► Can a sports EV stir the soul?
► Will electric racing ever be thrilling to watch?
► Much is resting on Porsche’s Mission R battery-electric racer.…
Half a dozen engineers stand there, arms crossed, as the car rolls up to the charger. The 405 freeway rushes by in the background, maybe 100 metres away, six lanes in each direction. Half a mile in the distance, the 110 freeway does the same thing. The racket of combustion-engined traffic is cacophonous – so loud it can be heard inside a helmet, with earplugs, over the soft hum of the electric Porsche at ‘idle’.
The Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles sits at the intersection of two of the busiest freeways in Southern California. The device we’re here to test is neither a racing car nor an actual production prototype, though it does a bit of each job. Porsche says its Mission R is worth nearly €10 million, and that the car’s two electric motors can produce a combined 1073bhp for short periods of time in ‘qualifying’ mode (Porsche promises 0-62mph in just 2.5sec – eek).
The vehicle itself is the same basic shape as the current 718 Cayman but around 60mm shorter in length, 100mm wider and 100mm lower. It looks as if a Cayman and a Taycan had a baby and then someone chose to sit on the head of that baby, squishing it, though not unattractively. ‘It’s a study,’ Marc Lieb tells me, watching the Mission R take a charge. Lieb has won Le Mans four times as a driver – one of those overall in Porsche’s 919 Hybrid – and is now working PR for Porsche AG. ‘But as always with Porsche, when it’s a study, there are some new and very good ideas behind it.
Electrically powered road racing is nothing new. Formula E has been part of the global motorsport circus since 2014; most manufacturers have experimented with EV and hybrid racing cars for decades. The Mission R, however, is a watershed – the first fully electric racing prototype Porsche has shared with the world. It wears Michelin slicks and suspension components borrowed from the 911 RSR.
The cooling system for its 80kWh battery is a derivative of the experimental oil-based system developed for the 919, a technology that offers more effective heat transfer than a traditional glycol system while being no more complex or difficult to package.
The result is a compact and efficient driveline that Porsche says can produce 671bhp in race trim and survive a 30-minute sprint race without stopping to charge. Porsche also reckons the R will lap most circuits at roughly the pace of a current GT3 Cup car. Charging from five per cent to 80 per cent is claimed to take just 15 minutes, and today the car will run 20-minute sessions on and off without stopping to charge for longer.
Porsche 911 and 718 product head Frank Walliser calls the Mission R ‘an outlook, a vision’. The shape hints at the company’s upcoming electric Cayman/Boxster, but it also serves to foreshadow a one-make electric Cup race series of the future.
At least two running Mission Rs exist. The car we’re driving is the show tub from the concept’s September unveiling in Munich. Only a handful of people have ever sat at its wheel, mostly test drivers like Porsche’s Lars Kern. Kern gives me a few passenger laps around the track’s short handling course before handing over. Gearbox whine and tyre scrabble fill the cockpit on acceleration and during regen, except when they’re drowned out by the moan of brake pads grumbling across rotors.
‘That was weird,’ I say, as Kern climbs out. He laughs beneath his helmet. ‘Yes! But it’s fun!’ Then I drive it, and discover he is not incorrect.
The Mission R’s main battery sits behind, rather than beneath, the driver, topped by an electronic control unit and components for the 12-volt chassis supply. A single, purpose-developed drive motor sits on each axle, direct-connected to its own inverter, as in Formula E. The rear motor and its single-speed gearbox are just visible from the rear bumper, perched above a large composite diffuser. Maximum battery output is limited to 908 volts, close to the internationally regulated 1000-volt limit and higher than the max voltages of Formula E (890), the 919 Hybrid (800) and the 918 Spyder (380).
Prior to the drive, there is much talk of safety. With stern faces, words like ‘battery thermal event’ are uttered. The small collection of LEDs on the car’s roof fin serve as a traffic light: red means ‘Do not touch’; green is ‘Safe to enter’. I am instructed on the so-called ‘KERS jump’, a way to leave a malfunctioning or crashed high-voltage vehicle without turning body into a giant grounding strip. (Stand on the door bar of the rollcage, then jump as far as you can.) Martin Kaussen, the Mission R’s high-voltage specialist, also worked on the 919 programme. In the safety briefing he sums things up thus: ‘We are always in a situation where it is not very healthy for the human body, and that is all we will say today.’
The cockpit opens up as you fold yourself in – the roof is low and wide, but the footwells are surprisingly long and spacious. The windscreen is more than an arm’s length away, and the steering column and pedals adjust to meet the fixed seat and five-point harness. The car’s bodywork is mostly carbonfibre or a flax-based composite. An RSR steering wheel has replaced the tiny futuristic piece used for the Munich unveil; save one rotary switch programmed to put the car in drive or reverse, most of the wheel’s controls do not work.
We get 15 minutes at the wheel. The first thing you notice is the long and surprisingly soggy brake pedal – the brakes are a by-wire/hydraulic mix, working with regen (one of the main reasons the car’s all-wheel drive is for regen; weight transfer means you can’t harvest much from the rear axle under braking), and while the car stops well, feel is a bit vague and inconsistent.
Then there’s the perpetual shouting of driveline whine being loaded under regen as well as drive, the differential and gearbox are quiet only on constant throttle, which racing cars rarely see. (The engineers claim they did nothing specific to up involvement here, merely eliminated all the isolation and noise measures you’d get in, say, a Taycan.)
It all feels more finished than you expect from a show car. And marvellously light, for an EV; the Mission R weighs less than 1500kg. Once the slicks are warm, the car grips well, understeering a bit in slow corners but keen to rotate on a trailed brake or a quick slap of throttle-lift regen under load. The electrically assisted steering is heavy at low speed and lightly dead when the car is working. Torque can be hard to judge in an environment like this, but the chassis presents a generally equitable drive split front/rear, with tight corners giving a sense of the front tyres working a little harder on exit.
Naturally, you don’t think much about any of this, because that brain capacity normally filled with yelling racing car, when you’re strapped into a yelling racing car, is noticeably empty and quiet. Without that familiar rolling-combustion sound crescendo, reference points go out the window: was that a quick corner exit? A slow one? Why am I so exhausted and sweaty from hustling around in something so quiet? Top-shelf racing cars can be dead-eyed and dull in a way that has nothing to do with propulsion. This isn’t that. It’s also not quite the sensory overload of, say, a 911 in full Le Mans trim. It feels like a tentative step into a new arena.
‘We all know going electric is the main path for the automotive industry,’ Walliser says. ‘But timing is definitely the big thing. A car like the Mission R, that’s also an investment, we… give engineers and designers some freedom. And then we collect feedback. From media, customers, social media. And also our racing teams: can you feel the Porsche spirit? Is this appropriate?’
Answers, in order: yes, you can feel that spirit. Lightly. The Mission R’s handling philosophy is a familiar blend of Cayman balance plus Taycan chassis adjustability and front/rear torque philosophy, underpinned by a rigid structure and real suspension rates. But you couldn’t plop into that seat blindfolded, with the car running, and immediately know where it came from.
Walliser’s other question: is the Mission R appropriate? What is appropriate for a racing Porsche, anyway? Imagining a Mulsanne without the guttural exhaust whoop of a Porsche raises certain existential questions, but it’s also oddly encouraging – if this famously stubborn company (the 911 only just got double-wishbone front suspension!) can get excited about wholesale change in road racing then maybe the future is brighter than we thought. No one with a heart wants to lose the sound of a flat-six at full howl, just as nobody wanted to lose the sound of a 917 in the ’70s. But nothing lives forever, even for Porsche.
So many questions remain unanswered. Chief among them is how you make a machine like the Mission R emotionally interesting from outside the cockpit. Watching an EV in action is still a snooze; gear whine and tyre scrabble are a poor substitute for the yawp and fire spat from a modern race grid. But this is Porsche on its feet and thinking, and that’s a good sign. Walliser is clear about one thing: the company is genuinely exploring paths right now, looking for the best way forward. The Mission R might not be it. But as experiments go, it’s a properly good start.