x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Porche 918 is a pioneer among hyprid supercars

A ridealong in the Porsche 918 supercar around Yas Marina Circuit

The new Porsche 918 Spyder. Sammy Dallal / The National
The new Porsche 918 Spyder. Sammy Dallal / The National

I have some good news for those who fear the future of the supercar; it's here to stay.

I say this because I briefly experienced the future via the passenger's seat of Porsche's prototype half-petrol/half-electric 918 Spyder around Yas Marina Circuit. And after climbing out from what could only be described as game-changing laps in terms of my mental perception towards electric-powered performance cars, I'm glad to report that adrenalin-pumping hypercars will live despite the questionable future of the combustion engine.

A few select media in Abu Dhabi were the first journalists last week to experience the much-hyped 918 Spyder at full tilt, as the car is still seven-and-a-half months away from production. But there is another reason for the Spyder paying the UAE a visit, apart from allowing us hacks to form an early opinion: several potential customers and a number who have already stumped up hefty deposits, are being shown the car, so Porsche can get some important feedback.

First drives will have to wait, as will seeing what's under the bonnet - which was also strictly off limits - so it was a very fast and educational taxi ride sitting next to one of Porsche's engineers.

The 918 Spyder is the spiritual successor to the V10 Carrera GT and, while orders are being taken, production won't begin until September. Those who have placed orders are shelling out Dh3,294,000 for the privilege to own one of what will only be 918 examples built.

However, more importantly, they will own the first generation in what will form the basis of a new world of supercars, that being those powered by both petrol and electric motors.

Both McLaren and Ferrari will reveal their hybrid supercars at the Geneva motorshow in March, so this is not a wild, offbeat project from Zuffenhausen but a rolling testbed for technology that should filter through to more mainstream models in the future.

"The car has three engines, one electric motor on the front axle, another on the rear and a combustion engine, and everything goes through a seven-speed PDK transmission," says Philip Stiobel, the travelling technician for the 918 Spyder."The only way you know it's changing engines is the difference in sound."

By that he means going from complete silence to the luscious tones of a 4.6L V8 that barks into life right behind your head. The all-new V8 engine develops 580hp and is supplemented by the two electric motors which, when combined, will give it 850hp.

"At the moment we're keeping revs to 6,000rpm but it will have 9,000 when it's in production.

"It currently develops 795hp all up and we'll be happy with 830 but 850 is our goal," adds Stiobel.

With a curb weight of 1,600kg, it is claimed that the 918 will rocket from zero to 100kph in less than three seconds, to 200kph in under nine and has a top speed of 325kph. Powered just by the electric motors only, it still tops out at 150kph.

Buckled in to the six-point harness and helmeted up, I am waiting for it to fire into life when it silently begins to glide down the pit lane.

Still waiting for the engine to kick in, the 918 "rolls" into turn one without any noise at a speed that would challenge most track day cars. It then proceeds to complete a full lap of the south circuit at pace with only the sound of wind rushing past my ears.

Lunchtime diners on the balcony of the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel don't even notice our car screaming through the chicanes below their dinner tables.

Test driver Matias Hoffsmer flicks the dial on the steering wheel and the V8 engine suddenly barks into life, mid-corner, ready for lap two.

"When I go into sport or race hybrid modes, the petrol motor is running all the time and then the electric motors kick in to act as a boost function," Hoffsmer says. "You feel that and if they're not working you definitely know it.

"You accelerate out of corners much faster, plus it gets rid of the problem of not being in the right gear mid-corner because being four-wheel drive you can get on the gas much earlier," he adds.

A key point to the 918's exceptional handling is that its centre of gravity is below the wheel hub line, lower than any road-going car, while the front track is wider than the rear which helps pull it through corners.

The three power units are controlled by five modes on the steering wheel comprising E-Power, Hybrid, Sport Hybrid, Race Hybrid and Hot Lap. As long as the battery is charged, "E-Power" is the default mode and it can cover 25km on electric power alone.

Neither the Ferrari nor McLaren hybrid supercars will be able to run solely on electric power. The path they have taken is to use the electric motor in the same way KERS is used in Formula One, as a "push-to-pass" kick in the back when needed.

In the 918, the electric motors and combustion engine work together in "hybrid" mode with an emphasis on efficiency and minimum fuel consumption. It's typically used for moderate driving styles such as in city traffic.

"Sport Hybrid" puts the combustion engine into constant operation while the electric motors provide support in the form of an electric boost when the driver demands more pace. The focus of this mode is on performance.

"Race Hybrid" is designed for the highest possible performance. The combustion engine is used under high load and charges the battery.

The electric motors are used up to the maximum power output limit to provide the best performance for the track over short periods. The increased output is balanced by the combustion engine charging the battery more powerfully.

The "Hot Lap" mode is for a few laps only and aimed at posting the fastest qualifying lap. It releases the 918 Spyder's last reserves and pushes the battery to its maximum limits using all the available energy.

"Both electric motors produce the equivalent of 245hp and 350Nm of torque, which most importantly is available from zero [rpm], so as soon as I press the throttle I have full power," Hoffsmer says.

Aside from the aural delights that burst into life from the exhausts, another way to tell when the petrol engine kicks in is the heat that drifts into the open cabin from behind.

With the two giant exhaust pipes existing high - just inches behind your head - the heat wash floods between the seats. This may be an issue in summer but if that's a concern, then maybe you're missing the point of this supercar.

Much work has gone into reducing weight transfer and the 918 is as flat as a pancake through corners, almost to levels only experienced by open-wheel cars.

Being all-wheel drive, it's pinned through turns aided by four-wheel steering that offers a marginal two-degree swing of the rear wheels, which turn in the opposite direction to the front at slow speed to aid parking and parallel to the front wheels at high speeds for stability.

"I have never driven a road car that turns in like this. It has an adaptive aerodynamic system where the rear wing rises to three different angles up to 13 degrees," Hoffsmer says.

"There's a diffuser at the front with two air channels that run the length of the car. At speed, the channels open automatically and direct wind turbulence away from the wheels. At 200kph you have 300kg of downforce," he adds.

Leaving the circuit, I had more questions than answers, because the Porsche 918 Spyder challenges the way you think about supercars. The future of performance motoring has been left in good hands.