x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Extra push into the future

Michael Taylor finds the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid to be far from a boring Prius on the race track

The brakes on the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid actually do two jobs - stopping the car and charging up the hybrid system's flywheel.
The brakes on the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid actually do two jobs - stopping the car and charging up the hybrid system's flywheel.

Twenty-three hours into the toughest production car race in the world, the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid was leading, more than 50km in front of the next car, or two of the "combined" Nürburgring's 25km laps. And then, with an hour to run in the famed 24 Hour race, it failed. Despite the bewildering array of breakthrough machinery, the culprit was a simple valve spring, X-rayed, bench tested inside an engine and then X-rayed again.

The experimental parts that didn't fail at The Green Hell just two months ago are sitting right beside me now as I'm cooking in the exact same race car. They're spinning furiously in a vacuum at 40,000rpm and waiting for me to pull the crafted, lightened alloy trigger on the back of the steering wheel. And if that doesn't get your attention as a driver, nothing will. This is Porsche's idea of racing into the future and, given that it came within an hour of winning Germany's premier race, that future is disturbingly close to being here already.

For inside this car, Porsche has combined its favourite hot-shot racing car - the GT3 R - with a rolling laboratory of hybrid technology, including a Williams Formula One-derived flywheel Kinetic Energy Recovery System (Kers) and two electric motors that punch 160 extra horsepower to the front wheels on demand. The rear-drive GT3 R is no slug to begin with, with 480hp from a 4.0L flat-six, a six-speed sequential gearbox, proper aerodynamics, lightweight everything, monster brakes and weighing just 1,200kg. The Hybrid weighs an extra 125kg.

We're here to test it on the twisting confines of the Lausitzring, near Dresden in northern Germany. But unlike most race cars, it's no small matter of jumping in and appreciating the technology, as the car's race engineer, Owen Hayes, explained. "We tried to make it as easy as possible on the drivers, because they are busy enough, but there is still a lot to understand." And it's not as though the standard GT3 R is an easy beast to master in the first place. But it does help the driver in some ways, with anti-lock braking, adjustable traction control and a sequential gearbox that takes the risk out of shifting.

First of all, Hayes assures me that the flywheel, made of a carbon and magnetic powder composite, isn't going anywhere. It's securely built into an alloy housing that looks like it could support a coal mine and, after all, the racing scrutineers wouldn't have approved it if it wasn't safe. And then there's the experimental hybrid gear. Mostly, that consists of the 48kg flywheel unit itself, the two electric motors and a host of failsafe electronic brains and electric cabling so thick it looks like a radiator hose.

So, our challenge is to try the GT3 R Hybrid with all the trickery switched off before pulling the trigger and spinning the flywheel in control without spinning out of control. Even in the normal mode, the car feels different to a normal Porsche. The clutch is heavy and imprecise, but the gearshift is astonishingly brutal and then, once you've pulled second gear hard and fast at full throttle, you get overwhelmed by a combination of the soaring, nuanced engine ripping its delivery through the uninsulated body and the gearbox whining as the revs rise and fall.

But if the best 911 GT3 RS road cars are known for their precision, the Hybrid isn't. Its brake pedal feels very different to normal race brakes when you hit the end of the straight. The pedal is firm, for sure, and the floor-hinged operation feels a little odd at first, but right where you expect a Porsche's brakes to saturate your brain with delicate inputs right down near the lock-up threshold, this one goes all soggy and blurred. It tells you nothing and you struggle to even pick up when the ABS is operating.

That's because it's being tasked with two jobs: washing off speed and spinning the electric motors so fast so they shoot the energy up into the flywheel. They're busy brakes. The second step in its imprecision is when you turn it in, because that delicate, unmatched steering response you get in rear-drive Porsches is gone. With the extra weight of a computer and two electric motors up front, that shouldn't be a surprise.

It's a wonderful machine, though, lacking only in comparison with the standard GT3 R. It still fills you with a cacophony of sounds from the engine to the gearbox, from the brakes to the scrabbling tyres, then it adds to it with a host of smells from hot coolant, gearbox oil and tortured rubber. This is one of the kookiest race cars I've ever driven. You don't really worry about charging the system because it does it all on the brakes. It takes a couple of laps to get the flywheel whirring at 28,000rpm and, from there, you have juice. It normally maxes out at 36,000rpm, but it can overboost at up to 40,000.

But as a driver, you don't really worry about it. Initially, I just went until I saw the "Hybrid, Push" board hung out over the pitwall, and so I pushed. It's like an invisible hand taking the already-hurtling 911 and shoving it some more. It makes an already fast car even faster and it feels like they've just taken weight out of the driveline because the petrol motor is picking up its revs faster than it did before.

And then you come to the braking area and in just one sustained push, you get back pretty much all the energy you've just spent. Then you find the second piece of genius about the Hybrid. Because it drives the front wheels only and because each wheel has its own, infinitely adjustable electric motor, it's just as useful to control traction out of corners as it is giving more shove down the straights.

So you nudge the 911's orange nose to the apex, stand on the throttle and, when it starts to step out at the back, you tug the little paddle and the electric motors straighten the whole car up instantly and without a trace of torque steer, then fire it faster and harder up the road. That makes it easier to drive, not harder. The drivers admit that it's easier on the tyres, too, and it's the easiest 911 to drive out there when it rains. While the others are slithering around on the 'Ring's famously undulating and cambered bends, the Hybrid drivers are pulling their paddle and exploding into the middle distance in a juicy serenity.

It's like having a spare turbo-charger that works on-demand and only through the front wheels and it doubles as a traction control aid. How good is that? Somehow, it just doesn't seem fair. It's also pretty much set and forget once you've got the flywheel's rpm up and over its minimum revs. Fully charged, it's good for six to eight seconds of the full 473kW (640hp), but because the flywheel recovers revs every time you brake, it's giving around 20 seconds of boost here, on a 1:25 lap. On the Nürburgring's eight- to nine-minute laps, it's giving a lot more boost than that.

So you don't really think too much about the system at all once you've got it rolling. You just look at the vertical series of LED lights to the left of the MoTec dash and as soon as they climb into the green section (and you can hear the flywheel's spinning becoming more frantic in a crazed Dyson kind of way), you're free to nail the paddle and the pedal. "For the software," Hayes admits. "We are at the beginning. Maybe we're 20 per cent of the way.

"The flywheel itself is very rigid in its housing and maybe we can analyse how much rigidity and thickness we don't need or the materials. "But besides taking weight out, software is the main field for us to work with because, ideally, it will be set and forget, with a driver override whenever he wants to. "That's the goal but we are not there yet. The driver can overrule the system but that normally it works by itself, like a diff or figuring out corners for itself."

And he doesn't just mean for racing cars. It's somewhere between 1.3 and two seconds a lap faster with the system here, but that's hardly relevant. The point is that, if Porsche's history at transferring race technology to the road is any indication, it's coming.