisable production bits are the big and bigger display screens. Race seat, steering wheel, cage, extinguisher and harnesses complete the interior decor. Plugging this particular nervous and unpractised human component into the machine isn’t a quick business, but eventually I’m strapped in.

    Long-press a yellow button on the steering wheel, while moving the stalk (the transmission stalk out of a Mercedes) to D. That’s it. Deep breath. Focus. Silence prevails. Fire away. And I really am fired away, out of the pits and from the early, tight corners. It’s that famous Tesla instant torque – just add electrons. It’ll spin the rear slicks when they’re cold.

  • But as they warm up, there’s more braking and cornering force than is easily explored. It doesn’t roll much, either, partly because Teslas, what with their floor-mounted battery mass, don’t much anyway, and partly because this one has lower, stiffer suspension and a wider track. It reacts promptly to the steering, even if the road rack means you have to turn the wheel a long way.

    With all this extra grip, the usual Tesla sensation of near-unlimited power recedes. And in track use, it seems the actual power is being restricted anyway, as the car’s brain nurses its battery and motor temperatures. The tyres are hungry for the torque, so you can give it full throttle early in a bend. The way to get a fast time is to be confident and hard into a corner. I don’t really do slicks, so I’m not getting anything like the best out of it.

  • Here’s someone who will. Karun Chandhok drove in Formula One for Lotus, and GT3 and Le Mans in LMP1 and LMP2, and did a Formula E season too. He’s here to try the car and give some feedback. He thinks the motor might be overheating, because power drops after the first lap. And he’s boiled the brakes. But he, too, is impressed with the corner-entry speed and absence of understeer. “It’ll be nice with twice the power.” Fair point: the race-series cars will be based on the Model S P100D, which has a motor in the front too, and a longer-range battery pack that can deliver more power and accept more on regeneration.

    Chandhok elaborates on why electric racing demands a whole lot more than the traditional racer’s skill set. Drivers use all the power out of corners, but then take straights at a speed carefully pegged for efficiency. Pre-braking techniques get the most possible regeneration. And all the time they’re nursing battery and motor temperatures. “Thermal management will always be an issue with batteries. It’s like having asthma – you know when you have to use your inhaler. You manage it. Same with battery heat.” All of which means e-racing is “much more cerebral”. The teams will need engineers who are on top of this stuff. Such people aren’t exactly thick on the ground.

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  • Other drivers are here to test the car today: up-and-comers, F1 testers, endurance racers. They’ve been accepted into Electric GT’s “Electric Heroes” drivers’ club. Recruited – how else? – via social media, they’ll boost the series via their own strong profiles, raising their likelihoods of a seat when the series starts in August.

    For the thing to get off the ground, Gemmell wants a minimum of eight teams, each running two cars for a 16-car grid. He’s pretty evangelistic about a world of sustainable energy, but “this is a business like any other”. The team fee is €895,000 (about £750,000) for a season – two cars, at least seven races. Plus teams have to cover spares, tyres, transport, mechanics and drivers. Each car has seven big sponsor-logo spaces, which Gemmell reckons are worth about €100k each, so with 14 of them across the two cars there’s a profit for a team. But that’s a gamble – a more risk-averse team could get into GT3 for that, and they’d have little trouble finding rich gentlemen drivers willing to subsidise the car handsomely in return for the pleasure of telling their mates in the cocktail bar they are Lambo, Porsche or Aston Martin racing pilots.

  • At the moment there is little tangible validation for Electric GT’s proposition – all the talk is of “strong interest” from teams and sponsors. But, significantly, a roster of top-end circuits have said they’ll take the races, among them Paul Ricard, the ’Ring, Estoril and Barcelona. Italian and British tracks were poised as I spoke to Gemmell. The plan is for each event to include practice, a 60-minute qualifying session and two races (daylight and dusk).

    Surrounding it all, “a weekend festival of innovation for sustainability”. Hardly your usual motorsport weekend of decadent resource destruction. Electric GT rests entirely on its being able to find new sponsors who want its new means of connecting with fans. And most of all, new fans.

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