Sitting down in L’Épopée, a quiet, tasteful Parisian restaurant, Tommaso Volpe cuts a relaxed figure. Laughing, tie off, top button running free and speaking in great detail with infectious enthusiasm; the Italian does not look like a man feeling the pressure of being tasked with bringing INFINITI into an exciting new era of the automotive industry in his role as Global Motorsport Director.
Just a couple of hours prior to this, Volpe was a focal point for the world’s media at the launch of the revolutionary Project Black S concept, ahead of its debut public appearance at the Paris Motor Show – no more than a 30 minute walk away through the picturesque, café-laden backstreets of France’s capital.
An exceptional car with an outrageously short timescale; just 12 months beforehand, INFINITI started its conception. Volpe hopes that, feasibility dependent, in a further 18 months the car will be ready for the general market.
A landmark in numerous ways, the Project Black S – produced in collaboration with the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team – marks another key step for INFINITI, as they aim to solely produce hybrid and full electric vehicles by 2021 and make a bigger impact in the UK and European markets. A bold ambition, but one they have set about with purpose.
Firstly, the Black S looks menacing. Dressed in a matte grey livery with streaks of traditional Renault yellow, the car’s main features smack you right in the face. An evolution of the road-going Q60, the additions include: an extravagant Formula 1 style rear wing, curved floor, slits in the bonnet, front lights sculpted like the eye of a wild cat, low-profile exclusive Pirelli tyres as well as an aggressive grill and air intakes at the front. On first glance, I immediately thought of the Nissan GT-R in terms of shape, or “the muscles”.
Even with this, the exterior of the car is far less complex and revolutionary in comparison to what lurks underneath the bonnet. A dual-hybrid system, a set-up that Volpe describes as “super-intrusive on the powertrain”, ensures that energy that would otherwise be lost is recovered under braking and acceleration.
Technology validation the ‘next step’
However, the car is still just a pipe dream with no promises over its mass production future. Volpe says that the nature of Renault and their Formula 1 project has allowed INFINITI to get to this point in such a scarce duration, with a very ambitious project.
“We are still in the prototype phase,” he insists. “So, the next step for us is to validate the technology.
“This car that we built today has been developed in a little bit more than 12 months, which is an amazing achievement. We could only do this because we worked with Renault and they utilised the same approach that they do for Formula 1.
“They do a lot of digital development and testing,” he continues, sitting back in his chair.
“A lot of simulations, even before you build the car, so that’s why we could do it so differently compared to the traditional automotive process.”
Volpe, a Neapolitan formerly in the retail and merchandise sector of Lotus Cars, is under no illusion that the Black S is like any ordinary car – concept or not. And he enjoys that idea.
“We still need to validate the technology because the car has not been on track yet, it is only a prototype. And this is very important. Once we validate the technology, we then have to decide whether a production car is feasible or not. We will ask for honest feedback from the track and if there is space for a car like this in the European market.
“So these are the next steps. With the production car, we do want to keep the same speed with the market as we had with the prototype. We do not want to go through a traditional process again.”
Whilst the car has been compared to the Q60, its predecessor, Volpe is quick to state that the Project Black S is not a tuned ‘boy-racer’ version. It’s a car of its own, a technical challenge that has pushed one of Formula 1’s most recognised hybrid partners to new limits.
An everyday driving experience like no other
For the consumer, driving a car with dual-hybrid technology is very different to any other conventional petrol, electrical or hybrid engined car. It hosts a 3.0 litre V6 internal combustion engine, producing a proud 400 horsepower with assistance of a semi-automatic gearbox, bolstered by the usage of two Motor Generator Units. One takes care of heat energy from the exhaust (MGU-H) and the other harvests kinetic energy under braking (MGU-K).
In tandem with this setup, there are two turbochargers and a lithium-ion battery pack that acts as an energy store. Combined, the power output stands at an impressive 560 horsepower and propels the car to 100km/h from a standstill in under five seconds. Startling for a car that weighs over 1.5 tonnes. The MGU-H has a “bespoke water-cooling system” to regulate its temperature, while the MGU-K is oil cooled. With cooling systems for the other gizmos, packaging everything into one neat two-door carbon fibre shell is no small feat.
“Some people might say that we are just tuning a car – which is actually not true,” he retorts.
“When you tune a car, you might change suspensions, the stiffness of the chassis or you change the mapping of the powertrain and the internal combustion engine. But what we have done with this car is quite unique.
“You recover energy from braking and acceleration, so the car is recovering all the time! And when the car is not typically recovering, at low revs, the bi-turbo is pushed to stop any lag – it’s a very complex system.”
The power can also be transmitted via three engine modes, giving its driver unparalleled control over the engine and its behaviour. The default ‘road mode’ maximises efficiency, ‘qualifying mode’ delivers full force, whilst ‘race mode’ gives a consistent stream of power – enough for approximately seven laps of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, or 32 kilometres. More than enough to get to the nearest Sainsbury’s and back.
A car that spans the globe
Away from this face-to-face, a healthy smattering of laughter moves up the table from INFINITI shareholders. Yet, so transfixed on this project that one representative called “his baby”, Volpe admits that it hasn’t always gone to plan.
Working with a Formula 1 team is a very different experience, as the rear wing attests to. “When you talk about downforce with a Formula 1 team, they talk about 1000 kilograms, or three, four, five thousand,” he chuckles, recalling the communication given to Renault and their first offering.
“We told them that whatever is a component of the body, like the rear wing, we will give them more freedom. By doing that, they came back with the first version of this rear wing which had so much downforce that the car could barely move on the straight!”
In a global project that spans from INFINITI’s headquarters in Hong Kong, the design studio in Paddington, London, the Research and Development centre in Japan, Renault’s F1 factory in Enstone, Oxfordshire to Viry-Châtillon – a southern Paris suburb that hosts Renault’s engine facility – setbacks can take time to overcome, normally.
Then again, this is not normal. Nor is it finished.
“It was fun,” he adds. “It took until the fourth iteration.
“But then, the final one always depends on the track. It’s always a compromise. So we have to wait for our track simulations, it will be very similar to the one you saw but just tuned a bit. If you see the car, it’s curves, it’s clear to see it’s inspired by Formula 1.”
INFINITI are currently undecided on where to test the Project Black S. Barcelona is probably a likely destination, together with the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours – the host of eighteen French Grand Prix from 1991 to 2008 – and Formula 1’s current French home, Circuit Paul Ricard. All proposed venues have their positives and certain demands. Because of this, all will impact the final car’s set-up in their own ways.
The second and final part of The Checkered Flag’s exclusive interview, on INFINITI’s future path in motorsport, can be found here.