Chris Harris has maybe the coolest job in the world. After all, the guy just drove the three-time Le Mans-winning Porsche 919. Apparently it blew his mind, because he called it “the most astonishing motorcar.”
For the few who don’t know, Harris beats the snot out of cars for Top Gear. He’s got a huge YouTube following of fans who delight in watching him hoon cars everyone wants but few ever drive. Like the 919, which he hammered around Ciudad del Motor de Aragón, the 3.3-mile ribbon of heaven in the north of Spain.
The bonkers Le Mans prototype features a 2.0-liter 500-horsepower turbocharged V4 driving the rear wheels and a 500-horsepower electric motor driving the front. You can’t help but smile watching Harris drive the car--his enthusiasm is genuinely infectious--and you can tell from his tone of voice it was a special drive.
No surprise that he called the 919 the most complicated car he’s driven in his 15-year career. The sophisticated gas-electric drivetrain uses not one but two energy recovery systems. A regenerative braking system harvests megajoules of energy from the front wheels, while an exhaust-mounted turbine generates juice from the exhaust.
All that hardware is wrapped in a gorgeous body. “Packaging is beautiful,” Harris said in the video. “Ferrari think they have lots of buttons on the 458. No this has more buttons.”
Le Mans prototypes look more like interstellar vehicles than automobiles, and they’re packed with technology that would make Silicon Valley engineers go, “Whoa,”—a point Harris made as he marveled at the 919’s technology. “There is a sense that it's doing stuff that I don't know about,” he said. “More like a bloody spaceship than a car. I've never driven a racing car that feels like it's doing more thinking around the lap than me.”
It all comes together in a car that Harris called absolutely lovely to drive. “It's so clever,” he said. “So clever. What's remarkable is that through all this cleverness transpires a really rather lovely simple driving experience. You just get in it, turn the wheel, hit the pedals, it does what you want it to do.”
Before letting Harris get behind the wheel, Porsche strapped him into the same seven-figure simulator used by drivers like Le Mans winning driver Neel Jani. It’s a cramped, hot, miserable experience, one that can induce nausea and motion sickness. Harris said he'd rather drink rancid milk than do that again.
Still, it gave him some idea what to expect when he finally strapped into the 919. He drove it on a damp track with “wet” racing tires. He found it as “easy” to control and not at all intimidating. “I'm doing 185 mph without the car even thinking about it,” he said. “Bloody addictive.”
“The boost out of the corners, with the hybrid, the electricity is savage,” he says. “The traction it develops, and the speed it wants to carry through the corners. I'm not even scratching the surface here.”
After getting a feel for the car on the wet tires, he talked to the Porsche engineers and Jani about how to get the most out of the car and tap every bit of the power produced by that insane drivetrain. Then he hit the track on slicks. No surprise the car was even better, “much more alive.”
“Downforce. The traction. Mid corner grip. The way that you can just roll it into a corner off throttle, I mean how un-Porsche is that?” No trailing throttle oversteer here.
Despite the racing pedigree, astronomical cost, and PhD-level engineering, Harris found the car surprisingly approachable. “Somehow they have fashioned, from all this complication a car that is intuitive and fun to drive,” he said.
Intuitive and fun, yes. But exhausting. Driving a car like the 919 at anything approaching the limit is a workout, which explains why top-tier drivers are in exceptional shape. Harris was done after 25 minutes. “That's the most intense thing I've done in a racing car,” he said.