If time travel were possible, going back to the middle of the first decade of the 2000’s and mentioning the word “hypercar” would have garnered you some very odd looks. In fact, by then, the word “supercar” was still only just about 20 years old, when the Porsche 959 and the Ferrari F40 had brought the term into the common vocabulary. Even then, it wasn’t seared into the mind until the greatest supercar of all, the McLaren F1, was made.
Yet, in 2021, we all know what a hypercar is. There were a few cars that started the term rolling around in the mind, like the SSC Ultimate Aero and the Bugatti Veyron, but it wasn’t until 2013 that what are now considered the holy trinity of hypercars were released, and the motoring world was irrevocably changed.
Three cars, from three manufacturers, all released in the same year, have come to define what it truly means to enter into the rare company of those vehicles labeled as hypercars. The McLaren P1, the Ferrari LaFerrari, and the Porsche 918 Spyder all broke through so many technological milestones and proved that a super-high-performance supercar could actually exist that a new term had to be coined for them.
But what were those barriers? What do we take for granted in today’s ultimate supercars that was revolutionary in 2013? And would we be where we are now, at the dawn of the EV hypercar decade, if not for these three masterpieces?
A Different Way Of Thinking: The Hybrid Movement
How Motorsports Helped Forge The Hypercar
The biggest thing that all three of the Holy Trinity brought to the table was the use of hybrid electric power to not save gas or make things quieter, but to boost performance and power. It seems almost comically ironic in 2021 that before the year 2010, hybrid electric assist in cars was scoffed at as being for environmentally conscious consumers and that if you wanted raw power and speed, you stayed with an internal combustion engine only.
However, there was one area that a select few engine developers and car manufacturers were interested in using hybrid power in a different way. The FIA Formula 1 World Championship had changed throughout the first decade of the millennium from being all about speed and power, to being about speed, power, and sustainability. As part of this environmental lean, in 2009, the FIA allowed for a Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or KERS, to be used in F1 to allow for an on-demand boost of about 80 HP to the 750 HP provided by the V8’s used in the series.
This energy was often stored in batteries or capacitors, and was captured through regenerative braking, where an electric generator assisted the brakes on the rear wheels of the F1 cars. By nature, Ferrari, as the longest continuously running team in the sport, and McLaren, another long running team, started immediately thinking about how this technology could be used in a high-performance road car.
On the other side of motorsports, Audi, under the umbrella that is the Volkswagen Group, was a serious contender in endurance racing, and their 2006 to 2010 R10 and R15 TDI diesel was winning pretty much everything. The ACO, the governing body of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in conjunction with the FIA, announced that for the 2012 race, electrical hybrid assist was going to be permitted.
Since Porsche, another company under the VW Group umbrella, was actively developing hybrid systems for their road cars, especially the Cayenne SUV, some of their engineers were brought in as experts in hybrid systems to work out how to make the hybrid system be a performance assist, instead of being a fuel efficiency assist. This, of course, gave those engineers some ideas, and when they returned to Stuttgart, we can only assume a series of closed door meetings happened quite quickly.
The Development Of Performance Hybrid Systems
Porsche was the first to truly step into the field of using a performance hybrid system in conjunction with something close to a road-going racing car, with the 2010 Porsche 911 GT3-R Hybrid. Since Porsche GT3 and Cup cars are built off of the 911 Carerra platform, the engine is mostly the same across the cars, except a bump up to 4.0L and the replacement of internals with race-grade components.
Williams F1, in the meantime, had been developing a KERS system for the 2009 season, but ultimately ended up not using it. Porsche and Williams have historically been good partners, so when the German company wanted to put a hybrid into their race car, Williams were only too happy to use the 95% finished 2009 KERS with the 911 GT3-R.
The 911 GT3-R Hybrid officially debuted at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring in 2010, although it had raced as a wildcard in the VLN event a couple of weeks before the big race. It was a true four-wheel drive system, with the 500 HP 4.0L flat-six powering the rear wheels, and the 210 HP hybrid system, via two 105 HP motors, driving both front wheels. The car was instantly fast and, very importantly, very, very reliable. It raced for the rest of 2010 and all of 2011, and very rarely had any issues.
During 2010, Ferrari had also started testing out a performance hybrid system, as they were in the planning stages of their “once a decade” special car for elite Ferrari customers. It had started with the F40 in the 1980s, the F50 in the 1990s, and the Ferrari Enzo (F60) in the 2000s. The upcoming F70 had no name yet, but it was known that it would, like the previous two cars, have a V12 in the middle of the car and be the ultimate expression of Ferrari performance and technology.
At the same time, McLaren had been impressed with the on-demand hybrid power of KERS in F1, and in 2010 tasked their internal skunk works, McLaren Special Operations, with investigating how to use that system in a road car. They were also tasked with talking to the McLaren Formula 1 Team to integrate other parts of F1 tech into the car, including a Drag Reduction System (DRS), and an Integrated Power Assist System (IPAS), which McLaren was developing for the 2011 Formula 1 system.
The Realization Of Performance Hybrid Power
From those development launches in 2010, all three companies immediately started to design, prototype, and refine their thoughts into three very distinct applications of the performance hybrid system.
Porsche focused their development on using two electric motors in conjunction with a detuned version of their prototype Le Mans engine from the Porsche RS Spyder, which was their Le Mans testbed before they eventually developed the Porsche 919. The 4.5L V8 produces 600 HP on its own, and mounted to the transaxle, an electric motor provides 154 HP and also serves as the KERS recovery system. The front axle is powered by a 127 HP electric motor only, and an automatic electric clutch decouples the motor when it is not needed.
In this way, the Porsche 918 Spyder was designed as a primarily rear-wheel-drive supercar, with the ability to suddenly jump from 600 HP through two wheels, to 875 HP through four. The 918 prototype and eventual production car also accelerated like a bat out of hell, with 0 to 60 times under 2.3 seconds and clearing 0.62 miles (a standing kilometer, as Germany uses metric) in under 18 seconds at 184 MPH from a dead stop. The 918 Spyder can also be run entirely on the electric motors, and has a manual deployment mode where the driver can request extra power at any time.
Ferrari had a wonderful testbed already in place with their FXX program based on the Ferrari Enzo. The original FXX prototype was refitted with a new version of the 6.0L F140B engine from the Enzo that had been bumped to 6.3L and had a prototype Hybrid-KERS (or HY-KERS in Ferrari’s internal notes) attached. Where Ferrari differed from Porsche was in that they only used the hybrid system on the rear of the car, and at that, only between the engine and the transmission, which was mounted as a transaxle.
What was to eventually become the F140 FE 6.3L V12 produced a monstrous 790 HP, with the HY-KERS producing 161 HP. The F70 was officially named the LaFerrari (literally “The Ferrari”) and used the hybrid to burst power to the wheels during gear shifts and deploy on wide open throttle to boost acceleration. Unlike the Porsche, there is no manual deployment mode for the hybrid system in the Ferrari, as they want the driver to be focused entirely on the act of driving and the experience, not fiddling about with little buttons.
McLaren’s primary realization of the performance hybrid powertrain sat in between the two others for its P1 supercar. Like the Ferrari, it uses only one motor on the transaxle, and like the Porsche, has a manual deployment mode and electric-only mode. It also has the smallest engine of the three, a 3.8L V8, but compensates with two turbochargers boosting the engine to 727 HP. The hybrid motor adds 177 HP, for a combined total of 903 HP, and all of it through the rear wheels.
Of the three, the McLaren has the most Formula 1-like deployment system. It uses the hybrid power to effectively “torque-fill” the powerband. During initial acceleration, as the turbos are spinning up, the car is using mostly the hybrid to get going. Once on the turbos, the hybrid then uses a special Integrated Power Assist System (IPAS) as originally planned, bursting the power during gear shifts, and boosting to the full 903 HP when the ECU detects wide open throttle. The McLaren also has a command-DRS system, that if the ECU and computers detect the car is stable enough, will flatten the rear wing out of the airstream, using pure downforce over, under, and through the body of the car to keep it stable.
Even then, however, the McLaren P1 was considered the most wild of the three. Famously, during an episode of Top Gear where the P1 was driven on the Spa-Francorchamps race circuit, even a gentle application of the throttle had the rear end squirming. It led to Jeremy Clarkson labelling the car as “The Widowmaker,” and despite any potential negative connotations that may have brought with it, McLaren actually embraced the label, with those that wanted their cars painted black having the option of choosing either a metallic black or, unofficially, matte “Widowmaker Black.”
Enter The Hypercar
All three cars were unveiled at car shows, and all three cars had their order sheets filled almost instantly. McLaren, through McLaren Special Operations, presold all 375 of their production cars while they were still prototyping the final version to recognized special clients. Ferrari sold all 499 of their production cars to invited customers that were selected manually for their loyalty to the brand and their willingness to buy Ferrari cars in their top specs. Porsche had the most open sales system, with half of their 918 units being offered to preferred clients, and the other half being sold through expressed interest registrations, and interviews with those who signed up to see who would best suit their car.
The release of all three cars also brought the reality of near-1,000 HP supercars into the spotlight. Before the three, the only car that had come close was the Bugatti Veyron, seen as a technical exercise by Volkswagen to show off their might. And at that, they needed a W16 engine with four turbochargers and a whopping ten radiators just to keep the thing from melting. By comparison, the “hybrid high-performance supercar” realized the dream of Veyron-like speed and power, but without needing nearly $3 million to get it.
Yet, “hybrid high-powered supercar” is a bit of a mouthful. No one can really pin down the exact moment that the term hypercar was attached to the Porsche, Ferrari, and McLaren, but the most common theory is that someone shortened the label to “hi-per-car,” and with a single letter changed, it became “hypercar.” In terms of official terminology, the most commonly accepted definition is of a supercar that is extremely powerful, limited edition, and has a cost near or over $1 million.
The Future Of Hypercars
2013 was a momentous year because of the birth of the term hypercar, as well as the release of the three cars that ultimately came to define the term. It was a concorde moment, a fixed point in time, a bridge once crossed never to be crossed again. We, as automotive enthusiasts, had gone from admiring extremely high performance supercars to admiring technological powerhouses with a brand-new moniker for them.
The reality of the present day, in 2021, however, is that fuel prices are going up, and may never come back down. We also know, through some very complicated math done by some of the most brilliant minds on the planet, that we will eventually run out of petrol-style fuel in this century. When a hypercar gulps down fuel to flex its speed and power, this can become a bit of an issue.
This is why, over the past 15 years, the idea of alternatively fueled performance cars, and even fully electric performance cars, have started to become reality. And it is motorsport that has brought us to this reality once again.
The FIA World Endurance Championship, from 2021 onwards, has replaced the top-level Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) class with the new Hypercar class. This new class was brought about to allow smaller manufacturers and those with smaller motorsports budgets a very open set of rules to race with.
Under these rules, there are minimum and maximum height, width, power, and downforce regulations, but unlike the previous LMP1 class, there is no limitation on how to achieve those numbers. This has already led to some amazing designs, such as the SCG 007 Corsa and the Peugeot 9X8 Hypercar.
The FIA also took a risk in 2014 by announcing a new Formula racing series, Formula Electric. Known as F-E or Formula-E, this series uses battery powered, semi-open-wheel cars to race around tight street circuits without a drop of petrol being used. It had a rough go of it in Gen 1, when battery and motor technology was still being developed, but ever since Gen 2 started in 2018, it has quickly gained popularity.
In fact, as of 2020, the FIA gave Formula-E world championship status, meaning that drivers for the series now need to qualify for an FIA Platinum license, one step below the Super License needed for F1. As well, 2022 will see the new Gen 3 car, which has a new power unit developed by Williams Advanced Engineering (a subsidiary company of Williams F1), and Spark Racing Technology, who built the Gen 2 car.
Even then, the FIA wasn’t finished, and their sister association, the FIM, wanted in on electrification too. As of 2022, the FIA World Rally Championship will be using hybrid powertrains, and this year, the inaugural season of FIA Extreme-E off-road truck racing launched. In 2019, the FIM, the governing body of both World SBK and MotoGP, launched the Moto-E series, using fully electric superbikes manufactured by Energica in Italy.
So it should be no surprise, then, that the most recently announced and most desired hypercars out there are fully electric. Cars such as the Rimac Nevara and the Pininfarina Battista have massive power, range equivalent to a petrol-powered hypercar, and they also fit the definition of being limited series and near or over $1 million. These electric hypercars are also reaching stratospheric power numbers, with the Lotus Evija hypercar being the first production hypercar to break 2,000 PS, or 1,970 HP equivalent.
Bugatti has already announced that it is highly likely that their next hypercar after the Chiron will be either a massively hybrid car, with most of the power generated by electrification with a high performance, small engine included, or fully electric. This is on top of their recent partnership with Rimac, forming the Bugatti Rimac partnership, and giving VW a 35% ownership stake in Rimac. Hyundai and Porsche have also invested in Rimac, both gaining about 10% of a stake, so there is definite interest in performance EVs.
Koenigsegg is already making a massively hybrid hypercar, the Gemera, which uses a tiny 3-cylinder twin turbo engine producing 600 HP tied together with a crankshaft hybrid motor providing 400 HP to power the front wheels, and both rear wheels powered by individual 500 HP electric motors. This gives the 2+2 Gemera coupe 1,700 HP combined, and it can go 1,000 km (621 miles) on a single tank of E85 biofuel.
There is no shortage of exciting news about electric hypercars and massively hybrid supercars these days. Much like 2013, 2021 and 2022 promise to be the years we look back on in 2031 as the unofficial start of the electric super-vehicle revolution, and with almost every single supercar manufacturer now on board what is known as “The Green Promise,” you can be certain that big things, new technologies, and amazing cars using breakthrough ideas are still to come. Hypercars are here now, and they are here to stay.
The only thing we honestly need to worry about is what the next label will be, but we think Christian von Koenigsegg has already coined it when he unveiled the One:1. That term? “Megacar”