I’m nearly flat on my back, buckled in, knees up, feet on the two pedals, staring at a dazzling array of switches, knobs, buttons, and dash display. In the unlikely event that the green light located to the upper right ever turns red and I must exit this vehicle post haste, I’m instructed to do the “hybrid long jump” from car to ground, lest I ground the chassis and be instantly fricasseed by a zillion volts of potential energy.
The very team that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for three years straight is rolling me out of the garage and onto pit lane in one of the same mega-million-dollar marvels from those historic events: the Le Mans Prototype 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid.
The 919 Hybrid makes twice the power and twice the downforce of the used-to-feel-fast 911 GT cars I’m used to, at maybe 25 times the price.
Inches behind my head is a smallish 2.0-liter turbo V-4 delivering a largish 500 horsepower to the rear Michelin slicks. Ahead of me is an electric motor that variably adds up to 400 more horses to the front. Driving about 1,900 pounds of carbon fiber honeycomb and aluminum alloys … Do the math. About 80 percent of me is savoring the anticipation of the incredible opportunity to experience a close sibling of the fastest road racing car ever built. (We at Motor Trend are the only Americans of nine elite journalists invited to this event.) The other 20 percent of me wants my mommy. Don’t mess this up, I think quietly. Radio check, copy.
Car chief Olivier is 25 years younger than I, with a deadly serious countenance born of responsibility and professionalism. He calmly radios instructions to this skinny old dude he never met before, who is about to wheel his jewellike prize onto the Motorland Aragón circuit here in the Spanish countryside outside of Barcelona. Flat-out, should I so desire, he says. I so desire.
“Clutch in, start engine … pit speed limiter on … hold clutch, drive off on electric to 50 kph … slowly release clutch …” Whhhappp-pa-pa-pa-poppp. The revs max out for a moment before the now-fried clutch thunks into engagement. Olivier told me to drive full-throttle on the pit limiter, but lordy, not when leaving the pit, I discover. Keep calm, carry on, all’s well.
Fortunately, we journalists had first been sent to train on the simulator at Porsche Motorsport, Weissach. The Werksfahrer use it to learn new tracks and refine their considerable skills. I was one once—a factory driver—by the way, but pre-sim. Porsche requires that I dress in full race gear for the sake of realism, and the simulator uses a genuine 919 tub. It is mounted high on four hydraulic rams and faces a surround screen with a realistic portrayal of the Motorland circuit.
Video games in my day ranged from Pong to Pac Man to Asteroids, but all these years I’ve driven real cars for fun, not computer-generated images. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I strap in, hoping to learn a bit about the circuit and the awesome racing machine but also a little leery of the coming Tilt-a-Whirl gyrations from the mechanical spider legs below.
I roll out of the virtual pit lane and follow the track, looking good. As speeds come up rapidly on the no-risk video display, so does the rate at which my stomach turns. The wraparound view swirls as I whip this thing into a corner, and my terra-firma brain protests through my tummy. The engineers graciously stop the hydraulic g-force imitations, and I bravely manage several more laps on static-seating video, until Turn 1 instigates a sudden gag reflex that almost gets away from me. “OK, got it, guys, thanks. Fresh air, please?”
On the actual track in Spain the next day, as I accelerate into the real Turn 1, I find that the video tutelage was very helpful. I have a nice head start on the track and the car’s otherworldly level of performance. The corners look very much the same, and my throttle settings and brake points work here in the real world, too. But the greatest benefit was that the simulator prepared me for the impossible cornering forces the 919 can generate. Like on the screen, I just put my foot down and keep pulling gears, brain squashed against the inside of my skull. With Motor Trend, I regularly test supercars that can easily top 1.0 g on the skidpad. Now try 3.4 g. It’s like living in a sped-up film. Ridiculous fake becomes shocking reality.
The steering is a yoke; round wheels are so passé. This is no drift car. Aero undertrays don’t work well sideways. Knobs under the central screen adjust the levels of traction control: front, rear, and connected. Two more knobs adjust boost (electric, in this case) and recup, or the level of regeneration. Four thumbwheels set entire car-system parameters, settings radioed in from a massive team of engineers in the pits and even back home in Weissach (another efficiency: less travel). In an effort to maintain driver involvement, regulations allow data telemetry from car to pit, but not the other way around. It’s old-school radio and of critical importance to winning.
Le Mans racing is all about efficiency, to increase its relevance and benefit to mankind. LMP1 racers are only allowed a set amount of energy per lap. Exceed it, and the car must slow to give it back in the next lap. So under braking, the hybrid system retrieves some of the energy that once accelerated the car (yes, like the Prius). One way the 919 does this is by “sailing.” With the oddest of sensations, the race car slows itself at the end of a long straight—of which there are several on an 8.0-mile lap of Le Mans—regenerating electric boost even before the driver brakes. It’s like a bungee cord stopping a free fall. This didn’t happen on the shorter stops.
Another fascinating innovation in efficiency is a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that addition to the 919’s turbo system. You’ve heard of a wastegate, right? It releases unneeded exhaust gases once your turbo has spooled up to your chosen boost level. Normally the exhaust is just piped around the turbo and into the atmosphere. Well, the brilliant Porsche scientists use that exhaust energy to drive a generator, sending the energy back into the liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack. They call it MGU-H, or motor generator unit—heat. This way, the car now charges under braking (which supplies 60 percent of the regen) and acceleration (which supplies the other 40 percent). It’s much more clever in effect than in name.
Electric boost is what elevates this racer above the crowd, but to win the races, it must be used in the most efficient fashion. Where might extra power pay off the most? At the beginning of the straights. The sooner the car gets the speed boost, the longer it pays off. Thus, the 919 would utterly explode off the slower corners, with a thrilling sensation of compression all over the body, through the first couple of gears. Then once it gets up to speed (about 170 mph, in our case), the voltage shuts down. The mere 500 ponies from gas alone feel like crawling, by contrast. I saw about 288 kph on the dash (almost 180 mph). At Le Mans, the car did 206 mph. And the 919 Evo did 216 when it set the Spa record.
The Evo version is responsible for the ultimate lap record recently set at Spa by factory driver Neel Jani, famously outpacing Formula 1. For those of you not well-versed in Porsche vernacular, this is not the same 919 that obliterated the Nurburgring lap record. That “tribute” car is an Evo version, whereas this 919 is a LeMans car.
An engineer’s dream, this project unleashed the surly bonds of racing regulations and allowed the team to turn everything up to 11. Screw efficiency: Turn up the turbo boost (for 720 hp), ultra-energize the battery pack (to 440), max out the aero, and go for it. Michelin even built special tires to endure the crushing tire loads in Eau Rouge’s devastatingly fast uphill right. #worldbeater
Porsche bravely chose the highest voltage possible under the FIA WEC regulations. The 800-volt system is not coincidentally the same as the developing Mission E concept road car and required pioneering efforts in handling the surging electrons of that level, in cooling, storage, and connections, system wide.
And why a V-4, you might wonder, after the great tradition of boxer engines? Packaging and aerodynamics. With efficiency as king, Porsche chose the design using the FIA regulations for the category. The 90-degree V configuration leaves more room below for tunnels and diffuser. It also works better with just one turbo; it’s closer to the exhaust from both sides. Porsche tags it as a steep-standing boxer engine. So there, traditionalists. Porsche claims the four-cylinder creates less drag, and it’s oversquare and big bore, which allows for bigger valves. It’s all-aluminum and extremely compact. It’s direct-injected, and at 40 percent, the most efficient engine in Porsche history. It sounds like no four-banger you’ve ever heard, erupting to life with a raw, angry, gravelly tone that’s all business and demands respect. Next-gen 718, perhaps?
When I drove the 919 Hybrid, my greatest challenge was reaching beyond belief to neck-straining grip levels well above anything I had ever experienced. I worked hard to convince my foot to stay planted on the gas through the fast bits the way I had in the safe isolation of the simulator. That is, until I half-spun in the slower Turn 1 from too much entry speed combined with too-early throttle, the data showing it in the glaring light of truth. Downforce increases exponentially with speed, so one must adjust in second gear after being taunted to push harder by the incredible stick developed in fifth. And it’s the same with brake pressure: There’s monstrous initial pressure, then backing on the pedal as speed comes off when about to turn in.
Overall, driving such a successful and complex technological wonder is like having all your on-track prayers answered; it’s like being transported to a new dimension of performance. The 919 Hybrid showcased Porsche’s talents in the boiling cauldron of top-level racing competition, with cutting-edge developments that actually benefit its future products for street-driving consumers, in both high performance and energy efficiency. I call that a win, on track and on the street, especially for enthusiasts like us.