An article I was asked to write for an upcoming newsletter (not fully edited yet). Enjoy.
Power (pow·er /ˈpaʊər), n. : energy, force, or momentum; mechanical or physical energy; great or marked strength and might.
I remember when I was a kid, watching my uncle chop wood. Most of the time he used a large ax, but every once in awhile he'd come across a particular stump that was just too tough to efficiently split with the ax, so he'd grab this big iron splitter, and using a 10lb sledge he'd easily splinter the tougher piece. That taught me that there are particular tools for almost any job, and the work can be made easier or harder depending on whether you have the right tool, and if you know how to use it properly. Cars are the same way.
If you're simply going from A>B, you don't need anything particularly fast or agile, about any old heap will do. However, if you're on a track, or even a particularly nice stretch of road, a car enthusiast wants something that fits, that does everything right, making the trip more rewarding and exciting. Today, however, cars in all categories are actually de
-volving, according to that metric. Sure, there's more "power", and a good deal more efficiency, but they're not quite the right tools anymore, if you're looking for driving thrills. Having the strongest engine or the fastest automated gearbox no longer matters, because people aren't actually driving the cars anymore. While there are exceptions, and some systems are more meddlesome than others, overall, people who love the thrill of the motoring experience are being squeezed out. If we want a newer, sporty car, we have to make concessions. Do we want a boot full of horsepower? If so, we have to put up with the whole alphabet soup of nanny equipment to keep us from potentially hurting ourselves. Or, we can choose to forgo all the ponies for a more pure experience, but then you also have to make sacrifices in other areas too. Since when did a supercar
need more driver aids than a luxury people carrier?
At a track recently, I was driving with a friend riding along, and it wasn't just any old sports car, but a McLaren 12C Spider. I made a point of throwing the car into corners, ignoring the apex, jamming my foot on the throttle at the wrong time, and even purposely turning the wheel too hard, trying to produce too much oversteer, all in an attempt to make it spin out. I was foiled. The systems braked when necessary, cut power to the wheels, and even corrected the steering, causing the car to straighten up and exit the corner almost perfectly. Just about any ham-fisted idiot can drive that vehicle and not have a shred of skill. Even with the nannies off they're never truly "off", because they still intrude at some point, they just wait a little longer than normal to give you the illusion that you're in control. Having a great car doesn't require you to be a great driver anymore, and to me that mucks with everything. The experience itself is spoiled and cheapened.
What in the hell am I on about? This may be controversial, but frankly it's the public's fault, really. How so? Well, we keep asking for, actually demanding, more power, and the problem is that most yobs can't handle a car with 400hp, much less the jaw-dropping numbers in the mid to high-end market now (600, 700, and even 1000+hp). So, carmakers have to employ measures to keep people from turning their beautiful new chariots into twisted chunks of modern art. Case in point, I recently talked with an Exige S owner and he was complaining that the car "handles poorly and is too difficult to drive" compared to his F430 (FWP, indeed) and Lotus is "obviously falling behind in auto design". Is that right? The real problem, of course, is that the doofus doesn't know how to drive, and a RMR sports car with 350hp, and no ESC (by default it gets turned off in Track mode), is too much for him. He wants to drive my F40 around the track and I told him "we'll see", but the real answer is "when pigs fly". I'll simply tell him the unvarnished truth, my insurance doesn't cover anyone but me, and I set it up that way on purpose.
So where are the modern monsters that require deft hands and real coordination to make them dance? Well, they're dwindling quickly, but there are a few left; Noble, SSC, Falcon, and a handful of others built by guys in sheds, but that's about it. Not very encouraging, is it? (Note: I don't count Hennessey because he's a convicted felon, whom I wouldn't trust to make a decent golf cart.) To Pagani's credit, the Huayra has the safety systems, but they can actually be turned off, and they're really off (not just lying to you to make you feel brave) and Koenigsegg claims the same thing, though I've read some reports to the contrary. Where does that leave us then? Realistically, the used market. There's a reason the a fore mentioned F40, and cars like it, are going for serious scratch, and it's not just due to marque collectibility. They're the last portals to the “real” driving experience.
Which leads me to the big daddy of them all, the McLaren F1. I'm fortunate enough to own one, a gorgeous GTR conversion @800bhp, and it's a pure, uncompromised sports car that demands
an experienced driver. I can keep it from crashing, while driving it around a track at a fair speed, but I'm nowhere near extracting even a fraction of the car's potential. However, I'm working on it, improving, and someday I hope to, but I have to admit that it scares the bejesus out of me. I've driven some very fast cars; a Bugatti Veyron, 1400hp Aventador, 458 twin-turbo, and a Heffner tuned Ford GT, but nothing accelerates like the F1 from 60>200 MPH. You blink and you'll miss it, and possibly become one with a barricade or lamppost, ask Rowan Atkinson (no offense to you, sir). From the optimal seating position at dead-center, the twitch handling, confidence-inspiring brakes, and telepathic throttle response, it's the best car of the best generation.
However, it wouldn't, it couldn't
be built in today's climate of unambitious corporate board members and aggressive bean-counters. They'd be too concerned with liability, due to our overly litigious society, and brutal fuel efficiency requirements. The main problem isn't money, companies would find a way to be profitable, and it isn't the “nanny state”, and its near-draconian safety laws. The biggest obstacle is us, in the general sense. People simply don't know how to drive, and for all of our obsession with cars and everything related to them, we no longer want to learn;
“Heel-toe braking? That's too hard, give us paddle shifters.”
“Learn how to read the track? To hell with that, give us ESC.”
“Keep my foot out of the gas? Just control the power for me (with TC).”
The F1, F40, and all of the greatest cars ever made require those specific driving disciplines, but they're now a dead art, and driving is no longer a practical skill. It's only a simulation, a video game of what once was, and everyone's the poorer for it. It's all corrupted, because that's what power
without responsibility does.
J.R. 05/13Edited by Magick Man - 5/27/13 at 2:53am