What's It Like To Drive The World's Most Exotic Hybrid Sports Car?
As with Tiktaalik, the innovation in the Porsche hybrid is happening up front. In the GT3 R Hybrid, two electric motors are linked to the front wheels, adding 160 horsepower to the standard GT3 R's 480-horsepower internal combustion engine. Under braking, these motors spin to generate electricity, which is used to accelerate a flywheel spinning in a vacuum (see diagram below). Without the drag of air molecules to slow it down, this flywheel can spin for long periods at 40,000 rpm, allowing it to act as a lightweight "battery", an energy reservoir. When the GT3 R Hybrid driver wants a six-second burst of acceleration, the flywheel spins down to zero, generating electricity which is fed through the motors to the front tires. (For more technical information on the Porsche hybrid system, see this Autoblog feature). With the debut of this efficient and effective technology platform, the hybrid 911 may be the automotive wrist-walker we've been waiting for, the car our children's children will look back upon and say "the revolution started here".
We recently spoke with Jörg Bergmeister, the man behind the wheel of the 911 GT3 R Hybrid at the Nürburgring 24. Bergmeister is a thoughtful and exceptionally talented driver, and responsible for some of the most intense racing moments to come out of the American Le Mans Series in recent years.
TRANSLOGIC: You're a member of the development team for the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid. What's that process like?
Bergmeister: The very first test I did was at the end of December, 2009, but that was just a basic rollout to just see if stuff works. I first drove the car in February, 2010. I think we started with 20 kilowatts on each wheel, so power was at a fairly low level. We went step-by-step up on the power and the engineers kept improving the system. As a driver, it was really interesting to start with a brand new system, with no prior experience. Everything that was done was started from scratch, and it's fun for a driver to have a lot of involvement, because you can see the steps and also the influence you've had as a driver.
TRANSLOGIC: How exactly do you control the hybrid system? How much of it is manual and how much is automatic?
Bergmeister: The recharging of the system is done automatically. We have five different settings on the steering wheel. We can choose how much power the system generates during braking, but the engineers tell us which settings we should run and what we should do there. In general, the system is pretty much automated, especially the recharging. And for the driver, we have the possibility to use a boost whenever we like, when the system is charged.
TRANSLOGIC: How do you engage the boost?
Bergmeister: There's a little hand lever behind the steering wheel, just like a shift paddle pretty much, and we use that. At the beginning, it was a little button on the steering wheel, but the drivers thought that was pretty hard to reach, so we figured something like the shift paddle works best. That's what we use to accelerate.
TRANSLOGIC: How can you tell if the hybrid system is working?
Bergmeister: You can feel it right away when you use the boost! You have an extra 160 horsepower that goes to the front wheels, and that makes quite a big difference, not just in the handling of the car, but also in acceleration!
TRANSLOGIC: What's it like having a flywheel spinning at 40,000 rpm next to you? What does it sound like?
Bergmeister: Talking about the 40,000 rpm, Porsche did a crash test and everything to make sure that the system is safe. But I've never really had any doubts that there are any problems or that it would be dangerous. While driving you don't really feel anything. Sometimes on the braking, when it's about to be completely charged, you can hear it a little bit, but it's nothing really loud or anything. And the regular engine and the gearbox are pretty noisy! So you don't really hear anything from the flywheel. When the flywheel is starting, it sounds like an electric engine. I can make the sound: it's like RRRWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOO! Just a kind of a spinning sound, but nothing disturbing or anything.
TRANSLOGIC: The sound of a 911 motor is a fundamental part of the Porsche driving aesthetic. Is this the beginning of a new era?
Bergmeister: No, I don't think the hybrid system really has an influence on the engine sound. The internal combustion motor will rev up a little quicker when you boost, but the actual sound in the car is the same. Just hearing the car drive by, it sounds exactly the same as a normal GT3 R, so there's no change. I think that's a big part of Porsche, the sound of the engine.
TRANSLOGIC: Have you had to change your driving style with this version of the 911?
Bergmeister: A little bit, but it's not really a whole different animal. The more tools you have as a driver -- and if you can use those to the maximum -- the better. It takes a little while to know how exactly the car handles in situations when you use the boost, but that only takes a couple of lessons. It's really a lot of fun! For the weight distribution, the car is about 125 kilos (275 pounds) heavier than the normal GT3 R, and most of that weight was put to the front, so the weight distribution is obviously pretty good. When you use the boost, you just have to think of how a four-wheel-drive car reacts when you drive it. So usually, especially in the rain, it's very noticeable. When you have oversteer and feel the traction control, you can use the boost and it really stabilizes the car and pulls the car straight. It's pretty impressive.
TRANSLOGIC: So if you feel the rear of the car coming around, you can send boost to the front wheels and it pulls you through?
Bergmeister: Yes. That's the idea, to a certain extent. I mean, you can still spin out, but it's definitely a tool that you can also use just for the handling of the car. That being said, Porsche also put a lot of work into the details. When we pull the shift paddle, it doesn't just automatically put full power to the front wheels. The power output is also influenced by how much input there is in the steering wheel, and what the throttle position is like. So it's very easy to modulate, which makes it a lot of fun!
TRANSLOGIC: What's the overall boost in efficiency?
Bergmeister: The only other car at the Nürburgring that had a 120-liter (31.7 gallons) tank like us was an Audi R8, and we could do two laps more than they did. That's quite a bit.
TRANSLOGIC: And what's the performance benefit?
Bergmeister: The goal was never really to have a performance benefit. The goal was always to have an efficiency benefit, and to do more laps than anybody else by having about the same performance as a non-hybrid GT3 R. I think we might have been just a little bit slower than the quickest car in the Nürburgring race, but compared to them we were able to run ten laps per tank of fuel and they only did eight.
TRANSLOGIC: So when you think about this hybrid 911, are there any races where the system would not be helpful?
Bergmeister: Maybe in a sprint race it wouldn't be such a big advantage, but even there, passing other cars, it's a really great tool. You use the boost to get by another competitor. Definitely, the longer the race is, the more the efficiency helps you and I think that is the key.
TRANSLOGIC: Porsche has a history of racing four-wheel drive 911's. Could you imagine this system doing the Dakar, like the 959 did, or climbing Pikes Peak?
Bergmeister: I'd say definitely the system is just at the beginning. There's a lot of potential for more development. With the two electric engines in the front, you can play around, use all the stored energy as a front differential, and tools like that. So there's so much more to work on and to develop. There's more to come, I hope!
TRANSLOGIC: Can you imagine ever racing an all-electric car?
Bergmeister: Well, I like the sound of an internal combustion engine! Probably there will be a time that that will happen, but if that's really the solution, I'm not sure. Looking at the past, seeing how the internal combustion engines develop through time and how much more efficient they get, I think there's more to come in that area. Internal combustion engines will be around for quite a while longer, I hope. To me, a racecar needs to have a good sound as well!
TRANSLOGIC: Given global warming and issues of environmental degradation around the planet, where do you think racing needs to go over the next two decades?
Bergmeister: That's a tough one. Looking at what the American Le Mans Series is doing already, they are the leader in green racing worldwide, and have the Michelin GREEN X Challenge. It's a good championship. Manufacturers are really looking closely at it, and trying to make engines even more efficient, because fuel mileage also plays a big part in our races in the ALMS. It's a virtuous circle: The better the efficiency you have in the race car, the better for the environment, the better the performance. If you can use less fuel and still get the same performance, you have to carry less weight in the car, so therefore you have to do less pit stops. So I think you're going to see more performance through efficiency in the next years.
TRANSLOGIC: That's a great summary of philosophy behind the GT3 R Hybrid.
Bergmeister: Efficiency is everything. Racing is about efficiency, not just performance. It's a combination of performance and having the right efficiency, especially in sports car racing, in the long-distance races, that's the key.
TRANSLOGIC: How might this hybrid powertrain system translate to future street Porsches like the 918 Spyder? How do you think it will change the Porsche driving experience?
Bergmeister: It would still be a Porsche, for sure. When talking about a hybrid, you kind of think of a car like a Prius or something like that, but when I first got in the 911 Hybrid, I only thought, "Whoa, that's so much fun!" and that it was still a Porsche. So I don't think there will be any changes on the fun part of driving a Porsche.
TRANSLOGIC: What is your daily driver, given that you're a family man?
Bergmeister: A 911 Carrera S. My wife loves the car as well, but sometimes she probably would rather have a Cayenne or something similar! But I wouldn't have as much fun as with a 911, so...
TRANSLOGIC: And if you could have a dream garage, what would be in your stable?
Bergmeister: Oh, there's so many nice cars! Let's start with the Porsche Carrera GT. That's one of them for sure. I drove a 914-6 racecar recently and that was a lot of fun, so that would be nice. One of my dad's first racecars was an NSU TT in Jägermeister colors. Audi just rebuilt it for their museum -- it's a pretty famous car, and there's a lot of models of it. That would be a cool car to have, as well.
TRANSLOGIC: Cars and their history obviously mean a lot to you. What's a favorite car related memory from your childhood?
Bergmeister: Probably when my brother and I got our first go-kart for Christmas when my brother was three and I was two, or just about to turn three. My grandfather gave me an ignition cable and he pulled the manual starter off the engine, and I got an electric shock! That was my first involvement with racing. And then my brother and I both started go-karting -- it still sticks in my memory!
TRANSLOGIC: With your busy racing schedule, how do you stay inspired?
Bergmeister: Racing is the one thing I love -- well, not the only thing, but I've done it my entire life and it has been my hobby and I made it my profession. I'm very fortunate to make my hobby my profession. I think that's enough inspiration. I just love, love racing.
TRANSLOGIC: The 24 hours of Le Mans, 24 hours of Daytona, multiple championships across many racing series... you've won at many of the venues that made Porsche the aspirational brand it is today. What does Porsche represent for you?
Bergmeister: Porsche, for me it was a dream when I became a factory driver, a dream come true. I'm from Germany, and Porsche has such a long history in racing and they've been so successful in everything they did in racing. So being involved with them and being able to work with them is just amazing and it's a lot of fun. I hope there's more years to come and hopefully more success to come.
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