'We're still here, we're still designing and engineering right in Australia...'
Holden has revealed its latest concept car, the Time Attack Concept Racer, online. Damn, it looks good.
We've been treated to many a show-stopping Holden concept over the years, although none quite like this. Looking at it, you could be forgiven for writing it off as a whimsical, unrealistic project crafted by a volume-selling brand's caged designers gone wild.
Yet, as we learned this week in a two-hour session at the lion brand's headquarters, the Time Attack Concept Racer is far more than that.
The headline numbers should be enough: 1000kW, 3240Nm and a Bathurst lap record. Then there's the way it looks. All told, it's a passion project for the talented engineers and designers at GM's isolated yet crucial Holden studios.
In its widely inspired design and inventive engineering, the Time Attack Concept Racer is an emphatic reminder that Holden is still here, it still touts incredible expertise. Local mainstream manufacturing might be dead, but all the Holden automotive talent didn't wither and die with the factory in Elizabeth last year.
There's a fascinating story behind the Time Attack Concept Racer's conception, design and creation. And we were lucky enough to hear it first-hand from the people involved.
How did this come about? Well, it all starts with the end of the local motor show scene.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BIG MOTOR SHOWS?
You remember the big Melbourne and Sydney motor shows. They ran every year, eventually becoming the Australian International Motor Show to remain relevant and cost-effective, alternating state-to-state in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Ultimately, it had all ended by 2013. (Melbourne cancelled, then Sydney followed.)
The shows gave car nuts a place to poke and prod new metal from around the world, but they also gave Holden's design team a platform to show what they could do when practical considerations were removed from the conversation.
Among the magic moments were the 1969 Hurricane (forward-looking tech), the TT36 (should've made production), the Efijy (stunning, surely you'll agree) and the Coupe 60 (VE Monaro, is that you?). There are more, but we won't list them all here. Regardless, they were revealed at motor shows Down Under.
Richard Ferlazzo, Holden Design director, says developing the Time Attack Concept Racer was all about showing local design to a local audience, instead of foreign motor show crowds with Buick, Opel and Chevrolet concepts.
"Behind this whole concept was the idea we would continue to do concept cars for the Australian market, and for the Holden brand. That's really important to us," he explained, sitting around a round table in his sprawling office. The lack of budget for flashy, physical concept vehicles aimed at Holden's heartland likely also plays a role.
"Without the motor shows in Australia anymore, sadly they went a number of years ago, Holden lost that forum where we could showcase our concepts at a motor show to the public.
"We continue to make concept cars, by the way, for our other GM brands... but our heart is still with the Holden brand."
WHY TACKLE BATHURST?
Holden is at pains to make clear the Time Attack Concept Racer isn't designed to be a 'replacement' for today's V8/Australian Supercars racers. For one, it's designed to be a tearaway one-lap weapon, not an endurance racer.
That raises the question: why bother focusing on Bathurst at all?
For one, Ferlazzo reminds us, it's been five decades since Holden's first win at the legendary circuit, and the Time Attack is designed to commemorate that win.
Second, it's still the pinnacle of Australian motorsport. If you're trying to make a splash, lapping Mount Panorama in 1:29.00 is a pretty good way to do it.
How quick is that, you might ask? Right now, the official quickest lap around Bathurst is a 2:01.567, set by Shane Van Gisbergen in the McLaren 650S GT3 racer.
Scott McLaughlin was the first Supercars driver to drop into the 2:03 bracket with a 2:03.831 in Bathurst 1000 qualifying last year, while Greg Murphy's legendary 'Lap of the Gods' was a 2:05.8594.
The unofficial record, however, was set by Jenson Button in a McLaren MP4-23 F1 car during a Vodafone stunt in 2011. His time? 1:48.8.
Although it's not necessarily easy, it's not impossible to imagine a car like the Time Attack Concept Racer shattering that time.
Ewan Kingsbury, lead creative designer on this project – and the man behind the TT36 Torana and Coupe 60 concepts, among others – says bringing Mount Panorama into play was aimed at linking the past with the future.
"We could have gone down that route where we did a sort of future V8 Supercar," he says, sitting alongside Ferlazzo in the huge design wing of Holden's Port Melbourne headquarters. "When I look at GM and GM Holden, it's actually a company that's very forward-looking now."
"I wanted to make sure the car that we did captured the passion and the ethos of Bathurst, and Holden's relationship to it from the past, but that it also took us into the future," he says.
"We're not harking back to the past, but we're still capturing that spirit and that winning attitude."
And thus we come, neatly, to the car itself. Part design study, part engineering project, and a very big flight of fancy, the Time Attack could be considered far-fetched. After all, it only exists in a set of detailed renders, a video, and a small-scale clay mirror model.
But the concept has been designed with one foot in reality. Maybe it'll be possible in 2025, maybe 2030, but all the technologies featured here are already developed, or are being developed in some form.
"There's something for everybody," Ferlazzo says of the engineering behind the Time Attack Concept Racer. "Those that just admire the beauty and don't understand the technical stuff, okay, they're satisfied. But a lot of people like to drill a little bit deeper, and it's like unwrapping a present."
"There's another layer-on-layer underneath there. It's like, 'wow! That's really cool.'"
HERE ARE THE HEADLINE NUMBERS
The 100km/h sprint takes just 1.25 seconds, and top speed is 480km/h, thanks to four inboard motors making 250kW each. Each puts power to the wheels through a three-speed planetary gearbox.
There's torque vectoring at all four corners, managing a combined 3240Nm on the fly.
The four motors draw on a graphene, solid-state 90MJ (25kWh) battery pack capable of charging in just 90 seconds. That's using the 1000kW, 800V/1250A charger pictured here, naturally.
Graphene has long been mooted as a way to hugely improve our current batteries. It's made from a lattice of carbon atoms, and is light, highly conductive and, based on weight, stronger than steel. It's also expensive to produce, and hasn't yet been commercialised. But, hey... so what?
"Because it's virtual, money isn't an issue – which is obviously a huge part of racing and building anything," Kingsbury says, referencing the blend of emerging and new technologies on board.
Obviously, developing a graphene battery would be fiendishly expensive in the real world, but developing the Time Attack Concept virtually opened a few different doors.
"Because we were able to 'blue sky' the whole thing, and just pick different ideas from motorsport, aeronautics, from all sorts of fields, we were able to mix that pot a bit differently and hopefully provide something which is new," he elaborated.
The body itself is made of carbon-fibre, with a graphene-coated polycarbonate upper section. That polycarbonate canopy is, according to Kingsbury, inspired by a NACA duct. Check out the top-down view; the resemblance is clear.
If the NACA duct is a subtle nod to the dark art of aerodynamics, the underbody is a forward-looking shrine to it.
Starting at the front, the forward-leaning snout has been designed with minimal area in mind. There's an ankle-breaking splitter, too, but the showpiece is a set of four 'ground effects' fans.
They're not the ground effects you might have seen on, say, a Chaparral. Instead of fans, the concept uses electrically-controlled 'cyclogyros' spinning at 50,000rpm. When they're required, the blades spring out and create downforce. They retract when not needed, allowing Holden to tweak downforce from corner-to-corner on the fly.
Think of it as the aerodynamic equivalent of torque vectoring. Coupled with a hydraulically-actuated rear wing, the Time Attack Concept Racer should stick to the Bathurst blacktop like glue.
BRINGING IT TO LIFE
Before it could be rendered, the Time Attack Concept needed to be, you know, imagined. Rather than going to the team with a restrictive production-focused brief from above, the idea of a forward-thinking racer was thrown to the wider design team, who then pitched ideas.
Ewan Kingsbury put forward the winning proposal.
"We work competitively," Kingsbury told CarAdvice. "Every project we work on, a team of designers will submit proposals and then it's 'best man wins'... That kinda brings out the best in everyone I think, and it kind of makes sure you've got to be at the top of your game."
There aren't all that many links between the Time Attack and the new Astra, Commodore, Equinox, Acadia... you get the idea. The headlights share their basic shape with the current range, but there are very few clear links to Holden's styling language. You could put any other badge on this racer and it'd be as convincing.
Does this suggest a lack of identity in this concept? Was the Holden team so caught up in the mind-bending technology and road-hugging aero that it neglected to design a Holden? That call – which, in many ways, ignores the complexity of effectively marrying efficiency to style – is ultimately up to the observer... but being able to mistake a Holden concept for a European hypercar is no bad thing.
Whatever the case, Ferlazzo argues there's a genuine link to classic Holdens in the concept's "road presence".
"With any brand, when we put an expression like this out, it just captures the DNA," he says when prodded on how the Time Attack fits into a line-up that includes the Equinox – a car unlikely to win many styling awards. (At least it wasn't designed by the Australian team.)
"The creative surfacing, the way it sits on the road – the stance, the road presence – and the bringing together of forms that represents the brand," he goes on, slipping in some designer lingo.
"This one has the purposeful stance, the assertive look, and the athletic feel that I think is synonymous with Holden."
Will that transfer into future production cars, Holden or otherwise? Not directly. But the stance, or the 'gestures', underpinning this design could well appear on future General Motors vehicles aimed at a global audience.
Making the Time Attack Concept a (virtual) reality was the job of Holden's in-house design visualisation team. It was sketched on paper and then turned into a scale clay model, where the design team refined its original ideas. That's standard practice when developing any physical vehicle, but the team says it was also instructive for the virtual Time Attack.
The design team worked hand-in-hand with the engineers at Port Melbourne to bring the design to life, as part of a process that involved a lot of back-and-forth. Hopefully we'll be able to enjoy the fruits of that process somewhere like Forza or Gran Turismo, although Holden says it hasn't made any advances.
"It's been a great learning experience for me as a designer, working with engineers... and often, me pushing quite hard and being unreasonable, unrealistic with some of my demands," Kingsbury explained.
Often, it was a case of the engineers coming back and "over-delivering", coming back with "figures and numbers, and solution and ways of doing things that have really impacted me as a designer," he continued.
Once the design was locked in, the car was 3D-rendered in CAD. Things like the suspension setup, nitty-gritty of the body structure, and the fine detailing on the underbody have all been captured in great detail, while the suspension geometry has all been created properly. The final touch was a video, created entirely in-house.
Ferlazzo went out of his way to highlight the fact Holden has truly gone to the time and effort – more than once, actually. Although it's forward-looking, the concept exists in some form and is "entirely plausible" in an engineering sense.
"Can we build it today, with the current technology? Well, not in the form that we've shown it. But it's not far off, it's using technologies that are around the world, and people are talking about," he says.
"We haven't just fantasised... they're talking about batteries that can do these kind of things, and all the other technologies, so whilst you can't buy it right now, it's right on the horizon."
"That adds to the whole intrigue about it."
Richard Ferlazzo won't say how often they'll come, and what they'll look like, but he wants virtual concepts to happen on a "regular basis" going forward.
Logic suggests the reaction to this Time Attack racer will plan a role, too, but now the design team has a taste of the freedom offered by developing cars like this for the Holden brand specifically, they're unlikely to let it go.
"It's great to be designing production cars, we're very grateful for the opportunities we have," he explained.
"But like anything, when it's constrained it's very frustrating. This allows that outlet, that venting of frustration, that you don't have to make it in a form that can be reproduced in hundreds of thousands at an economical price.
"You can push the boundaries a bit... that's very satisfying, because it allows that free expression. With the shackles off I can do this!"