x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Yes, the best are hybrids

The Porsche 918 Spyder, McLaren P1 and the LaFerrari set the pace eco-style.

Last year the Porsche 918 Spyder set a record lap time of six minutes and 57 seconds around the Nürburgring racetrack in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Courtesy Porsche
Last year the Porsche 918 Spyder set a record lap time of six minutes and 57 seconds around the Nürburgring racetrack in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Courtesy Porsche

“So, what’s the best car you’ve ever driven?”

This question is the sole reason I hesitate to tell anyone I meet what I do for a living. It’s the one I’m always asked and it’s the one I can never answer. The best looking? The best sounding? The most exciting or the most dangerous? I can answer these queries in a heartbeat. But the actual best car is something I can’t possibly identify and probably never will.

But the best I’ve driven so far in 2014 is, hands down, the Porsche 918 Spyder. This year I have also spent seat time in a McLaren P1 but, for some reason, its maker decided to only offer journalists in this region passenger rides and I refuse to pass judgement on any vehicle from the wrong side of the cabin. Yet 2014 will go down in history as a vintage year for super sports cars and the two aforementioned vehicles join Ferrari’s stupidly named LaFerrari to form a trinity of ultimate exotica with an environmental bent. These three are the most exciting production cars on the planet right now and they’re all – I can barely bring myself to use the word – hybrids.

Why? What possible reason could there be for these limited edition, crazily powerful automobiles to even pay lip service to green motoring? They won’t be used by their owners very often, so the savings when it comes to exhaust emissions or fuel consumption will be negligible. They’re unlikely to be driven on the daily commute to the office, so the cities around the world that give preferential treatment to hybrid and electric vehicles are unlikely to benefit either.

No, if these three cars drank fuel like it was going out of style, or belched out 10 times the pollution that your car or mine emits, it would make not one jot of difference to the planet. But these powertrains and their usage in three absolutely outrageous automobiles do serve a very important purpose: they’re test beds, research facilities and science laboratories that just happen to thrill like none that have gone before. The mind-bending technology crammed beneath their curvaceous bodies will, one day, make its way into the cars us mere mortals get to drive and that, at least on the face of it, has to be a very good thing indeed.

As far as production numbers go, Porsche intends to build 918 of its 918 Spyders (yes, that is a bit naff) and the order book is open should you wish to drop a minimum Dh3.3million on one of the greatest cars ever to turn a wheel. All 499 LaFerraris have been sold (Dh6.12m apiece) and so far at least, no media have been allowed to test one, although customer deliveries have already begun in the UAE and elsewhere. McLaren’s Dh5.3m P1’s production run of 375 units sold out last year, too, so there’s evidently no shortage of customers willing to dig deep into their pockets. In fact, Ferrari’s chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, personally approved all 499 customers from approximately 2,500 worldwide hopefuls and the selection criteria was incredibly tough.

Cynics might surmise that the cars being discussed here amount to little more than corporate one-upmanship; that the fight for dominance in the headlines has meant a ridiculous battle between rivals that could probably do with calming down a bit and, you know, ploughing all that money into finding a cure for cancer or something. But the reality is that these cars are at the frontier of what’s possible right now and they take the lessons learnt through motorsport and apply them to road cars that defy convention in the way they perform. And, as Porsche is the only company to trust me to actually drive one of the three in question, the 918 Spyder immediately goes to the top of the league table. It is, and I choose my words very carefully, utterly stupendous and worth every single dirham of its asking price. Actually, when you see it for yourself and examine the engineering might that’s packed underneath its flanks, you might find yourself surmising that it’s a bit of a bargain.

The first time I see a 918 Spyder, it’s on the move. It’s ahead of me on Yas Marina’s South Circuit and I’m behind the wheel of a new 911 Turbo S – itself a ballistic car. As I take the final turn before the straight that runs past the grandstands, I put my foot down flat and the 911 threatens to change the time/space continuum, but the 918 simply leaves me for dead. It’s staggering to see that thing move and I actually laugh out loud at the sheer insanity of its pace.

Minutes later and I’m strapping myself into the hybrid hypercar, trying to mentally prepare myself for the onslaught on my senses it will no doubt cause. The 911 had been a revelation on the track, proving just how far Porsche’s engineers have come over the decades in fighting the laws of physics. I’d been able to take corners at speeds that would have been impossible in a rear-engined car just a few years ago but there was still a feeling that it could all go wrong at any second; that one false move could end in disaster. The 918 suddenly becomes intimidating but, I’ve been told, it’s even easier to drive quickly than Porsche’s 50-year-old icon.

My co-driver is to take the first lap before we swap sides but first he takes me through some of the onboard tech. So many displays, so many touchscreen functions and buttons, that I immediately forget everything he tells me. It’s all too much to take in but it’s mightily impressive all the same.

The numbers associated with this car are extraordinary. It set a record lap time around the Nürburgring last year of six minutes and 57 seconds, although according to Porsche the driver wasn’t really pushing that hard. It will dispatch 100kph in two-and-a-half seconds. It has a naturally aspirated, 4.6-litre V8 engine that develops 610hp and an electric motor at each end to give it another 280 horses. And yet, while it’s being driven (sedately I might add) in hybrid mode it can achieve a fuel consumption figure of just three litres per 100km and emit 70g of CO2 per kilometre.

When you start the 918, it’s with a key, but you hear nothing when it’s ready to roll, as it will always start in all-electric mode. As it moves, you can hear the drivetrain’s every clunk, hiss and hum, before wind roar takes over – it’s a similar sensation that that on offer in a Tesla Roadster and the 918 can reach 150kph without reaching for the fossil fuel.

After an all-electric lap, the battery pack has drained to about 50 per cent of its total and we have to do another with the engine revving at 4,500rpm, after which it’s almost fully charged and ready to go again. We pull in, swap sides and I tear away with a brisk whoosh. There are five different drive modes, all selectable via a steering wheel button cluster and, initially, it’s quite confusing. Edrive, which I set out in, is all electric. Then there’s Hybrid, where the engine and batteries work in tandem and there’s Sport, Sport Plus and a Hot Laps programme, where you get the whole works.

I do two laps before letting loose and that’s when the glorious V8 comes on song with a soundtrack that leaves the hairs on my neck standing on end. The engine revs like a superbike and its two exhausts are literally inches from the back of my head – yet another nod to motorsport, where the shortest possible exhaust plumbing manages to liberate more power.

But while the 911 Turbo I’d been driving earlier left me with a certain unease when hammering into the tight corners that make up this technically complex circuit, the 918 displays total composure. Down force and grip is immense and the car simply obliterates bends with a speed that defies belief. It urges you to press on harder, to explore its upper limits, which will always be higher than my own. And, once the straight sections home into view, the acceleration takes my breath away. It is, without a doubt, one of the most controllable, most complete and exquisite machines I have ever had the privilege of piloting.

Porsche claims that, as a stand-alone model, the 918 Spyder is a huge loss maker and I can well believe it. But it’s an investment for the company, in the same way the 959 was in the 1980s – a car that cost staggering sums of money yet paved the way for the four-wheel drive and twin-turbocharged Porsches that we’ve become accustomed to since.

The same could be said for the McLaren P1 and the LaFerrari and, one day, I might get to experience those two as well. And they may even make the 918 feel underpowered but that would do nothing to take away the accomplishment of Porsche with this incredible car. All three represent the very best achievable by their respective makers and prove beyond a shadow of doubt that, even in these greener times, the supercar’s future is safe and sound.