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A close look at Porsche’s 918 RSR

  1. Things are spinning very quickly at Porsche. Literally. The
    918 RSR is hardly short of eye-catching elements but, even so, a few items make
    an extra-shiny bid for your attention. Here we go.

    This is a race version of last year’s eye-popping 918 Spyder
    concept, which means that the Spyder’s zero-emissions capability is irrelevant.
    So the RSR downgrades the all-electric lithium ion greenery and ups the
    old-fashioned internally combusted power output to 556bhp at – get this –
    10,300rpm. Porsche hasn’t divulged the engine’s capacity, but admits it’s an
    evolution of the 3.4-litre direct injection V8 from the RS Spyder endurance
    racer. This is a good thing, quite clearly.

    Words: Jason Barlow
    Photos: Ripley & Ripley

    This feature was originally published in the February issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. But it gets better. The RSR is re-greened - well, a bit - by
    featuring a pair of electric motors, one on each front wheel. These generate an
    additional 201bhp, taking the 918’s overall power output to a thumping 757bhp.

  3. How does it work? Well, sitting where you’d normally find
    the passenger seat on a road car is a device that looks like something Victor
    Frankenstein used to animate his monster. It’s called a flywheel accumulator, which
    is an electric motor with a rotor that spins at upto 36,000rpm. Something very
    similar appeared on last year’s 911 GT3 R Hybrid, and it’s effectively an
    F1-style KERS energy-saving system. Under braking, the electric motors on the
    front axle recapture the kinetic energy that would normally be lost, which is
    then stored in the flywheel accumulator. The driver gets to redeploy this
    energy at the push of a button, delivering an extra slug of power for up to
    eight seconds if the system is fully charged.

  4. With the crank spinning at 10,300rpm and the flywheel
    accumulator whooshing at an industrial 36,000rpm - it’s 40,000rpm on the GT3
    Hybrid and could be as much as 50,000rpm, though it would be more liable to
    explode at that speed - the 918 RSR is certainly what you’d call energetic.
    Porsche also calls it a ‘racing laboratory’ and fully expects it to earn its
    keep on that basis. On top of which, it’s yet another car that makes me wish
    I’d paid more attention in my school physics lessons.

  5. Luckily, you only need a pair of eyes to appreciate the way
    it looks. And it looks so good that the 918 RSR might have booked its place,
    before it’s even turned a wheel, alongside the likes of the 908/02 Spyder, 909
    Bergspyder and, most significantly of all, the 917 KH competition cars (the 22
    on the doors and bonnet reference the 917’s 1971 Le Mans victory, when Helmut
    Marko and Gijs van Lennep set a distance record of 3,315 miles - a record that
    was only beaten last year).

  6. Porsche says the Spyder is definitely the configuration the
    road-going 918 will have, but in so explicitly echoing its revered racing cars,
    the closed-cockpit RSR is surely the best-looking Porsche since, well, the 917.
    It’s fantastically well proportioned, and manages that trick only Porsche can
    pull off of looking functionally curvaceous. Check out the front aero; the side
    exit exhausts;, the trick end-plates on the rear wing; the single, centre,
    locking nut on the wheels; and the fan wheel between the ram-air intakes. None
    of this stuff should be pretty, but somehow it is.

  7. Porsche design director Michael Mauer insists that the
    orange colour on the brake calipers and bodywork stripe now officially
    signifies Porsche’s hybrid motorsport technology, but adds that “when we
    created the liquid blue paint, we were looking at the Gulf-liveried racing
    cars”. Like every car designer, the late-Sixties endurance racers exert a
    definite fascination for him.

    “I like all of Porsche’s racing cars,” he tells me. “They’re
    so pure, so nicely proportioned. But even before I joined Porsche, the 917 was
    the strongest symbol. Having said that, from a design perspective we never
    intended to doa successor for the 917. Our ultimate goal was to create a car
    that had the potential to become as famous as the 917.”

  8. The RSR’s monocoque chassis is made of
    carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic, and its doors open upwards. Its transmission
    is ‘based’ on the six-speed constant-mesh paddleshift used by the RS Spyder.
    Inside, meanwhile, the racing aesthetic gives way to something a little more
    tactile. I’ve never driven a race car that had brown leather on the dash, seats
    and doors, but it adds a certain Steve McQueen-era panache to the RSR, though
    there’s a brazen lump of technology sitting where Steve would probably have
    opted for a brunette. There’s a simple display ahead of the driver, a gear
    indicator, and further readouts for the flywheel. A large central spar separates
    driver from giant flywheel, and features race details such as a battery
    cut-off, a big starter button, and various rocker switches.

  9. Currently ineligible for any competition category, Porsche
    is lobbying the FIA and other motorsport governing bodies hard. Let’s hope it
    gets somewhere, because the RSR offers the sort of combination of new-age,
    relatable technology and compelling visuals that motor racing needs if it’s
    going to head off the eco-mafia. Not the least of which is the car’s
    torque-vectoring system. Not only do the electric motors supply an extra burst
    of power, they also effectively give the car all-wheel drive for the short
    period the flywheel-stored energy is being deployed, so allowing the driver to
    quell understeer. Recycling this kinetic energy also lets the car carry a
    smaller fuel tank, and cuts down on pit stops. It’s inspiring stuff.

  10. But not without its issues. Though Mauer admits they could
    have turned it into a ‘sculpture’, there’s not all that much you can really do
    to disguise a 47kg flywheel accumulator. (Groucho Marx ‘tache and spectacles? A
    hat?) There’s also nowhere else to put it than beside the driver, and it must
    be an interesting object to have accompanying you during a 24-hour race.

    But it’s still lighter than lithium-ion batteries, and not
    only does it suck energy in faster, it’s also much better at discharging it
    again, a fundamental factor in a race situation. Which begs the question: will
    the 918 RSR compete? Yes, if erstwhile Porsche tech boss and new CEO of Bentley
    and Bugatti Wolfgang Dürheimer has his way.

  11. “We’re in contact with [FIA President] Jean Todt,” he tells
    me, “and what I’ve said is that the GT3 R Hybrid is not a one-off car, that we
    will continue to develop it, and that the 918 RSR is our next answer. We are
    convinced the governing bodies need to react and that racing needs this
    technology if it is to have a bright future.”

    Dürheimer says that the GT3 R Hybrid proved to be an amazing
    “data lab”: “There was a big knowledge gain every time we competed, with a big
    possibility of carrying over new ideas and techniques. Our future 918 customers
    will benefit from it.” As to whether things are moving fast enough - or perhaps
    even too quickly for a business that simply doesn’t enjoy the snappier lead
    times of, say, consumer electronics - he is more circumspect.

  12. “Within Porsche, our groundspeed is OK. We have good
    strategies, and we can make Porsche bulletproof in terms of sustainability and
    social responsibility. We can keep our customers mobile without deleting the
    passion or performance Porsche delivers.”

    So, the 918 RSR should a) race and b) influence tomorrow’s
    Boxsters, Caymans and 911s. Note also that as he heads off to tackle Bentley
    and Bugatti, Dürheimer is also newly responsible in the VW Porsche group for
    motorsport. He doesn’t blink when I put Porsche and Formula One together in the
    same sentence. But that’s another story.

    “I’ll make some suggestions to the board in Wolfsburg,” he
    says. “I can tell you that I have some good ideas in my head. I’m just not
    allowed to talk about them.”

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