Inside the ultimate street racer

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Mercedes’ new hypercar brings Formula 1 technology to the road and the results are simply staggering

In the summer of 2019, less than two years from now, Mercedes-Benz will deliver the first fully homologated road car to be powered by an engine that comes directly from a Formula 1 car. Some will ask whether the Ferrari F50 didn’t do as much 20 years ago, and the answer is ‘no’. That had a 4.7-litre V12 that may have been inspired by the 3.5-litre V12 in Alain Prost’s 1990 racer, and perhaps even loosely derived, but it wasn’t the same engine. This is.

Mercedes-AMG boss Tobias Moers is responsible for delivering the car and told me demand for the Project ONE was more than four times the 275 unit production run, despite a list price of €2.25 million, leading to “some rather difficult conversations with some very good customers.”

He also said he liked the name, but that it was very much still a code name – it might be retained for the finished product, but it might not.

The car has been in development since the early part of last year and, Moers insists, is not just another addition to the hypercar ranks.

“It sounds like a cliché but it’s not: this car is a mobile laboratory and, while we may not be putting a Formula 1 engine in another road car any time soon, there is plenty of technology that will have a direct relevance to our future production models.”

How fast will it go? Although there is just one running mule at the moment, precluding the recording of definitive data, Mercedes’ simulations point to a 0-200kph time of less than 6sec. This makes it only a little slower than a current F1 car, whose lower mass is offset in part by the traction limitation of being rear-wheel drive. The Project ONE has four-wheel drive courtesy of an electrically driven front axle.

More interesting to everyone is its lap time, especially around the dreaded Nürburgring. Moers is uncharacteristically coy on the subject but is very familiar with Stefan Bellof’s performance in the 1983 1000km race there, where he set a qualifying time of 6min 11sec that has yet to be beaten by any car, be it road or race.

I’m not saying the Project ONE is even going to get close to that time, but knowing what I do about the car’s power, its ability to deploy it, its downforce and weight, I think it’s possible that if they bolted a set of slicks onto it Bellof’s fastest race lap of 6min 26sec could be in reach.

So here is my step by step guide to perhaps the maddest car ever to wear a number plate.

Engine

Yes, it really is a Formula 1 unit. It has not only the same capacity, heads, cams, valves, pistons and crankshaft of the F1 car, it has the same turbocharger with the same clever means of splitting the turbine and compressor elements to benefit packaging and charge cooling. It has the same MGU-k driven from the crank, and the same exhaust driven MGU-h too. So it’s the same.

OK, it’s not quite the same. Mercedes says the engine will do 30,000 miles between rebuilds, which is pretty terrible by road car standards but off-the-scale incredible for an F1 unit. To do this its revs are capped from the 13,000rpm that is the usual limit for the F1 engine, to a trifling 11,000rpm, still far beyond anything we’ve seen from a road car engine that was not first designed for a motorcycle. Despite this, the 1.6-litre V6 engine still develops in excess of 670bhp, with the help of the MGU-h and MGU-k. The additional power of the two electric motors on the front axle brings the total power up to at least 1000bhp. Moers is quite specific about this: that figure is the minimum the engine will have; it is not the maximum. The motor is still on the dyno at Mercedes-AMG’s High Performance Powertrains F1 base in Brixworth and it might go higher still.

Questions abound, so I put some of them to Andy Cowell, head of Mercedes’ High Performance Powertrains division in Brixworth and the man in charge of the team that developed the most phenomenally successful engine in modern racing history. How, for instance, do you keep cool an F1 engine designed to do 210mph at Monza when siting in a Dubai traffic jam in August. “With a road car engine it’s so easy to get into a vicious circle,” he says. “You have a lot of friction that generates a lot of heat that then needs a lot of cooling, which then adds a lot of weight and down and down you go. It’s better not to generate the heat in the first place, which is where we come in.” The thermal efficiency of his engine is over 40 per cent, an unprecedented figure in the road car arena, though it should be said that, in its racing application, that figure is nearer 47 per cent, albeit revving a lot higher and not on pump fuel. Even so, it seems that cooling it is not such a big issue.

Nor, to my surprise, is taming the car for road use. “When I was working with Lewis and asking what he wanted from this engine, did he ask me for the spikiest power curve I could make, or did he want one that was linear, responsive across the rev range and at all times predictable?” The answer is not hard to find. “That’s why at Monza on his quali lap he’s coming out of the Parabolica on a soaking track and you can see he’s just probing away, waiting for the moment the car will accept full throttle. That wouldn’t happen if the engine was going to dump all its power on him without warning. It’s a very tractable unit because we made it that way.” Remember too that with the MGU-k and MGU-h, there is no turbo lag, by which I mean zero. Cowell says the throttle response is quicker than that of the normally aspirated V8.

So what are the big challenges. “Emissions is one,” Andy replies. The car has to pass stringent tests for which the engine was never designed so perhaps that is not so great a surprise. The second is, however. “Starting it on a button – that’s caused a few headaches.” Of course F1 engines require batteries of engineers to fire up, and Andy has to make sure his will work when instructed to do so by just one finger, often when it’s been left for months at a time and perhaps in the sub-zero temperatures it would never see in a lifetime in F1.

Transmission

Moers reveals that the Project ONE is fitted with a brand-new, bespoke, automatically controlled manual transmission, so a sequential manual operated not by a clutch and gear lever but robotised via paddle shifts. We used to see a lot of these gearboxes but almost all have been replaced by double-clutch transmissions because they offer much smoother shifting in manual mode and an automatic function very little different from conventional torque converter autoboxes.

But double-clutch transmissions have problems, too: they are heavy and none currently exists that can be attached to an engine capable of 11,000rpm. The new gearbox is made by Xtrac and, says Moers, the beauty is that thanks to the instant electric in-fill of the hybrid system, the old problem of jerky part-throttle shifts has been removed.

Structure and body

Naturally enough, the entire monocoque and the bodywork to which it is attached are made from carbon fibre, but beyond this the company is saying little. The surprise is that it seems the work is not being done by either AMG in Affalterbach or the Formula 1 team in Brackley, but by a third party UK supplier. Who? I don’t know the answer but the list of British companies capable of taking on such a task and producing 275 sets of monocoques and bodies up to the required quality and consistency for a road car – a far higher standard of fit and finish than that needed for essentially disposable single-season race cars – is not long.

What does seem clear is that the widely quoted weight, of about 1200kg, is quite wide of the mark. Moers isn’t saying exactly how far so we play a brief but enlightening round of higher or lower from which I can tell you that, with a driver and fuel on board – so the standard kerb weight measurement and not the often misleading dry weight favoured by others – the car will weigh more than 1300kg and less than 1400kg. Call it 1350kg. For a car packing a turbocharged engine, four electric motors, a bank of lithium-ion batteries and all the apparatus required to run them, that still makes it incredibly light. Nor has AMG stripped it bare to achieve it: the Project ONE will come with electric windows, air conditioning and satellite navigation, too.

Aerodynamics

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Project ONE’s design is how aerodynamically clean its surfacing is. I was expecting something looking like a mutant insect from some dystopian future but, save for the longitudinal fin along its spine as a cap doff to his F1 heritage, there’s remarkably little visible to get in the way of the air’s flow over the surface. At least while the car is at rest.

What you cannot see are what I am told are nine different aero elements under the car’s essentially flat floor. Nor can you spot the active front spoiler that deploys with speed, nor the two-stage rear wing. Possibly most obvious and unusual for a road car are the active vents in the wheel arches that deploy at speed to increase frontal downforce.

At this stage Mercedes is making no official claim as to the amount of downforce it can generate at track speeds, and even Moers is giving no figures. But when he smiles and says “about half the weight of the car” that’s a pretty good indicator right there. It suggests the Project ONE will produce about 675kg of downforce – about the weight of a well equipped Caterham with a driver on board – a number that eclipses the highest official downforce figure quoted by another manufacturer, namely the 600kg of the McLaren P1. That said, we know the P1’s figure is generated at 150mph after which downforce levels are deliberately reduced, so it is too early to say whether the Project ONE is actually superior in a like-for-like comparison. But it certainly seems like it’s up there.

Suspension, brakes, wheels and tyres

Given the nature of the car, the most extreme and sporting suspension specification can be expected. It does not disappoint. Multi-link units at each corner provide greater wheel location and control than even conventional double wishbones, while the pushrod-operated spring/damper units are mounted across the car, duplicating the function of and therefore negating the need for a tubular cross member.

The official blurb says the suspension is fully adjustable, and it is; what it does not mention is that the driver will be able to lower the car’s ride height for track work, presumably not only to generate more downforce from the under body aero, but also effectively increase its spring rate.

Braking is provided predictably enough by massive carbon-ceramic discs while the 10-spoke wheels are made from forged aluminium with centre lock location. Each wheel has a carbon-fibre band around its circumference to smooth airflow around the wheel while each spoke has three ventilation slots to help cool red-hot brakes.

Michelin will cover each wheel in track-oriented Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, with a 335/30 ZR 20 at the back and an enormous 285/35 ZR 19 specification at the front, perhaps because of the addition weight and traction requirements of the electric front axle.

Interior

Occupants sit in sculpted seats moulded to the floor of the tub. There is some backrest adjustment but the squab does not move. Instead the car comes to you, via a broad range of adjustments for the steering wheel and a sliding pedal box like that found in the LaFerrari or, indeed, the 1970s Maserati Bora. It’s sensible because the design is space-efficient and locates one of the car’s more major masses in a position from which it is not going to move.

The cabin is said to be utterly functional, its every component there for a reason other than to look pretty. Information is provided by two high-definition 10-inch colour screens, one in front of the driver for conveying the most important data about the car’s health and operation, leaving navigation and entertainment information to the second centrally mounted display.

The steering wheel is said to be inspired by F1 (I presume this refers to its squared-off top and bottom). There are controllers mounted to it, however, and these can be used to change the suspension configuration or to scroll through various driving modes.

Those hoping to take their Project ONEs on holiday will need to be realistic about luggage: there are two stowage compartments, one behind each of the seats, but even Mercedes concedes these are for ‘small items’ only. Then again if you can afford a Project ONE you can probably afford a Range Rover plus driver to go ahead of you to make sure your things are already unpacked when you arrive.

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