Welcome back to the 3rd installment of my analysis of performance cars’ capabilities.
So let’s review part 1 and part 2: We discussed before about modern performance cars’ top speed, questioning whether or not milestones such as 300mph was a plausible and practical idea, and acceleration, where we reasoned that 0-60mph times getting much faster would yield dangerous g-forces for drivers. So where does all that end? Or does it? Those are perfectly reasonable questions to ask considering we are already at fairly extreme statistics with the likes of the Veyron SS and Ariel Atom V8, to name just a couple.
But what about other details of performance cars advancements? Let’s start with the obvious: body materials.
Carbon fiber. We all love it, we lust after it, we love to look at it, and we know why it’s good: It’s strong and it’s lightweight. It’s also, consequently, very expensive. Most of us know that carbon is famously 3 times as strong and 3 times as light as steel. Pretty impressive stats, there. But consider this: carbon fiber bodies on production cars is now 20 year old tech. Yep, the McLaren F1 showed us that a car could very well have a full carbon body, albeit at an obscene cost back in 1993. But go back further, and you’ll find the Ferrari F40 had carbon panels/parts on it (as well as aluminum and kevlar), and even then the F40 was hardly the first time cars had been fitted with carbon panels.
In more recent times, the likes of Pagani have toyed with modified carbon materials with their “carbotanium”, a composite weave of carbon fiber and titanium, on their Zonda R and Huayra hypercars. The benefits of this are, as expected, a little stronger and a little lighter than standard issue carbon fiber. It’s pretty serious stuff:
“A method of combining a beta titanium alloy with advanced carbon composites, the combination having a matched yield strength and modules of elasticity ratio. When the combination is adhesively bonded both parts will approach maximum yield strength and fail at a similar amount of total strain. The titanium and carbon composites are combined by first abrading the titanium to be bonded, coating the titanium with platinum, aging the titanium, spraying primer on the coated titanium, applying adhesive to the primer side of the titanium and then applying the carbon to the adhesive. This allows the carbon composite to bond securely to the titanium. This composite uses the best properties of each component, the combination having a better set of properties than either part.” (from Wikipedia)
And, it worked well for Pagani. But as you can guess, also at an outrageous cost.
So what’s next with lightweight materials? There are some seriously light body panels out there as it is. Well, you need to go beyond body panels and make almost the entire car out of exotic materials like carbon fiber. Lamborghini showed us what’s possible with the insane and beautiful Sesto Elemento, now apparently for sale as a track-only, limited production model. The Sesto is made of up of carbon, as expected, but so much so that it weighs in at just 999kg. Said another way, it has the power specifications of a Gallardo Superleggera, but weighs around 350kg less. Said yet another way, it weighs a LOT less than the already “lightweight” version of the Gallardo. Which is, put simply, unbelievable. All this comes from it’s almost full carbon body, frame, chassis, etc. A proper appropriation of accessible technology to take things to a new level.
But why even do this? After all, the Ariel Atom V8 weighs just 550kg, almost half of the USD$2M Sesto Elemento, and is at least equally as fast. It all comes down to aesthetics, style, and appeal to customers. As I’ve stated many times to many people, it’s not hard for a carmaker to make an insanely fast vehicle. But whether or not it’s comfortable, appealing, stylish or unique is an altogether different matter. Fact is, a lot of people don’t want a glorified go-kart like the Ariel Atom V8, regardless of it’s performance. They want the aesthetic cabin, amenities, and comfort that a typical performance car offers but not at the detriment of performance. That’s one reason why lightweight materials are being researched so intensely.
Top speed is also another consideration for body engineering, as the Atom’s go-kart framework isn’t aerodynamic enough for very high top speed runs. Regardless of it’s power to weight ratio, one of the main things holding back the Atom from a top speed above 175mph is it’s body. That’s not the point of the Atom, of course, so this “limitation” is hardly regarded as a problem. On cars such as the Veyron, body shape was crucial to increasing it’s already insane top speed when Bugatti/VW wanted to create the Veyron SS; just adding power wasn’t enough.
So since removing body panels alone isn’t the master solution to increasing performance, engineers need lighter body panels to keep performance increasing as new models are created. And since body panels need to survive basic things such as “being touched” or simply leaning on your car on your driveway, not to mention aerodynamics are useless if the wind resistance hitting the car bends it like putty, strength is also vital.
But where does lightening end? Are we headed towards body panels so light that entire fenders will weigh just 2kg each? Is that absurd thinking? Just recently at SEMA, the famed HRE Performance Wheels company announced their new CF2 carbon fiber wheels, each weighing a scant 7kg or so without, they claim, sacrificing any performance when compared to their own similar aluminum wheels.
So who’s to say things won’t keep getting lighter and lighter? We shouldn’t rule out crazy thinking like engine blocks made from entirely new ultra lightweight heat resistant materials we haven’t even dreamed of yet, or perhaps cars made up of 90% carbon fiber, in the near future. It could all keep advancing to the point where a new material is utilized that’s 3 times stronger and 3 times lighter than carbon fiber. Who knows! My question is, should they? At what point does a Gallardo become so light that it’s performance is impacted negatively? My answer, surprisingly, is “No, not really.” Why? Because frankly, even if you cut a Gallardo Superleggera’s weight by 50%, a staggering 675kg or so, and kept all it’s appearance and specs the same, you will still have an insane performing vehicle. But that’s a tall order, even for the likes of Lamborghini. Physics won’t allow for a Gallardo that weighs something ridiculous like 25kg, so it’s fair to say the lightening of performance cars is still in it’s early stages.
Like top speed and acceleration, lightness is a key element in the advancement of modern performance cars. But unlike top speed and acceleration, every time you make a car lighter you automatically increase all it’s other performance aspects. And since lightening a car is still pretty difficult, all things considered, every minute step towards achieving lightness is definitely a step forward. Performance carmakers would be wise to focus on lightweight technologies, and not just explosive acceleration or wholly impractical top speeds.
What do you think?
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