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.

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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

the bird

What’s wrong with Formula 1? Besides the fact that the playing field is painfully uneven, no one in F1 speaks their mind or displays any real emotion. Everyone tries to be as non-offensive as possible when the cameras are on them. Drivers seem about as genuine with their responses as someone on a first round job interview.

It’s so bad that Kimi Raikkonen, a mumbling Finnish driver of few words, has attained status as the most interesting driver to interview because one time admitted that he took a shit just before the race. Seriously, how depressing is that? So with that in mind, I just can’t get enough of this video of Red Bull F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo’s reaction to an audience member’s question on Top Gear.

F1 needs more of this. It needs to not only show people at their best, but also at their worst. We can tell when someone is holding back their feelings for the camera. F1 needs to focus on what draws viewers to sports in the first place. The opportunity to see people struggle, be imperfect and most importantly be unpredictable. F1 doesn’t have much unpredictability on or off the track at the moment.

don’t call it a comeback

The McLaren F1 is a hard act to follow. Designed to be the ultimate road car, it pretty much delivered on that premise. Gordon Murray, the man responsible for its development, abhorred the idea of a road car compromised for the track. The F1 was a no-expense-spared approach to a sports car built specifically for the street. Its outrageous performance (it won Le Mans outright) was a byproduct of Murray’s uncompromising approach and McLaren’s vast technical know-how.

Everything about this photo is awesome

Everything about this photo is awesome

So it was a little discouraging to learn that the P1, McLaren’s followup to the F1, was designed to be “the quickest and most rewarding series production road car on a circuit.” There is much to abhor in that awkward PR-fluffed mission statement. Throwing out the F1’s winning formula seems like a poor place to start but to repeat the F1 would be an even bigger mistake. Supercars need to point to the future. They can’t live in the past. They are about being first. The first for new design, new technology and new levels of performance. Their astronomical pricing is merely the cost of early adoption.

wild

Strangely beautiful for reasons I don’t quite understand

Love it or hate it, McLaren’s P1 has a look entirely its own. An amorphous blob of Hot Wheels styling, it’s a big middle finger to the F1’s clean and utilitarian 90’s styling. While McLaren doesn’t have the rich history with road cars of its rivals Porsche and Ferrari, the omission of F1 homage is refreshing. Heritage is a burden, just ask Porsche. Show me a car made faster by compromising for the sake of tradition.

With a power-to-weight ratio that is a terrifying 20% greater than a Bugatti Veyron, the P1 is sure to be obscenely fast, and yet all this performance stems from a hybrid drivetrain that was hardly fathomable five years ago. Is it perfect? Of course not. Conventional hybrid systems feel like a crude band-aid solution, and while some systems clearly have more potential than others, to discard them so prematurely in their development would be a mistake.

Technology doesn’t progress in some linear predictable fashion and to sit on the sidelines waiting for the perfect solution would see you waiting forever. There is always room for improvement. It is a never-ending process. In ten years, the tech in these supercars (P1, 918 and LaFerrari) will be laughable. Look at cell phones ten years ago; the Motorola RAZR was king. Even at the painfully slow pace of automotive innovation and implementation, it’s not hard to see the potential.

bare essentials

My favorite aspect of superbike design is the uncompromising emphasis on functionality. It is simply on another level compared with what we see in sports cars. Sure, a GT3 looks legit with a huge rear wing and fat chin spoiler, but the fact remains that the car’s design is largely based on aesthetic merit. Not to pick on Porsche, this is true for most brands. How many production cars look like LeMans prototypes?

Ducati 1199 Superleggera-photo-leak-04

Ducati’s 1199 Superleggera has nothing to hide

While cars are fully draped in frivolously contoured sheet metal, the motorcycle is relatively naked. There’s a minimalistic approach to the bodywork. Much of the motorcycle eschews covering, and the panels that are in place, feel almost shrink-wrapped to the underlying chassis. F1 design follows the same philosophy with body panels wrapped tight across the hard points of the car.

Contemporary car design occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. Huge sculpted sheets of metal cover the chassis, and that’s fine. The requirements of a passenger sedan simply do not align with those of a superbike. However, the fact that this philosophy hasn’t really caught on with sports car manufacturers is puzzling as there is an industrywide push for lightweight solutions. If you look beyond the mainstream brands, this approach has already driven one brand to prominence.

the body panels appear almost pull tight across the chassi

No fat on an F1 body

Looking closer to a motorcycle than a conventional car, the BAC Mono wholeheartedly embraces the minimalistic approach. The car revels in its lack of aesthetic compromise; sharing it’s mechanical guts with the outside world. Beyond the fact that it merely looks the business, by shedding unnecessary body panels (and everything else) in the name of performance, it is terrifyingly fast with a sub 1,200lb curb weight and 285hp.

Mono's lovely guts exposed

Mono’s lovely guts on display

There is so much visual drama that is missing when cars are fully clothed in metal. The exposed componentry adds to the car’s sense of purpose. The underlying engineering that goes into developing a car is nothing short of incredible. No reason to keep it hidden.

end of an era

Evo assembled an impressive collection of supercars spanning the last 25 years as a farewell to the analogue era. There are definitely some questionable entries in the group with the Murcielago SV and Noble M600 (seriously?), but Evo is British so let’s just leave it at that. The McLaren F1 or F40 may be the defining cars of the era, but I would be hard pressed to take either over the Carrera GT. A poster of the Carrera GT still hangs in my childhood bedroom.