MONTEREY, CALIF.—No enthusiast with a pulse would turn down a ride in Porsche’s new supercar, the hybrid-powered, 887-horsepower 918 Spyder, let alone an offer to drive it around one of the world’s most exhilarating race tracks. Even for only a couple of laps. Darn right: absolutely irresistible, no matter how early or how long the flight.
That short drive would come as the highlight and climax of a program centred on Porsche’s newest mid-engine sports cars, the 2015 Boxster and Cayman GTS.
At Laguna Seca, Porsche reminds us it has been creating exceptional mid-engine cars for more than half a century, including some of the most dominant racers of all time. Approaching the garage area, we see the numerically perfect alignment of an immaculate 917 racer from the late ’60s, a 918 Spyder and one of the 919 Hybrid prototypes that almost snatched victory in its debut run at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
According to endurance-racing great Hurley Haywood, the owner of that recently restored 917K (for Kurzheck or short-tail), has already turned down a $30-million (U.S.) offer for his car, done in Gulf/Wyer blue livery and complete with a historically accurate lacquered hardwood shift knob. Porsche took the first two of its record 18 overall wins at Le Mans with the 917 in 1970.
Parked quietly in the cool shade of the open garage were an ivory white 914/6-GT factory racer and a silver 550 RSK roadster. These successful racers, in pristine shape, are from comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s extensive collection. Both attest Porsche’s long-standing mastery of small, light, mid-engine sports cars, a fact most often overshadowed by the cult-like following and immense popularity of Zuffenhausen’s mainstay, the rear-engine 911 series.
The new mid-engine 918 Spyder soars atop Porsche’s production lineup, much like the spectacular 959 of the late ’80s, with its twin sequential turbochargers, pioneering all-wheel drive system and 315 km/h top autobahn speed. A technological showcase as much as a pavement-scorching supercar.
In typical fashion, Porsche engineers picked choice elements from the racing department while designing the 918. Most tellingly, the naturally aspirated 4.6-litre V8 that is the thermal heart of its hybrid powertrain, an engine that powered the RS Spyder prototype to triple ALMS championships in LMP2, two class wins at Le Mans and overall victory at the 2008 edition of the 12 Hours of Sebring classic.
Barely tamed, this direct-injection, dry sump-lubricated V8 develops 608 hp at 8,700 rpm and 398 lb.-ft. of torque at 6,700 rpm, with a stratospheric 9,150 rpm rev limit. And yet, Porsche claims an amazing maximum torque figure of 944 lb.-ft. for the 918 Spyder, as calculated on the crankshaft, in the 7th and top gear of its double-automated-clutch PDK gearbox. This, of course, is the combined effect of the car’s instant-torque, 155-hp electric motor at the rear axle and of the 129-hp motor that drives its front wheels individually, providing finely modulated all-wheel drive. A technology developed and proven in racing, this time with the 911 GT3 R Hybrid.
The 918 Spyder is also a plug-in hybrid that can deliver up to 30 kilometres, accelerate to 100 km/h in 6.2 seconds or reach 150 km/h with electric power only. Take your pick. A full charge of the liquid-cooled, 6.8 kWh lithium-ion battery takes less than seven hours with a regular 110-volt socket and about 2.5 hours with a 220 or 240-volt outlet. The penalty is a curb weight of 1,675 kg in spite of a carbon-fibre monocoque body.
On full power, Porsche says the 918 Spyder can reach 100 km/h in 2.5 seconds, 200 km/h in 7.3 seconds and 300 km/h in 20.9 seconds while the quarter-mile mark flashes by in 10 seconds, at 233 km/h. Go for the Weissach Package that reduces weight by 41 kg and you take a tenth of a second off these figures, a full second to 300 km/h. The price, on the other hand, goes from $845,000 U.S. to $ 929,000 U.S.
Mid-afternoon, Hurley Haywood is out on the track to properly warm up the first car. The second 918 Spyder is driven by pro racer David Donohue, son of racing legend Mark Donohue who won races and set records in Porsche’s stupefying, all-conquering 917/30 Can-Am car. The most powerful road racer of all time.
Soon, both are back on pit lane and it’s our turn. We drive solo, chasing a 560-hp, all-wheel drive 911 Turbo driven by Haywood or Donohue around the 1.9-mile, eleven-turn circuit that features the infamous Corkscrew, a steep, left-right combination with a reputed three-story drop. I’ll be driving the dark grey 918 behind Haywood.
Getting in requires racking the manually adjusted seat all the way back. By contrast with the Boxster and Cayman driven earlier, the 918’s racing genes are instantly obvious. The cabin is tight, the seat deep, the driving position just right, even with a wheel adjustable only in reach.
At the word go, I flip the tiny shift lever to D. Nothing happens. Restarting a 918 Spyder is just like rebooting your computer. At the second try I am off with the tiny selector knob on the wheel on the E-power setting, one of four.
The electric motors whistle and whir for a few seconds as I quickly catch up. Suddenly, battery power depleted, the gas engine starts with a deliciously raucous bark, the sound so present thanks to the 918’s huge exhaust tips mounted atop the rear deck — an industry first that helps keep the engine bay and lithium-ion battery cooler.
With corner 3 in sight, I skip Hybrid and twist the knob to Sport to keep the V8 running constantly. The Spyder is perfectly flat, solid and unfettered through the fast, flat corner 4. On exit, I gun it and the 918 simply vaults forward, warp-style, toward the 911 Turbo’s bumper. The thrust is amazing, as from a pair of giant, lag-free turbos. The carbon-ceramic brakes work just fine, too.
A few corners later, I switch to Race mode and the 918 perks up again, V8 and electric motors on full output, the PDK gearbox even snappier. The 918 is all muscle and nerve, unflappable behind that 911 Turbo S. I forget about the red Hot Lap button at the centre of the mode selector that gives maximum drive. The 918 would just climb over the Turbo.
Moments later, the lead car’s left-turn signal flashes as it comes out of the slightly banked corner 10. The Turbo glides onto the pit access road. The 918 slips over, entirely unruffled. The brief, blissful drive is over. What I wouldn’t give for an open track and 10 more minutes at the wheel.
Marc Lachapelle Special to the Star