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Our first ride in the Porsche 918 Spyder

  1. It takes petrol. Regular unleaded petrol, not rocket fuel, essence of nuclear fusion or any other explosively exotic high octane cocktail. This is both reassuring and a little disappointing. It’s good to see that the Porsche 918 Spyder can live and breath in the same automotive atmosphere as every other car, but at the same time, you want it to be so advanced that it basically defies every Newtonian law. You want it to be an anti-gravity speed machine, an X-wing fighter of a car, so it’s initially a bit disappointing to see a regular fuel nozzle jabbed into its flank.

    There is a difference, though. This fuel station is in the pitlane of the Nurburgring, and Porsche is here to see how fast an unfinished prototype can travel round the Green Hell (a day later it manages a ridiculously rapid 7.14).

  2. We’re here to learn a bit more about the 918, chat to the people involved and, later, to have a ride in the car itself. Not around the circuit unfortunately, but, perhaps equally informatively, on the public roads nearby.

    Fuelling is finished, and the 918 creeps away from the pumps silently. Safe to say, it’s less quiet when the 4.6-litre racing-derived V8 is up and running. The monochrome Martini livery of this one may be subdued, and the detailing is decidedly unfinished with light clusters that don’t fit the holes in the bodywork, but nevertheless the 918 looks suitably exotic.

  3. It’s the exhausts exiting out the top of the car that strike you first. How the hell did Porsche get away with that? “Well, it wasn’t a design decision”, Frank Walliser, the man in overall charge of the 918 project, says, “The idea came about from the heat. The cooler it is in the car, in the area of the battery, the better. So if you have the hot air on top of the engine and the cool air underneath, that will benefit the battery. So we did it as a technical idea. Then we went to the studio and said the designers, ‘can we?’, and they said ‘wow, that’s cool’. And then we saw the rules and homologations guys and after four weeks of checking they came back and said it’s not a problem. No-one has done it before and therefore there was no regulation against it.”

  4. Given the amount of air flowing over the car, compared to what goes through the engine, that extra hot air the exhausts throw at the rear wing gives only a negligible aero benefit. But what you can see are the sooty stains from the exhausts running over the body and discolouring the paintwork. “That’s why we do testing,” Walliser tells me, before going into the intricacies of how you develop a paint and top coat that isn’t susceptible to exhaust fumes.

  5. Of course, Porsche is a company that puts effort and attention into everything it does, but never more so than with this car. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that this hybrid plug-in technology will filter down from the 918 into a broad spectrum of cars across the entire VW Group portfolio. You’ve got to assume that Porsche isn’t paying for the 918’s development alone, and that VW is chucking cash at the project to make it work properly. As Walliser says, “the biggest value of the car is what the engineers are learning every day”.

    It’s been a steep curve. The 918 has 55 on-board computers and there are 40,000 data labels that define if the drivetrain is working correctly. If one isn’t - just one of 40,000 remember - the system shuts down. Walliser admits that getting it to work has been even more complicated than the most pessimistic engineer anticipated.

  6. In reality, this technology isn’t entirely cutting edge. Unlike the Vauxhall Ampera, this isn’t a range extender hybrid where the wheels are always driven electrically and the combustion engine serves to charge the batteries. This is a super sports car first, an electric car second.

    But the 918 had to happen from scratch. Walliser admits that although they learned a lot about drivetrain management from the Panamera and Cayenne hybrids, in terms of carry over parts there are just two, “one of the control units and the crest on the bonnet”. The problem is that the carbon-tubbed, motorsport-engined, racing-suspensioned 918 bears actually no relation to existing products.

  7. So, with - as Walliser knows off the top of his head - 367 days until it goes on sale, what’s the 918 Spyder like? Three main things strike you: firstly, how much acceleration the electric motors alone are capable of delivering. Secondly, how shockingly loud the V8 is after the electric silence, and finally the ridiculous cornering grip and how tight a line it can hold.

    This is very much a development car - one of the two performance prototypes (there are 20 others running around the world doing hot and cold weather testing, emissions and the like). inside is a profusion of wires and extra testing systems, and the initial impression is how low you sit in it.

  8. We creep silently away from the circuit, before jetting away from a roundabout at hot hatch velocity, but with no apparent noise apart from a distant, almost imperceptible whine from the electric motors. It’s an odd sensation because, aside from the Tesla or the electric SLS, we’re simply not used to electric cars generating much acceleration or being at all sporting.

    Modes are selected via a stubby lever on the dash, while paddles operate the double clutch gearbox. We turn off on to a country road and the 570bhp V8 erupts into life. It’s not a particularly pleasant noise at the moment - tuning the note and increasing the sound deadening are still on the to-do list - a flat blare that hurls into your ears and makes it hard to concentrate on anything else.

  9. Apart from the acceleration. Because even though this smallish supercar weighs close to 1700kg, it has a combined power output of, well, Porsche isn’t exactly sure yet, but over 785bhp.

    It’s smooth in its delivery, with no sudden spikes, but does it ever force you into your seat. I swear you can feel the influence of the electrics, too, smoothing out the slight peaks and troughs that you’d expect in a naturally aspirated internal combustion engine. It’s a feeling not unlike turbocharging. You can also sense the 4wd at work, not for grip, but more the balance of the car through corners - the front wheels seem to stay locked solid on their chosen line.

  10. And that’s about it. We’ve gone about 10km, and my time is up. But one thing seems clear: the 918 Spyder does detectably feel and drive like a Porsche. Even at this stage there’s a sense of real engineering integrity. As Walliser points out to me when I clamber unsteadily back out of the car, “you see what I mean? This shows what Porsche can do in total. As a melting down of everything into one car, this is the essence of the total technology of Porsche.”

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