domino effect

Until recently, sports cars were road cars with sporting aspirations, being built for the road first with high-performance parts added after the fact. BMW’s Motorsport or Porsche’s GT department are basically well-funded tuners, and better motors, suspension, and aero can only push the underlying package so far. This uprated road car philosophy has started to come under serious fire.

Ford wanted to win Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of their much-heralded string of wins over Ferrari with the original GT40. Initially, they tried to modify the Mustang, but it quickly became apparent that the Mustang platform wasn’t going to be competitive. So Ford decided to develop a race car to win Le Mans and sell enough road variants to satisfy the FIA rulebook. The result was the 2017 Ford GT.

2017-Ford-GT-front-three-quarters

Ford GT in “track mode” aka default

It’s a term that gets thrown around too often, but the Ford GT is legitimately a race car for the road. The suspension, aero, engine, and packaging are all designed for racing, and Ford subsequently crushed the competition. It was such a convincing win that Porsche’s 911 RSR, which competes in the Ford GT’s class, has gone mid-engined (sacrilege!) in an effort to remain competitive.

A similar phenomenon happened in the late 1990’s. McLaren’s F1 won LeMons outright with fewer modifications than you’ll find on a Miata at a local autocross. In response, Porsche and Mercedes produced the GT1 and CLK-GTR respectively. Similar to the Ford GT, these entries were designed as race cars first and road cars second. The difference between this instance and today’s is that the Ford GT’s class consists of conventional road cars (Corvette, 911, 488 and V8 Vantage) while the F1’s era was composed entirely of limited production multimillion-dollar race cars with license plates. The performance first mindset has trickled downmarket.

Screenshot 2017-09-24 at 10.55.15 AM

GT1 and CLK-GTR make the F1 look tame

And yet, the Ford GT feels almost tame compared to the upcoming crop of super/hyper/ultra-cars that are in the pipeline. If you can buy the car that won LeMans for only $500k from Ford, what do the premium brands have to offer?

Aston Martin is in the midst of preparing to release the Valkyrie. Like the Ford GT, it is built from the ground up for performance (read: high aero grip). Unlike the Ford GT, there is no racing series rulebook to direct or compromise its design. Adrian Newey, Red Bull F1’s head aerodynamicist, has been given free reign. The car promises near F1 levels of performance, and it looks to share more with an LMP1 prototype than a road car. It will be absurdly fast.

Valkyrie

The Valkyrie eschew’s heavy complex hybrid turbo power for a naturally aspirated V12

While the Valkyrie focuses on low weight and high aero performance, Mercedes has decided to build a car (the Project One) around their winning F1 engine. This is not the conventional approach where concepts are borrowed from F1. This engine is the same unit used in the race car: a hybrid split-turbo 1.6 V6. It will rev to only 11,000 rpm vs the race car’s 13,000 limit, but two electric motors have been added to power the front wheels for a total output in excess of 1,000 hp. Think Porsche 918 with more power, more aero grip, and less weight.

The downstream effects of these cars’ arrivals will play out over the coming years as other manufacturers design their next generation of cars with this competition in mind. I can’t wait to see what those engineers cook up.

PS. I imagine driving the Valkarie or Project One on public roads to be something similar to this.

 

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NASCAR knows best

NASCAR gets a bad rap. Is it the pinnacle of automotive technology? Hardly, but that’s besides the point. NASCAR is all about putting on a good show. There is genuine competition among the field (if you drive a Chevy, sorry Ford). 10 different drivers have won races this season. F1 and WEC have elected to focus on outright performance as opposed to viewer enjoyment and both series are dominated by single teams.

That being said, NASCAR isn’t for me. My new favorite form of 4 wheel racing is Stadium Super Trucks (SST). It’s essentially trophy trucks racing on paved road courses with jumps added to the straightaways. Off-road tires coupled with the huge suspension travel gives these cars poor on-road performance but makes things terribly entertaining. The trucks are either on three wheels in the turns, launching 20 feet in the air or crashing. This might be the best form of motor racing I’ve ever seen.

short slow mo

onboard

unconventional

If you were asked to start from scratch and design a purpose-built race car, chances are it wouldn’t be front-wheel drive or a front-engine layout. But Nissan has done just that with their front-engine front-wheel drive LMP1 GT-R LM prototype that will compete in the World Endurance Championship (and Le Mans) against Porsche, Audi and Toyota’s trio of mid-engine rear-wheel drive bias prototypes, and I’m hoping that Nissan destroys the competition.

This isn’t because I’m partial to Nissan or FWD, but because it challenges the status quo. Nissan has been on a bit of a roll with unconventional setups, first with the Delta Wing/ZEOD but that was more of a proof of concept than competitive challenger like the GT-R LM. Manufacturers understandably don’t take risks on this scale very often. It’s horrifically expensive to develop and race a competitive hybrid prototype in WEC’s LMP1 class, and Nissan’s gamble could totally backfire. Bottom line, you have to respect Nissan for the effort.

The ZEOD always reminded me of Tim Burton's batmobile

The ZEOD always reminded me of Tim Burton’s batmobile

It also doesn’t hurt that the GT-R LM looks absolutely insane. While its styling and packaging is all in the name of airflow and performance, it still ends up looking more hot rod than endurance car with the driver positioned low behind the long hood and the exhaust spouting flames in the driver’s field of view. Just completely ridiculous. FWD FTW?

because not race car

A McLaren P1 spitting fire mid-drift around the Bahrain circuit at night is mesmerizing. It borders on automotive nirvana. It’s also totally removed from reality, just as it should be. While supercars may scream to be measured objectively, it is ultimately a misguided exercise. If anything, it destroys the mystique of the car. Quantifying a car’s performance is effectively embracing its obsolescence.

I want to be there.

I want to be there.

There is this perceived correlation between performance and driving enjoyment. Newer = faster = better. It’s a form of planned obsolescence through technical advancement. Road cars are built to manufacturer’s individual objectives, not the rulebook of a race series. There is nothing stopping them from adding wider tires, more downforce, more power and more aggressive gearing. The lap times that people obsess over have no real context. Any legitimate race series takes these performance imbalances into account, separating cars into classes and further leveling the playing field by limiting power, grip and weight discrepancies.

Road cars are not race cars, even in light of how fast and powerful some have become. This relentless increase in performance neglects the fact that road cars are experienced in subjective isolation. Back roads and track events are about the driving experience, not the performance of one car/driver relative to another. Road cars should not share the same priorities as race cars.

The Nissan GTR, a turbo’d double clutch AWD sled, may keep 14 year olds up at night with its gaudy performance numbers, but I’ve never heard anyone with a driver’s license commend the car for its driver engagement. Do you think a Ferrari 250 GTO’s value is pegged to where it sits in the pecking order of Nurburgring lap times? The lasting appeal of a car is tied to everything but its outright performance.

baggage

2014 marks the Mustang’s 50th anniversary on sale. Yet few would argue that it’s been a smooth ride, and Ford’s decision to launch the new Mustang to coincide with the anniversary highlights everything that’s wrong with the brand.

Debuted in 1964, the original Mustang was a pony car, not a muscle car. Then Carroll Shelby’s GT 350 came along and redefined the Mustang brand. That’s about all the Ford wants you to remember. They would rather you ignore the fact that the third generation Mustang was on sale from 1979 to 1993 or that new sixth generation is the first to get independent rear suspension. Basically, Ford has been lazy with the Mustang, and now they want a pat on the back for dragging the brand through the mud for the better part of a half century.

Quit the charade

Quit the charade

If Ford had cared for the Mustang like Porsche has cared for the 911, which coincidentally celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, then the Mustang would be something to truly cherish. Instead, the brand feels hollow. At its inception, it may have resonated with people but now it just feels burdened with decades of neglect. The biggest hurdle facing the new Mustang is that it’s a Mustang.

Sports cars cannot rest on branding alone, especially bad branding, and the Mustang has become the poster child for rental cars, often dressed in garish colors, as opposed to the enthusiast’s choice. There’s little racing history in the Mustang’s bloodline, let alone simply being known as a competent sports car. Legitimacy breeds desirability, and the Mustang has virtually none.

Ford can make great sports cars (Ford GT), but the Mustang brand is holding them back. They won’t kill the Mustang simply because they’ve already invested so much into it. Keeping the brand alive is the safe move, and safe is rarely good for a sports car’s image.

track toys

Evo picks their favorite track toy from a list of cars that will never make it to the US…

Skip driving in traffic and just go to the track.

With such an heavy emphasis on outright performance, modern sports cars are better suited for the track than the street. They are just too fast for most public roads. So why buy a car that is compromised with the rules and regulations of the street when the only place you can really enjoy it is at the track? Go all out. Get something that doesn’t have to meet pedestrian impact rules or get 25 mpg.

Who cares about lap times?

Even at the track, comparing lap times between cars insanely pointless. Evo rightfully picked the car that was the most fun to drive, not the fastest. The notion of being fastest only applies to club or series racing. Head to head racing doesn’t happen at open track days. You’d get kicked off the track real quick for trying to out brake another driver at any DE event.