Musings on the Motoring World

The fascinating Porsche 919 Street concept and the futile dream of road racers

A few months ago, Toyota created a stir at the 24 Hours of Le Mans start by “returning” the trophy in a development prototype of its GR Super Sport LM-Hypercar class contender. Toyota’s publicity stunt was proof that the dream of track-related road cars was a step closer to reality. Though as it turns out, Porsche was mulling the idea back in 2017 with the Porsche 919 Street concept.

Porsche’s hidden treasures

Detailed in Porsche’s new book, Porsche Unseen, the 919 Street is one of many never-before-seen concepts built by its design studio. The book is full of other amazing concepts that you’d never thought the traditionally uptight Germans were capable of. But hey, with enough schnapps, anything is possible.

Also featured in Porsche Unseen are a 918-based mid-engine sedan, a futuristic reinterpretation of the 904 based on the Volkswagen XL1, and an electric six-seater van with a central driver’s seat. By comparison, the Porsche 919 Street concept seems to be the most pedestrian of creations.

Though only existing as a 1:1 scale clay model, the 919 Street was merely a civilised version of the Le Mans conquering 919 Hybrid LMP1 racers. According to Porsche, its designers envisioned the 919 Street to feature the race car’s 662kW V4 hybrid powertrain. In addition to that, it would sport the 919 Hybrid’s carbon monocoque construction and be similar in size and wheelbase. In other words, the very Le Mans race car, sans the livery and wings.

Without the racing stripes obscuring its naked form, the Porsche 919 Street concept looks breath-taking. Commentators, obviously swooning over the big reveal, are clamouring for Porsche to build it. Though, I’m not so sure it is a good idea. To address my point, let us remember that this year marks the Porsche Carrera GT concept’s 20th anniversary.

The greatest race engine to have never raced

Now, what has the Carrera GT have to do with the 919 Street concept you might ask? Well, the Carrera GT was Porsche’s last car that was more race car in execution than mere pedigree. This was thanks to the Carrera GT’s headlining feature, its 5.7-litre V10 engine, the very reason for its inception.

Unlike many homologated race cars for the road, the Carrera GT’s sports the greatest motorsports-derived engine to have never raced. Originally developed for the 1992 Formula One season, the V10 engine was supposed to replace the woefully overweight and oversized Porsche V12 engine of the 1991 season.

Sadly, the Footwork Arrows team reneged on its four-year deal with Porsche after just six races. In effect, stymying the 3.5-litre V10 engine’s chances of seeing action on the track.

A second chance came in 1998 with the development of a new Le Mans prototype racer for the 2000 season. Porsche’s engineers redesigned the Formula One engine, turning it into a 5.5-litre V10 monster. However, at the last minute, the project was canned to divert more resource to the Cayenne SUV project.

Not wanting to waste a good engine, Porsche strapped it to the back of the 2000 Carrera GT concept, and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, one part of it at least. As it turns out, the rest of the production car was very racy as well.

The last road racer

The Carrera GT became the first production Porsche to be made entirely out of carbon fibre. Its Porsche Ceramic Composite Clutch was incredibly light and incredibly sensitive. And so too was its handling.

Contemporary reviews described the Carrera GT as visceral at its best and contemptuously edgy at its worst. Walter Rohrl even forced Porsche to install an electronic traction control system after one hairy development drive in the wet.

Contrary to the “GT” suffix to the name, the Carrera GT was no relaxed tourer. It was a full-on road racer that demanded commitment.

The Carrera GT’s successor, the 918 Spyder also featured an engine derived from a race car. Its 4.6-litre V8 comes from the 3.4-litre V8 used in the RS Spyder LMP2 car. However, the similarities end there.

With its four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer, and hybrid system, the 918 was less motorsports-inspired and more of an engineering-showcase in its ethos. It was nothing like the Carrera GT, nothing like what the Porsche 919 Street concept might have been.

Competition focused, practically compromised

Ever since the Ferrari F50, it is not uncommon to see other manufacturers using the “race car built for the road” motto. But very few ever come close in its execution and philosophy. Even if one falls close to the mark, it won’t make for a usable road car.

By usable road car, I don’t mean one to take the kids to school or the shopping home. I mean one that won’t result in a 300km/h shunt on the motorway because you sneezed.

There may be a whole myriad of electronic traction and stability controls to prevent such ineptitude. But nowadays the problem isn’t having ambitious power ahead of adhesion. Instead, it has to do with the mysterious art of aerodynamics.

As discussed before, aerodynamics is playing a larger role in the design of today’s performance flagships. As lap times becoming a more attractive achievement than how many ponies it can unleash, the dark art of bending the wind has taken centre stage. Case in point, the Aston Martin Valkyrie.

Bending logic

Developed by air bending maestro Adrian Newey, the Valkyrie is possibly the closest road car to a modern Formula One car. Not so much in its engine, but its overall engineering. And Newey’s fingerprints are clear to see in the Valkyrie’s wind-defying insectoid body. It looks amazing, but it also looks like a pain to get inside.

It is no secret that Newey designed the occupant cell to be compact as possible to allow for more of its body to do its work. As a result, it is a very snug place to be even for a lone driver. It is also the same case with Toyota’s GR Super Sport LMP1-based road car.

LMP1 cars are deceptively small. Because of its closed cockpit, we assume that it has ample space for two like a regular car. Though that isn’t the case.

Regulations stipulate that the cars must be big enough to accommodate two seats side-by-side. However, the ruling does omit “shoulder supports and mandatory protections” from being counted in the centreline. Thanks to this clause, many LMP1 cars are built with a “close to centre” seating position.

It isn’t just the cockpit that is a cosier fit than the Vietcong tunnels. The powertrain is incredibly compact to allow for more aerodynamic wings and panels.

While aerodynamics has improved performance immensely, it does not guarantee that the car you will be driving is safer. Safer at high speeds yes, but not quite at low speeds. Nowhere is the contrarian nature of aerodynamic more evident than in driving a Formula One car.

Avoiding the Faustian bargain

To create downforce, you need speed to push the required volume of air through or over the wings and panels. Not enough speed and you effectively don’t have traction. So, to drive safe you must drive fast.  

This is where Gordon Murray got it spot-on with his GMA T.50. Like the McLaren F1, he didn’t set out to create a race car for the road. He set out to create a road car for the road with what he knew from racing.

Gordon Murray Automotive T.50 main

Though the T.50 features Murray’s Formula One “fan car” concept, he didn’t compromise in fitting a tiny passenger compartment over a giant catamaran of diffusers.

Unlike the Valkyrie, the T.50 has a generous three-seater cockpit and usable compartments for luggage. Thanks to the fan, the T.50 can manipulate its airflow to improve downforce at all speeds without using giant wings.

The purity of vision in Murray’s T.50 demonstrates how far removed racing cars have become from its road-going counterparts.

That is not to say that racing is completely irrelevant due to the role aerodynamics play nowadays.

Road cars can adopt lessons from race cars with astounding effect if done correctly. As the Carrera GT had demonstrated, directly translating today’s racing cars over to the road is tricky to execute. A wolf and a domesticated dog are closely related, but one is still going to tear your throat out. Luckily, Porsche was smart enough to understand that with the Porsche 919 Street concept.