Why race cars matter in 2017

I remember as a child being told that race cars kill and quickly developed guilt around coveting such vehicles. But even at that early age, it was never about speed. The spoilers captivated me. The engines sounded monstrous. The iconic racing livery from Porsche, Volkswagen and of course, BMW; made these cars live and breathe for me.

Closer to reality, most technologies we see on road going cars today were born on the race track. Exotic materials like aluminum and carbon fiber were tested on race cars long before they began to appear on production cars from Audi and McLaren. Carbon ceramic brakes were developed out of a need to stop increasingly faster cars and this technology has been refined to such an extent that you can spec a Golf R with such brakes without anyone batting an eyelid. Turbo charging is now seen as the default engine configuration on everything from a Rolls Royce to a Fiat 500. My point is that race car technology eventually percolates down the automotive hierarchy to people like you and me; and any car enthusiast knows this.

But as cars get faster and legislation stricter, you may ask what role do race cars play in 2017? I would argue that we can look past the raw technological developments and rather examine how they are now becoming something more than just speed machines. I would assert that they are becoming the last guardians of “real” driving pleasure through the raw connection between man and machine.

To highlight this, I am going to use Porsche and McLaren as examples.

Let’s start with the limited-edition Porsche 911 R, launched in 2016. Fans know it is essentially a road going 991.1 GT3 RS. There are no ostentatious spoilers or splitters, just a clever rear diffusor and the standard 911 speed sensitive spoiler at the rear.  The engine is straight out of the GT3 RS and the suspension is tuned for the road rather than the track. What makes this car so special is the six-speed manual gearbox that was developed specifically for this application.

Like the Cayman GT4 before it, Porsche listened to customers who lamented the demise of the manual gearbox in the sportier GT cars. Sure, a PDK dual clutch gearbox is faster than any human and it means faster track times; but not all of us want to chase each other around the Nurburgring on a weekly basis. For some, myself included, we want that slower manual shift as it allows a greater interaction with the car. It takes more time and skill to learn the rhythms of the car and ultimately, makes us feel like better drivers. People pay for this and the fact that the next GT3 and GT4 will come with this optional manual gearbox proves the market is there.

Another crucial element that is being slowly eroded through the march of technology is steering feel. Many cars now, including Porsche, have switched to electronic power steering. This has replaced the older hydraulic system as it is more efficient and reduces the load on the engine. Porsche has gradually improved the system over the current generation of cars but nothing has come close to replacing the “feel” of the hydraulic system.

To that end, McLaren of all car manufacturers has stuck with a hydraulic rack on its Sport Series cars, the most recent being the 570 Spider.  McLaren is possibly one of the most remarkable car manufactures today. I knew their first road car, the F1 had a BMW designed V12 and I followed the launch of the Mp4-12C with excitement. When the 12C launched it was proficient and fast but a little too clinical . In a handful of years, McLaren has transformed the personality of its cars and built a range to rival Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Lamborghini. They have carved out a niche for themselves capitalizing on their race bred technology while embracing that initial missing element of connection. Connection between driver and vehicle through the noise of the engine, the playfulness of the chassis and most of all steering feel. Speed is great but not when you have no idea what the front axle is doing.

I know these are expensive cars, outside the reach of most mortals, but they exist and that gives me hope. The fact we can now buy a Ford Focus ST or a BMW M2 shows that volume manufactures are listening and beginning to sell cars to the enthusiasts. Even Peugeot has found its mojo again with its current GTI range.

This is why race cars matter today. They keep the art of driving alive while simultaneously pushing the boundaries. They inspire us and car manufacturers to keep building cars for the enthusiast, as well as the mass market. People fear driving will become a lost art, but I believe as long as we have race cars, this will never happen.

 

Porsche images from press.porsche.com

McLaren image from car magazine.co.uk