Ingram's Flat Spot On
Porsche's New Super Race Car
by Jonathan Ingram
Will we ever see the racing version of Porsche's newest supercar on the track?
In Detroit this week, the company introduced the 918 RSR. Described as a "high-end synthesis," the new racer is derived from the 918 Spyder unveiled in Geneva last year and the now more familiar Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid, which raced on three continents last season.
Everything about the 918 RSR says racer, from the No. 22 on the side, to the stripped down interior and the flywheel accumulator sitting where the nominal passenger usually resides. Having enjoyed a positive development year with the GT3 R Hybrid, the Suttgart company has installed the same system of regenerative braking through electric motors/generators mounted on the front axle. Plus there's a rear wing derived from the RS Spyder prototype.
The car is brilliant and the political design is equally intriguing. Has Porsche decided to reintroduce the concept of road-going GT cars contesting over-all victories in endurance racing events while simultaneously pushing the envelope when it comes to racing hybrids? The Porsche 918 RSR, it would seem, could very well compete against new prototypes in an era when smaller engines and better use of resources are the new convention.
Porsche officials have done their best to create a canvas upon which the rest of the world can post its ideas. According to those in Detroit, there was very little discussion or details from Dr. Wolfgang Durheimer, board member for Research and Development, and Hartmut Kristen, the director of motor racing. Having introduced the car on a Monday morning in the middle of winter in Detroit, one imagines very few journalists with much racing background in attendance.
On the other hand, the media release accompanying the roll-out for its new "racing laboratory" touched on virtually nothing but motor racing. Yet, where will a car that meets no known set of rules compete? Or more accurately for a company that cherishes its over-all victories at Le Mans, will we ever see the 918 RSR at the Circuit de la Sarthe?
I happen to be aware that Don Panoz tried for many months to get the rule makers and political hierarchy at Le Mans to allow him to build a road-going GT car that would compete for over-all honors at the French 24-hour. They finally turned down the ginger-haired racing entrepreneur in the late spring of 2009. What became the Abruzzi was then re-drawn to fit what would be the equivalent of the GT2 rules and introduced at Le Mans last summer.
Panoz helped Le Mans re-build itself by creating the American Le Mans Series, which provided a steady stream of competitors, and then created what is now known as the Le Mans Series. The latter gave the Le Mans 24-hour officials their long held dream of a series in Europe that buffers their race much like a moat around a castle, generating cars each year and stability versus the always snipey FIA. These days, Le Mans is on the offensive with its new de facto world championship (take that FIA!), which is politely known as the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
Having helped establish all this clout at no small expense, Panoz's idea of a road car capable of winning at Le Mans was nevertheless turned down by the track's hierarchy. No wonder the powers that be at Porsche, longtime allies of Panoz, are taking a more circuitous approach with the 918 RSR in terms of politics.
The whole episode is perhaps the most audacious thing Porsche has done since introducing 25 of the new Type 917's at the factory in Zuffenhausen in 1969, catching the FIA and the competition with their collective pants down when it came to homologating an entirely new breed of endurance racing car.
Where it goes from here is anybody's guess. There's always the pre-established route of the GT3 R Hybrid, which started in a VLN race at the Nurburgring, then contested the great German track's 24-hour before being invited to participate in the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, which can be viewed as a "test lab" for the Le Mans 24-hour proper. The GT3 R Hybrid then went to the final round of the inaugural ILMC in China. There are decent odds the GT3 R Hybrid will be the invited guest and 56th car in France this June while running unclassified to allow Le Mans' technical committee to gather more information.
It seems to me that Le Mans officials will have a difficult time over-looking the offshoot and upshot of the GT3 R Hybrid. The 918 RSR is a vehicle that surely will sell tickets to the ILMC if it were to appear as a headline act that also includes Audi and Peugeot. Officials cannot avoid the fact the new car has upped the ante when it comes to Le Mans' currently tenuous stance as the leader in green technology -- given that Formula One has again made KERS legal. There is a long history of technical variety at Le Mans that remains an indelible part of the track's history and ongoing charm, which cannot be cast aside easily.
In a conversation over free-flowing pilsner and beef stew in a local restaurant the night before the Nurburgring 24-hour last May, Porsche's motorsports director made it clear the way forward with hybrids concerns measuring the amount of energy each vehicle has and making the rules accordingly.
Kristen is in favor of a system that measures the energy in different forms of fuel -- gas, isobutanol, ethanol, diesel or hydrogen, for example -- and limits everyone to the same amount of energy from these fuel sources. "What is the message you are trying to give to the public?" he told me. "You need to focus on the total amount of energy and the flow of energy." In other words, inefficiency would leave people behind in performance and hybrid power would be the best way to leverage one's supply of energy.
For the short term, Kristen and Porsche have chosen to leverage the company's commitment to hybrid power by introducing a supercar with a total of 767 horsepower -- 563 horsepower from the mid-mounted V-8 engine derived from the RS Spyder and 150 kilowatts of electric power at the front axle.
It remains to be seen just how much political power the 918 RSR can exert.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.