We're in the final hours of the six-hour ALMS race here at Laguna Seca, and while the real battle is playing out between Mazda and Aston Martin in LMP1 and BMW and Corvette in the GT class, we're here to catch the west coast debut of the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid.
After its first North American appearance at Road Atlanta last October and its impressive 22+ hour run at the Nurbürgring 24 race earlier this year, the Hybrid and its crew packed up and headed west for this second to last race of the season. While the Hybrid isn't a contender – it's running in an exhibition class of one since the tech isn't approved in the GT regulations – it continues to be a rolling and racing test-bed for Porsche's high-performance hybrid technology. And it's doing well.
So what's next for the tech? LeMans, of course.
UPDATE: The 911 GT3 R Hybrid outran the entire GT class by the end of the race, thanks partially to some blisteringly quick lap times, but primarily because the team only required three fuel stops compared to the rest of the field's five.
Related GalleryPorsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid at Laguna Seca
The orange, white and silver 911 running around the track is version 2.0. Weight is down, efficiency is up and in true Porsche fashion, its time on the circuit has been largely drama-free.
This second iteration made its debut at N24, with the hybrid system losing over 100 pounds thanks to a combination of parts consolidation and improved internals. Last year's Hybrid had a separate cooling system, oil pump, oil cooler and intakes to keep the system in check, but for 2011, everything is now integrated into the standard 911 GT3 R chassis. That means nearly all of the components found in the racer Porsche offers to privateers can be used for the Hybrid. Not only that, but the two 75 kW motors mounted up front and powering the front wheels are largely off-the-shelf Carrera 4S bits, with one engineer confiding in us that if something goes pear-shaped during the race, they could mend the Hybrid by pulling bits off the 911 Turbo parked in front of the Motorsport trailer.
Aside from the weight reduction (2,866 pounds for 2011 versus 2,976 in 2010), including the use of a magnesium roof in place of the steel panel and a fully integrated carbon fiber monocoque that now houses the electric flywheel accumulator, the delivery of the electric go-juice has been tweaked.
Last year's car required drivers to press a steering wheel-mounted button to deliver the electrified boost to the front wheels. After crunching the numbers, Porsche realized there was too much discrepancy in power delivery from driver to driver (as much as 25 percent), so this new system handles everything automatically.
Different maps are developed for each track based on everything from ambient temperature to whether the yellow flag is out, allowing Porsche to either maximize performance or fuel economy. The drivers seem to like the new system, but a manual override is still available, allowing them to get an eight-second, 200-hp boost when the need arises. Even better, now the system can be fully charged in less than two corners worth of hard braking and the Hybrid can run on electric power alone for one mile – slowly.
"The largest advantage to this new system is the number of parameters we can modify," Dieter Steinhauser, Porsche's head of motorsports R&D told us, "but the disadvantage is the number of parameters we can modify."
Obviously, this option overload is like oxygen to the engineers. And even though development of the 40,000 rpm electric flywheel was partially developed by Williams and the electric motors were co-developed with a Swiss firm, Porsche has been fully in charge of the program and its development. "We wanted to know how everything works and works together," Steinhauser was quick to point out. And that's going to be important in a few year's time.
The ACO – the governing body of LeMans – is in the early stages of outlining the regulations for the 2014 LeMans season. Among the variety of initiatives on the table, the major thrust is on energy regulation. The ACO wants to reduce fuel consumption by a significant margin in 2014 and then continue to reduce it each successive year. But that's the obvious tact. Less obvious is the ACO's desire to reduce overall energy consumption within the race car, which means systems similar to Porsche's hybrid setup are likely to be in the cards.
According to representatives from Porsche Motorsport, the automaker is deeply involved in the discussions with the ACO and the body is "very open-minded" when it comes to implementing new powertrain rules. Further, the ACO is ready to move on from diesel as the dominant fuel at LeMans and that means at least three or four new and different technologies will be allowed in 2014.
But what kind of technologies? We'll be seeing soon enough. And on the world's largest racing stage. Porsche plans to compete in the top-tier LMP1 class in 2014, and this newest effort – Porsche's first factory-backed team since LeMans in 1998 – is going to push the game forward by leaps and bounds.
"We are in a very creative time at Porsche Motorsport," Steinhauser proudly admits, and the fruits of that creativity should make for an excellent race three years from now.