Champions League… We drive Porsche’s 1,000hp 919 Hybrid LMP1 monster. Three-times a world champion, three-time a Le Mans winner and now (semi) retired… Story: Romain Bernard. Photography: Porsche.
At Porsche reception in Weissach I receive a badge with my name on it in a straight swap for my smartphone. This is my ticket to enter the innermost sanctum of inner sanctums – Porsche’s research and development facility. From this moment on, and for the next five hours, I’m cut off from the outside world, seemingly stuck in a parallel universe engaged in an odyssey that will eventually end – in six days’ time – at the Motorland-Aragon circuit in Spain. The reason for my visit is simple; having gained approval (with difficulty) from the Porsche board over two years ago to allow outsiders to drive the 919 Hybrid, here we now are, a very select few – including Patrick Dempsey and Michael Fassbender no less – and a rag-tag bunch of international journalists. But before we can get behind the wheel of the most successful LMP1 machine of the last few years, Porsche, unsurprisingly, is insisting on a good level of preparation for each lucky candidate. Fair enough really.
The Weissach site, embedded on a hillside, is a genuine warren where you inevitably cross paths with all of the future projects of the marque – notably a whole fleet of Taycans (read Mission E), the 100% electric saloon destined to reach market next year. To that end more buildings are emerging from the ground, and Porsche’s famous test track will soon be fully surrounded by offices and workshops, which you could see as being a handy way to hide whatever is driving around it… The Motorsport department is at the far end of the complex, like a satellite orbiting the chaos in a position of relative peace and quiet. Access is ultra-secure, however once inside and having negotiated further anonymous corridors, I find myself in the 919 Hybrid workshop. Four chassis take pride of place: two test cars from 2014, the already legendary EVO which has just beaten the Nürburgring lap record and the car I’ll be driving in Spain. Sporting the number 1, it remains in the exact configuration of its final race with the Bernhard/Hartley/Bamber combo, at the Bahrain 6-hours in November 2017. No time to loiter and drool however – we’re on the clock here.
The first task is to adjust to the driving environment – a tricky exercise where visibility, comfort and security have to come together in unity. A small gap at your back is guaranteed paralysis in the case of a shunt. A knock to the ribs when cornering at 4G and, even in the best case scenario, the pain puts an end to the test. The perfect combination for me is arrived at by combining Mark Webber’s bucket seat with Brendon Hartley’s seat insert (or ‘patch’). In other words, ladies, I’ve got the same backside as the Kiwi… but Brendon is significantly taller than me. His driving position has me asking questions too, such as; where does he put his legs behind the wheel? At which point the car’s chief mechanic tells me: “our tallest driver was Nico Hülkenberg (who drove the 919 once at Le Mans in 2015. And won the race) and when he turned the wheel, sometime the clutch paddles would hit his knee, meaning he occasionally found himself coasting, mid-corner…”
I spend 30 minutes restrained in the cockpit in complete silence. Having said that, I have never felt more comfortable in a closed prototype; at no point am I overcome with a feeling of claustrophobia, this is due in the most part to the fantastic forward visibility through the windscreen but also the wing mirrors which provide perfect rearwards visibility being fully, aerodynamically, integrated to the wings.
Martin Kaussen – wavy, greying hair sitting atop a healthy 6 foot 4 frame clothed in a style which might best be described as ‘45-50-yearold teenager’ helps me out of the car. He’s in charge of ‘electrical security’ for the 919 and is such an expert in his field that he gets to lecture the rest of the VW Group engineers on the subject. His opening gambit to me was to make me very aware of the potential for danger of the car and the need for me to stand well clear of the vehicle when I’m not actually in it. “The 919 is an electrical laboratory, a linchpin in the Porsche ‘de-carbonisation’ program launched over ten years ago which will soon see a whole range of electrified cars”.
This reminds me that this programme is not badged Porsche Mortorsport but Porsche AG and it is under the final aegis of the R&D dept. “The 750 volts in the system can kill and you need to be aware of that at all times!” lectures Martin. He then goes on to talk me through the various alerts that can be sent by the car to communicate with the mechanics, track officials, drivers and others. “A medic is always present when the car is ‘active’ in any way. If you feel the slightest electric shock, even what might feel just like a bit of static, you must tell me immediately! Is that clear?
There is so much power in this car that even a very brief electric shock can destroy your red blood cells, coagulate the protein contained within it and lead to death within 20 minutes of an incident you might have otherwise thought insignificant”.
To be honest 750 volts don’t mean much to my imagination so I ask to what they might be equivalent in terms of horsepower. “That’s enough to power a motor to give around 300kw” replies Martin. A quick bit of mental arithmetic and I reply “so around 400hp?”. His answer, accompanied by a grin, brings the atmosphere back to a more jovial tone: “No, it is 300kw! We’re in the 21st century, we speak in Kilowatts! We’re no longer in the time of Emperor Wilhelm II who compared all cars to his horse…”
Next, and as my slow little brain struggles to digest all of the information being thrown at it, I’ve got an hour and a half PowerPoint presentation to sit through given by ‘my’ race engineer Olivier Champenois. Him being Belgian, like me, does wonders for the communication between us, however as we run through all of the buttons on the steering wheel and the dash, start-up procedures, step-off, return, security (again), comms… it’s clear that no amount of common language will make this simple. “With all of these buttons and sub-menus, we’ve got around 2,000 different options and settings which can be instructed to the pilot over the radio”.
Two thousand! But who can remember all of that? I’m soon speaking to an electronic engineer who puts this in context: “We’re talking aeronautical levels of engineering here, although maybe not quite space rocketry just yet”. I ask how much all of this electronic wizardry weighs. “Hmm… probably about 4kgs!”. Yes, I was shocked too. However, I then managed to read all 37 pages of the ‘Pilot Manual’ without getting in the least bit bored and placed a mental Post-It note in my brain saying “Do as you’re told!”
Then I’m off and running again as I need to hop into the simulator to try and get used to the track. Based on my previous experience of these machines I’m going to take my time and gradually build up speed whilst trying to avoid becoming frustrated, learning as I go. Motorland doesn’t exactly inspire either. I’ll list it alongside those ‘fake-friend’ tracks where you think you’re perfectly safe but, when you study them in detail, find that they bring together all the requisite elements to hurt you badly. Reference points are far away from the edge of the track, there’s heavy breaking whilst turning, slow chicanes at angles tempting you to try to clear them at far too great a speed, long bumpy arcs and flat rumble-strips that give you zero lateral support as you use them.
It’s even harder to find the limits with 1,000hp on tap. Despite all of this however I stick to my plan rather than trying to chisel away at the seconds constantly. Half way through my session, Olivier orders me to press the ‘BOX’ button on the wheel and then a little later ‘PIT’. This procedure means that more energy is used on the in-lap as less energy will be needed for the pit and therefore means that the preceding lap is almost always faster than the others. Over 24-hours the gains are significant. I get down from the simulator and await judgement. Which actually goes rather well and does a lot to boost my confidence.
It turns out that during my 15 or so laps I’ve gotten within 0.7secs of the time set earlier that morning by Marc Lieb with exactly the same setup. And therefore I win my ticket to Motorland. I’m somewhat surprised however by the relatively low top speed along the straight – a little less than 290km/h (170mph) when the petrol engine cuts-out (‘sailing’ is the jargon). The car is running with a maximum downforce set-up, whereas this track should really be run with a Le Mans setting, which would mean around 40 percent less downforce but around 60km/h (40mph) more in top-end speed. And with that – and a serious case of butterflies in the stomach – my time at Weissach comes to an end. I return to the real world where 20 missed calls and 75 urgent emails await.
My journey from Paris to Motorland-Aragon in Spain was chaotic to say the least, arriving at the hotel at 4am ready for me to wake at 6:30am. I meet Olivier who, presumably seeing the bags under my eyes, asks me if I’ve slept well. “Like a Le Mans driver between stints,” I reply. Actually it’s not that far from the truth; the adrenaline means that I don’t actually feel in the least bit tired. I could have slept a bit more but I wanted to get the pits early to soak up the atmosphere and understand this amazing workplace.
Headphones on, I can hear all discussions between the engineers. The mechanics are perfectly attuned, the strategists are measuring out the exact quantities of fuel needed for optimum performance – it’s hardly like we’re looking to set any records here today – and yet all procedures are checked and re-checked. And then they start over again. That’s how a world championship-winning team works and to be entrusted by them, to be the centre of attention, makes it all feel very real indeed. Faces are serious – especially mine – because the only unknown factor here is me.
The moment finally arrives. Neel Jani has been out to check the settings, the grip on track and that everything works as expected. Then my seating set-up is installed in the car and I’m invited to take my place behind the wheel. There’s already a feeling that my gestures are becoming instinctive and I realise just how much the day spent at Weissach has put some of my stress to rest. In my head, the 919 Hybrid is no longer counted as a threat – although this may be a serious miscalculation on my part – but that doesn’t mean I’m feeling massively over confident either, because frankly nothing is going to prepare you for driving this stick of dynamite. The high-pitched crackling of pneumatic guns signals the arrival of wheels and tyres. A few seconds later, the mechanics push me out of the garage, spin me around by 90 degrees, remove the dollies and bring the car down to the floor. My heart beats slow but heavily. Olivier continues to issue instructions into my ear: “Ignition on, Hybrid on,” Next I’m told to fire up the four-cylinder, two-litre turbo. As it starts my spine is assaulted by vibrations and immediately a phrase that has always been present ever since I started doing this job enters my head yet again “what the hell are you doing here?”
The lead mechanic lifts up his lollipop and releases me. Engine idling, clutch in, second gear engaged I simply press the accelerator to move off… in 100% electric mode. Once 60km/h is reached, I let the clutch out and the petrol engine is fully engaged. By pressing a button marked ‘PIT’ I disengage the speed limiter and then I’m on my own. Enclosed in this carbon box I feel like a cosmonaut in a Soyuz capsule, I try to focus on the job at hand. The first priority is to get a better understanding of the track within the space of just three laps. However sophisticated a simulator might be, it will never be a substitute for the real thing. Tension through the neck, the arms, legs, the force from the brakes, the steering, the sweat, the inner ear flipping from one side to another, the rate at which the environment flies past and let’s not forget the stress inherent in playing with someone else car valued at multiple millions of Euros. Oh and then there’s the distinct possibility of ending up in hospital. Having said all of that however, I wouldn’t swap seats for all the money in the world…
The acceleration is overwhelming, the accelerator pedal itself is very sensitive. Even the lightest of pressure produces a violent lunge forwards which immediately quells any desire to go ‘pedal to the metal’. However, due to the way the energy recuperation works there is very little choice than to go for a full-on ‘ON or OFF’ approach to power modulation. I also need to be able to get to the car to rotate through the corners correctly in order be able to get on the power as soon as possible on the exit, which is proving difficult as the set-up on the car means there’s a lot of understeer forcing me to back off in order to adjust the trajectory into a corner. And that’s one of the key things to bear in mind here – this car forces you to adapt your driving to suit it. I need to analyse, understand then try and come up with a coherent response. I’m just glad I’m not trying to adapt in the heat of a race. But, slowly, it starts to come together; I leave my braking as late and as possible and make it as violent as I can bear, then turn into the corner with the greatest angle possible before then accelerate out with as much gusto as I can possibly muster.
But this really is a whole new world for me and although I start to feel more positive, I need only glance at the lap times displayed on the steering wheel to feel depressed again – I’m struggling to get much beyond 1:36sec which is a whole 12 seconds off Neel Jani.
How can this be possible? I stiffen my top lip and carry on increasing my knowledge of both car and circuit. Soon I think I’ve got the braking at least licked: it’s as powerful as it is easy to modulate. I really need to concentrate on high-speed corners though – a question of getting the correct line and then knowing the correct moment to get back on the power. Again, here, with 1,000hp to play with, a lot of self-restraint is needed as the acceleration forces are crushingly awesome. I have never reached 250km/h (155mph) so quickly than in this 919. The sector of the track that’s most fun, starts when leaving a slight-downhill chicane in second gear. Then it’s a case of leaving the car to drift over to the other side of the track but without hitting the rumblestrips to keep maximum momentum and then going up through the gears until fifth as you go through one long, seemingly endless, arc which leads perfectly onto the (equally endless) main straight. With my limited space of mental capacity, I can start to sift through the sensation and realise that the combustion engine’s max revs fluctuate massively from one gear to the next. At the top of fourth it feels like it might have a restrictor fitted, but then it seems to gain an extra 2,000rpm on the next ratio. The sound changes, the acceleration increases further and the feeling can only be described in truly hyperbolic language. Then that feeling is lost in sixth and seventh is only really for cruising at 7,000rpm (of the 9,000 possible) without using too much fuel.
Even at 285km/h (177mph) the main straight feels long but then as I approach the corner at the end, hammer the breaks, change down twice, then wait… wait… and then finally floor the throttle once again. The adrenaline hits me once more and I’m instantly at 235km/h (146mph) with neck muscles ready to burst. Finally, I think I’m ‘getting’ the car and with this epiphany, the lap times start to fall by whole seconds. Assuming I could string together a lap made up only of my best sectors, I would only be a handful of seconds off Jani and I sit there in a deep pool of satisfaction as I await my call back to the pits. Finally the radio crackles: “Box, box!” I press the ‘confirm’ button and then try to make my final lap the best knowing that, either way, this will be one of the greatest moments of my life. Then it’s into the ‘landing’ procedure: “PIT, stop, second gear, wait two seconds before releasing the clutch, Hybrid OFF and Ignition OFF”. And then it’s all over.
As I get out a huge smile is smeared across my face and I head off to thank each member of the team individually starting with Olivier and my chief mechanic. Next I find Neel Jani with whom the conversation starts casually: “You found the 919 easy didn’t you? Even though the final three seconds are the hardest to find?” He said. “That’s because since we initiated this project in 2014 we have tried to make this a car which is homogeneous across a wide band of operating situations – essentially so it can be at its best at Le Mans. There, there are 60 cars on the track which means you can never fully focus on getting the theoretical maximum out of the car; you’re constantly having to move in and out of your ideal line, you have to deal with dirty parts of track, in the rain, with sub-optimal tyres.
“Faces are serious – especially mine – because the only unknown factor here is me…”
The car has to be able to cope with all of this if it’s to stand a chance of winning. I can tell you, though, at the start of the project this was far from being the case. The work carried out – especially on the front axle traction control has been monumental meaning that a 1,000hp car is completely drivable”.
I then broach the subject of the sensitive throttle and how as a driver you need to overcome a fear of using it. “This car requires a very particular driving technique due to its power output being so high – you have to know just how to use it. As soon as you touch the throttle you’re using electric power and if you modulate the throttle you end up wasting that as it will still need to be dispensed before it can be recharged. That’s why you need to be super aggressive, and brave, with the throttle!
You need to accelerate with everything immediately and then it’s up to you to manage the chassis as a secondary matter. That’s how we manage to get low lap times – with all the energy used in one explosion of acceleration. But that’s not simple and it does often mean changing your instinctive line around a track to suit, then do the same when anticipating traffic – basically you change the way you drive entirely in the sole aim of maximising the hybrid technology. You mustn’t find yourself fighting the car, you need it as an ally. If you hesitate though, it’s a disaster in that you lose the electric power and then the turbo-lag gets worse too, going just a little bit slower has a massive effect on the stopwatch. As you’ve found, this means that in the corners you wait, wait, wait and then, when you’re absolutely sure, you give it everything. That’s the best advice I can give you, however seeing your data it looks like you’d started to figure this out for yourself…”
The smile of the Swiss driver is a real decompression valve, better still, it’s like having the ear of a psychiatrist to whom you can talk through a particularly traumatising moment. In this case I want to tell him that I’m having to de-clutch just at the apex of some particularly nasty understeer. “Well it’s fair to say that the 919 has a compromised rear end in order to favour the front axle, it means better top speed and less fuel – this lack of drag obviously comes at the expense of the much less downforce” explains Jani. “This essentially means that we are more or less drifting the car into corners so that we can re-accelerate again as quickly as possible. This is the most sophisticated car that I have driven in my career. So much work has gone into the detail – by an army of engineers. It’s also a car that has benefited from five years’ worth of uninterrupted evolution and it is the conviction of those engineers that races are won in myriad little details that has made Porsche the power that it is. It’s not just having the fastest car that has allowed us to win Le Mans three times. I hope to one day be able to re-live something like this but I fear that this will have been a truly unique experience.” At this point, and although I full agree with him, I have to point out that actually Porsche has won 19 times in 70 years of existence… Porsche, thank you for the experience.
“Finally, I think I’m ‘getting’ the car, the lap times start to fall by seconds”