Thanks to this job, I do at least one thing a month that would make my 12-year-old self's head explode. Sitting in the pits at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in the driver's seat of Porsche's latest hypercar—the 918 Spyder, getting ready to chase racing legend Hurley Haywood around the track would surely cause prepubescent cranial combustion. This isn't my first time in the Porsche 918, but realistically, it may be my last. And I can't imagine it getting any better even if it isn't.
Getting in is nearly as easy as any other Porsche sports car. I have been sliding in and out of Boxsters and Caymans all day before this and, thanks to Porsche not believing in any sort of winged, scissor or otherwise compromised-for-the-sake-of-style doors, I can plop in just like the others. In common with Porsche's GTS cars, the seats are sport-bucket style and confirm my "less is more" philosophy when it comes to driving thrones.
The environment is familiar, but more futuristic. Exposed carbon fiber is everywhere, which seems appropriate in a car wrought from the black wonder-weave. The center touchscreen is more smartphone-like. The steering wheel has a rotary controller for driving mode selection and the cabin is starker overall than a Cayman. It's comfortable, but slightly more Chris Pine's Enterprise than Patrick Stewart's.
Turn the key and a few things whir, a couple of beepers beep and lights light—no engine noise. I'm in full electric mode and roll out of the pits as quiet as a mouse on newly greased rollerblades. The front motor produces 129 hp while the rear motor nestled between the V8 and the transaxle produces an additional 156. The nature of electric motors means they produce their full 430 lb-ft of torque from zero revs. Porsche claims standstill to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds when burning nothing but electrons. Firing up the 608hp, 4.6-liter, flat-crank V8 not only produces a shriek of exhaust noise, but also shaves that 0-60-mph time down to a test-verified 2.4 seconds.
I'm using the normal racing pit-out, so I drive all the way down the pit lane next to the front straight and down the hill on a road that suddenly feels just a few inches wider than the car. Before the tight left-hander, I switch to Race Mode. The engine catches, and crackles of combustion erupt to rattle my helmet. I gingerly roll into the throttle as I pull out. One does not simply jump on a combined 887 hp. My foot keeps falling, since there is no sign of tire spin. Even though I've driven the car before, the acceleration is breathtaking and I'm forced to merely mouth an expletive.
Getting on the brakes reminds me that stopping in the 918 is just as impressive as going. The initial bite just feels a bit wooden, the only telltale of the car's hybrid-ness. There's virtually no dive under braking, only lots of stopping power. Turn 3 is relatively easy: a low-speed, 90-degree, flat right-hander. The speed differential between a Cayman GTS and the 918 must be enormous, but I'm nowhere near the limit and feel as though I'm limping to the apex.
Back in the gas, and the acceleration is life-changing—no swearing, but a giggle. The shift is only noticeable because of the "blat" sound that shoots from the tailpipes. I brush the brakes for Turn 4. Once again, it's completely flat, but this one is deceptive and easy to run wide at the exit. I wonder if it's possible to corner at this speed on street-legal rubber as I burn through Turn 4 faster than I ever have on any tires. I can't tell if I'm more excited to be driving a 918 or having a front-row seat to Hurley Haywood drifting his 911 Turbo S right to the edge of the track.
Running up to Turn 5, I remember the stern warnings about Mazda Raceway's noise limit. Outside this bend, just up the hill, is one of the great wonders of the modern world: a sound-measuring shack. The noise limit could easily be broken by several cars that are completely legal on any road in the United States. So why have it? Because people built houses around a racetrack—long after the track itself had been established for decades and then were shocked that it was loud. Anyway, I coast through the corner and upshift all the way into seventh to not upset the fragile feelings of the rich but apparently aurally sensitive locals.
I've driven a few 1000-plus-horsepower cars, but none of them have felt as fast as the 918 pulling up this hill. In the middle of the rise is Turn 6, a small kink to the left. It looks easy enough but there's a nasty bump right at the apex that easily upsets most cars. For such a low-slung machine, the 918 seems to have trophy truck-like suspension travel, probably because it isn't using most of it up with body movement.
The rest of the climb happens in a flash and before I know it, I'm standing on the stoppers for the Corkscrew. It's worth mentioning that the 918 decelerated from 60 mph in 94 feet during testing. Luckily, the car has a little more in reserve as Haywood's rear bumper has suddenly become huge. It then jukes left and disappears below me as he, then I, dive into the one of the most celebrated and challenging corners this side of Eau Rouge. Some cars feel light and just about fly; the 918 seems to generate its own gravity and suckers itself to the pavement. The bottom of the Corkscrew banks to the right. Combined with the 918's acceleration and natural cornering abilities, this is a whole new experience in g-forces and I'm pushed into the left rear corner of the seat.
Turn 9 is fast in any car. It's near-warp in the 918. I can feel the rear-wheel steering doing its thing here as the car's attitude adjusts slightly without steering or throttle input. It's perceptible, but not distracting.
While pinned to the seatback, letting the car run out to the right before pulling it back to the left for Turn 10, I wonder if this speed is too easy. The 918 is much faster than even Haywood's Turbo S, yet I don't feel like I'm working that hard. Bearing down on the apex, I prove my own theory as I provoke a bit of understeer with an abrupt lift of the brake pedal and some aggressive steering input. Unwind, patience on the gas and I just kiss the curbing on exit.
Of all the times I've driven here, I don't think I've ever gotten Turn 11 perfect. Today is no different. I apex later than I should and end up sacrificing a bit of speed. Luckily, the 918 has that in spades, and I'm at triple digits before the self-loathing can even let out a sigh.
The straight at Laguna Seca has a kink to the left and a quick rise and fall. This is where drivers of really fast cars see God more often than the Pope does (unless His Holiness is a regular track rat at Laguna Seca). In the 918, it's a non-issue. Get the line right and it's nothing but smooth sailing all the way down to the braking markers for Turn 2.
And so concludes the most interesting lap in the 918. While most people won't ever get to drive a 918 Spyder, they will see the technology trickle down over the next few years. A hybrid 911 is certainly going to happen, and we already have a plug-in Panamera. It might even be the best version of that big sedan. The idea of a small, high-revving, naturally aspirated engine complemented by the down-low torque of an electric motor should appeal to all enthusiasts. If this is the future of sports cars, sign me up.