In about three weeks I’ll be releasing one of those end-of-year video tests in which many tyres are sent to a smokey death. It was enormous fun making the film, and a chance to revisit some of the best cars of 2014.
One of these was the Porsche 918.
I first drove the German mega-car at the end of November last year and was suitably awe-struck by the way it fashioned something approaching a conventional driving experience from what must be the most complicated underpinnings ever used on a fast car.
To remind you: that’s a mid-engined V8 with no ancillary take-offs powering the rear wheels, and two electric motors at the front axle.
And I stress the word ‘approaching’ here. As I said in the words I wrote and the video we produced at the time, the 918 still had something quite alien about it, in that the direct connection between driver and chassis was always being interrupted by an enormous brain attempting to interpret the best compromise between what the driver wanted to happen, what the car felt was possible, and what the car felt would avoid its own destruction.
‘Hmmmm, I remember thinking. If they want lots of sliding in this video, I will probably have to earn my money today…’
The result was that unlike the P1 and the LaFerrari, the 918 was not a car into which you climbed and casually disengaged the traction and stability systems and allowed to move around at very high speed. In that respect it reminded me of the first Skyline GT-R I drove in my youth – the thing was incredible, but the clever HICAS centre-differential had an occasional, and terrifying, propensity to throw torque at the axle the driver didn’t really want torque thrown at. So you always felt a little unnerved that big-brother had his own ideas.
The same went for the 918. I’ve already mentioned how tricky the 918 was at that event in Valencia. My slot was a few weeks after the UK bunch and having heard how many very respected pilots had spun the thing without much provocation, I took the precaution of telling the Porsche minder who had clearly been told to watch out for another British spin-meister that I was just popping off to do a lap to get some temperature into the car. Before he could reply ‘It’s already fully up-to-temperature’, I was solo scouting for a nice open second gear turn with ample run-off, to see just ho spiteful the 918 really was.
I found a sneaky turn out of sight of everyone, pressed the nanny ‘off’ button and did my usual exploratory slide exercise, not too much speed, a reasonable chunk of throttle and before I knew quite what was happening, I was facing the wrong way.
‘Hmmmm,’ I remember thinking. ‘If they want lots of sliding in this video, I will probably have to earn my money today.’ And I did. We got the job done, and I took the view that the car was so impressive with the systems left on that it seemed churlish and irrelevant to complain about that happened when you tried to provoke it.
I recalled this feeling as I sat in the 918 a few weeks before this past Christmas. We’d been sliding all manner of potentially tricky machines at high speed for days, but the moment I sat in the Porsche I was reminded of that day in Spain twelve months earlier.
So I switched off the systems and had a slight prod and, well, the 918 arced into a neat, controllable slide. As in much more controllable than it had been the year before. The car just felt different – much less keen to rotate and less spiteful. It felt different.
I think this is going to become a real issue with cars as they become both more complicated and more dependent on the infinitesimal tuning of the electronics that govern what goes where and when. I chatted to the bloke responsible for tuning the chassis systems on the 918, and asked him how long it had taken compared to a normal Porsche. He just winced and said ‘Five times as long.’ And it was quite clear as we chatted that the most difficult thing for him was the fact that the process was really never over. You just had to be disciplined and say enough-is-enough and then stop work. Otherwise you’d be there for ten more years chamfering some widget and playing with some tiny degree of torque transfer. The potential number of permutations isn’t infinite, but it might as well be.
So how much has the 918 changed in that year? It’s less tricky at the limit and less reliant on its systems to keep it from inducing scary moments. The transition from understeer to oversteer is less severe and, most crucially, it now feels like a car you can jump in and grab by the scruff without fear of having a whoopsie.
There are a couple of provisos though – the 918 still isn’t a playful any-gear slide machine like a P1 or LaF. I grew cocky during the course of the day and it taught me a reasonable lesson at a not inconsiderable speed. And part of this is because the 918 is just so damn efficient at fashioning power into forward motion that even when it’s sliding, the thing is still building speed at an alarming rate.
The upside to this complication is of course the easy upgradability of all these changes when you are trading in software rather than hardware. Back in the day, if you ordered a car early in its model life it was quite likely that it would miss out on all manner of mechanical improvements as the manufacturer fitted better components during the lifecycle. But to upgrade last year’s 918 to this years is simply case of plugging in a lap-top. Or at the very worst, tweaking the suspension alignment.
What a car the 918 has turned out to be. I foolishly suggested to Dr Hatz, boss of Porsche’s R&D department, that he’d never sell 918 units of such a car. Well, they just sold out. And I can see why.