Why Porsche is trading WEC for Formula E

Why Porsche is trading WEC for Formula E
 

There’s a good reason Porsche is trading its endurance-racing dominance for the brave new world of Formula E, writes Thomas Falkiner

It is happening again. Déjà vu. A carbon copy of this time two years ago. It’s the beginning of the year’s final World Endurance Championship race, the 6-Hours of Bahrain, and I’m standing on the balcony of the Porsche VIP Paddock, shoulder to shoulder with everyone from Magnus Walker to Mark Webber and Hans Stuck — not to mention a few sheiks who, even on a bad day, probably pack more dollars than South Africa does in a good year.

The Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up is belting through the track’s PA system as the grid rounds the last corner and then crescendos down the close-on-1km main straight: a manoeuvre they’ll repeat for the next 360 minutes.

Two years ago the start of this race was charged with excitement but today it’s laced with deep melancholy, as it happens to be the swan song for the Porsche LMP1 team. Yep, when that old chequered flag unfurls, their pit lane garage doors will slam shut forever.

Silent treatment

Now, I don’t mean to come across all melodramatic here but this sadness is well founded. You see, when Porsche returned to the World Endurance Championship in 2014 after a 16-year absence, it did so at a time when Audi was ruling the roost with no real competition.

Peugeot had long departed and Toyota was still busy finding its feet. So it was really cool to have another manufacturer in the mix to spice things up and hopefully steal the champagne bottle away from Audi’s smug clutches.

At the time that was a big ask but in 2015 — only its second season — Porsche clinched the world championship. It repeated this in 2016 and again in 2017. In this time it also racked up a hat-trick of victories at the 24-Hours of Le Mans, adding to its already enviable tally and making it the winningest marque in the race’s 85-year running.

Then, a few months ago, just like Audi did in 2016, Porsche announced that it would be leaving: swapping the World Endurance Championship for the silent realm of Formula-E. The end of an era starts today.

However, the legacy of this four-year foray lives on in the products Porsche is offering. The knowledge accrued in the building and racing of the 919 Hybrid has percolated down to the cars you can spend your pay cheque on.

The Boxster and Cayman 718, for example, have adopted the same engine downsizing approach utilised in said racecar: smaller motors making greater power and torque — at the same time using less fuel and producing less CO.

Porsche also learnt a great deal more about the turbocharger and how to make this technology better, more usable and vastly more reliable. This is why it has blown all 991 models save the GT3 and moulded the 911 Turbo into one of the most potent streetcars on offer today.

Finally, you can factor in the marque’s advancements in the field of hybridization: harvesting waste energy developed under braking and storing it inside a battery to power an electric motor. This gives a healthy boost not just in power but also overall fuel economy too — something you can sample in the Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid.

The future’s calling

Back to the matter at hand, though: why the sudden jump to Formula E, the controversial F1-aping series in which futuristic single-seaters tear through city streets powered by nothing but cells and joules? Well, the answer is obvious. Our world has become obsessed with electric vehicles.

Many people believe they are the answer to all our transport troubles: pollution, emissions and sustainability. And even if they don’t, the doubters will at least admit that electrification, on some level, is essential to stay relevant within the industry.

Which is why every automotive manufacturer worth its salt is scrambling to develop some kind of electric offering to compete within a particular segment of the market. Porsche knows this all too well. And consequently it will be launching its “Mission E” at the end of 2019: a four-door sports car sitting between the 911 and Panamera that hopes to cannibalise sales from the Tesla Model S.

Details remain sketchy but the initial concept sported a 447kW motor, all-wheel drive plus a 0-100km/h time of 3.5-seconds. Top speed would be limited to 250km/h while the operational range, on a full charge, would be in excess of 480km. Those are some impressive figures.

The Mission E, like the original Tesla Roadster of 2008, is just the beginning. Only an idiot would bet against Porsche building other electric vehicles in years to come. Especially since Elon Musk just laid down the gauntlet with a re-imagined version of that Roadster.

And to better compete with Tesla et al, what better place to experiment and prove new ideas and forge new technologies than the racetrack? Especially one on which electric propulsion and energy storage rule the day.

So even though I’ll miss the sight and, more importantly, the sound of the 919 Hybrid in the World Endurance Championship, I understand the Stuttgart marque’s motive to retire it and move on. The future is calling and Porsche — like Mercedes and BMW — needs to answer. – Thomas Falkiner