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Do V8 engines have a future?

We’re still coming out of the brisk, last spring doldrums – those of us in the temperate regions north of the equator, anyway. All we want is anything that can warm us up. Something turbocharged does the trick nicely and a bi-turbo V8 can really do the trick twice over.

After digesting all the harder facts throughout 2010 regarding what the McLaren Automobile Company has in mind for its first new car, the hotly anticipated MP4-12C, I, at last, was blessed with the chance to do several laps with the phenom in southern Portugal.

I gave particular attention to the all-new 3.8-liter bi-turbo V8 tickling my spine, a unit called M838T, or also ‘Project Victoria’. Built in close partnership with Ricardo and weighing all by itself, sans fluids, 195kg, Vicky gets prodigious assistance from her two forced-induction allies from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, each capable of 21.8psi of boost pressure.

What’s it like on the undulating Portimao circuit? The track chosen was perfect as it forced the engine to take all of my abuses hammering down the gear range and then revving up to 8,000 before hammering up to the next one. Finding myself in a descending-to-ascending tight hairpin in third gear was no trouble for Vicky and her seven-speed Graziano transmission. 

The secret to a lightweight Graziano feeling at home with a performance engine is that the car using it, aside from having the latest software, must itself weigh as little as possible, as these are intended to be competition-crisp gears for dry-sump power units, and they feel not great, let us say, in a heavier grand tourer screaming for a torque converter or multiple wet-clutch setup.

McLaren in this regard has ‘failed’. It was shooting hard for 1,300kg of dry curb weight, but its most svelte ‘added lightness’ trim weighs 1,302kg, but that’s still some 80kg less than a dry Ferrari 458 Italia. The result is game-changing. The M838T crushes the F136-equipped Ferrari, the 9A1-powered Porsche GT2, and any Lamborghini Gallardo V10. “We don’t want to take the passion out of the equation,” MAC’s tech director, Dick Glover, told me, “but the M838T is all about the best science in every part.” It’s true, too, because this new engine just does things at speed that no other unit at this level has really done and it does them with the cool efficiencies of an overzealous wearer of neatly ironed white lab coats.

Just prior to this drive, I explored this weight-vs-V8-vs-sequential shifter thing to a mad extreme in the Ariel Atom V8, which is road-legal (in oddball nations like the UK). In the soon-to-launch race trim of the Hartley Enterprises-sourced transverse-rear 3-liter V8, the 650kg wet-with-driver-aboard Atom V8 gets 493bhp and a 2.3-second mad dash to 60mph. And it does so at the same level of utterly cool and scientific aplomb as the McLaren.

The key takeaways are that for thrilling V8 two-seaters to thrive from now on, they require lightness and ultra-coolly calculated engineering. V8s need to get smaller for efficiencies, emissions and lightweight packaging. But, as McLaren and Ariel have shown me, not at the price of making the whole rocket-like experience crudely punishing. Ferrari has a distinct challenge on its hands now. And I was so sure V8s were a dying breed. The Brits are onto something big.

 

2 June 2011

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