CEREAL bars taste awful at five o’clock in the morning. But the sticky, cardboard-flavoured confections have the energy that I urgently need today, so I take a sip of water and force them down like a good boy.
Just four hours later I’m in Spain watching Porsche factory driver Neel Jani warming up a 919 Hybrid at Motorland Aragon. While it’s not the derestricted Evo version (the car that set the mindscrambling 5:19.54 new outright Nurburgring Nordschleife lap record), the LMP1-spec 919 hardly looks slow. Within a few laps Jani moves the braking point on the start/finish straight much closer to the entry of Turn One and sets a reference time of 1:23.503sec. These numbers will haunt me throughout the day. Why? Because after prep time in the Porsche simulator, a detailed safety briefing and even more detailed instruction on how to find my way around the 919’s cockpit, I’m being allowed to play at being a Porsche factory test driver for the day. And yes, that does include a ‘works’ contract. Well, of sorts.
Jani returns to the pits – job done. The fourcylinder turbo cuts out, the electric motor slowly turns itself off once the 919 is static, the car is jacked up and rolled into the garage. All is quiet. Earlier, while walking the 4.93km track, I had noticed some disconcerting wet patches, but the Le Mans 24 Hours-winning Swiss racer is full of laid-back confidence. “Everything’s dry, it’s very easy out there,” he smiles. This does not reassure me.
But there’s no time for self-doubt or hesitation as chief engineer Olivier Champenois gives me the sign to climb into the 919. Helmet on, hands already sweating in Nomex gloves, I slowly squeeze myself into the carbon monocoque cockpit. Although I’ve managed to shed a few extra kilos in preparation for this day, I still feel wedgedin like a cork in a bottle. Hopefully I won’t have to find out whether I can evacuate the cockpit in seven seconds, as per the safety briefing... The racing harness is tightened further, radio checked, then the fragile-looking three-kilogram door clicks home. Now it gets serious.
My heart rate is into triple digits by the time mechanics pull the tyre warmers off four freshly toasted Michelin slicks and bolt a magnesium wheel to each corner. As I’m pushed out of the garage, my brain goes into panic mode, my heart feels like it’s bouncing off my ribcage and my breathing gets heavier.
Of course, I immediately forget everything I’ve just been told. How do I start the engine? Which button do I press first? When do I use the clutch? And then my brain screams: “You’re sitting next to 520 amps of DC current and 800 volts of electricity – in a car! Are you crazy?”
My thumb fumbles for the radio button on the wheel. Champenois answers calmly and gives clear instructions. “Ignition on, Hybrid on. Pull the clutch in and keep it pulled. Second gear.” At the same time my synapses switch to survival mode, despite my mental meltdown. “Engine start!” The two-litre turbo V4 howls. “Push throttle and you can go!” It’s now or never.
The electric motor on the front axle pulls me out of the garage into pit lane where I can let the clutch out and the internalcombustion engine starts taking over. Finally alone, my heartbeat begins to slow, my head feels free of distractions.
But there’s no room in my brain to think about ‘reference times’ or even to remember that I’m sitting in chassis number seventeen-zero-five – the 2017 World Endurance Championshipwinning car. Then the V4 chugs, hesitates and hints at stalling just before pit exit, as if to say, “Hey, idiot, this is not a first-gear high street run!”
This hiccup is meant to remind me that the engine doesn’t ‘do’ less than 3000rpm and today I should keep it within the 6500 to 7400 window where it’s happiest. So I accelerate out onto the track, run through all seven gears, and start to get a feel for the hydraulically assisted steering, and try to keep the tyres up to temperature. And get used to left-foot braking. Happily, Jani had not been exaggerating, the track is completely dry. Here we go.
Full throttle on the pit straight, the V4 pushes with all its might and the electric motor dispenses everything the lithiumion battery pack next to me has – a total of 671kW. First gear, second, zap! The battery is dead. Seconds later I’m still at full throttle when the 200m brake marker for turn one flashes by, then the 150m board. Full-on, emergency braking... now! Way too early. Try again. Somewhere before the 100m mark, I jump on the brakes with all my might and change down three times. The display now reports fully charged batteries.
The 919 Hybrid might use an electric motor, but this has nothing to do with everyday electric car driving, because the battery cells from manufacturer A123 have an extremely high power density and can deliver and recharge ultra-quickly (it can absorb 1.5kW/hour of energy). Energy density, on the other hand, is rather low as the 919 Hybrid charges its batteries under braking and acceleration.
When you brake, the electric motor on the front axle acts as a generator. When you accelerate, exhaust gases drive a turbine connected to a second generator that can spin up to 120,000rpm. All very clever, but I hear nothing of this engineering complexity in the cockpit, I’m far too preoccupied with highspeed cornering.
In the simulator you are told to go full throttle everywhere and why wouldn’t you? In reality this is highly inadvisable. “Box, box,” Champenois crackles over the radio and I pull in and a look at my time: 1:30.43sec.
“You’re exiting corners well but you’re spending too much time on the brakes, and in the fast corners you’re still well below the car’s capabilities”. Er, yes, ‘the car’s capabilities’...
Chastened, I crawl back into the cockpit, fire everything up again and head back out. This time I leave my braking much later and here and there I lock the inside front wheel. On one lap I miss the turn-in point by several metres, but I try to relax and feel what the gumball Michelins are doing.
Aerodynamics play a big role in braking. You can come off the throttle at high speeds and feel the drag slow you down, but with decreasing speed you have to brake more carefully as the rotors are highly likely to lock-up. There is no ABS on an LMP1 car, but it does have traction control, luckily. “Box, Box!”
I’m quicker with a 1:27.76 lap. “There’s still room for improvement on the brakes,” Champenois analyses. Jani nods in agreement. “You’re doing it right, slowly building up. Now try some full-bore laps. You’ll see, you can do it.”
Stint three, fresh tyres fitted. I hit 260km/h at the end of the start/finish straight, brake up to the apex, pull 2.7g of deceleration, snatch third gear and feed in the boost. I don’t lift at turn Two and try going flat through Three, but give in and back off at 220 km/h. My head keeps saying this isn’t going to work, then the 919 does exactly the opposite. Somehow it all seems even calmer at this rate as the car sticks itself to the road.
Turn Four, 235km/h, I slide out over the kerb, causing the underside to scrape expensively. Turn, brake, pull three times on the left paddle, and immediately the batteries are empty again. I’m still too early on the brakes at the slowest corner, but it doesn’t matter because I’m back on the gas and hurtling out of the other side before I know it.
I can barely keep up with the shifts as electric motor boost and speed increases. The car is pulling 1.7g of acceleration and my helmet is glued to the headrest. Braking for Turn 10, my neck muscles give up at 3.7g and I have to rest my head. The pros can do this for hours.
The electric motor only pulls up to 270km/h at which point the 373kW petrol engine is on its own, but with the aero kit configured for Aragon the car tops out at 290. I’m still accelerating, though, as the car dumps electric power before loading up again at the last corner. My time flashes up – 1:25.39sec. That’s it, I’m done, literally. “Box, box,” I radio. My time has improved by almost five seconds, but I’m still two seconds off Jani’s time (and he surely could have gone quicker). It’s all about the car.
The 919 Hybrid is an extreme machine, a Formula One car with a roof. To drive it fast feels like someone has pressed a button and sent you spinning into a parallel universe that uses completely different laws of physics. It’s a universe where man is the limit, not the car. It’s the most demanding drive ever and a masterpiece of Porsche engineering.