The Street Car/Racing Car Schism

Vettel 2014 Infiniti Q50

There are few maxims more durable than race on Sunday, sell on Monday. Or, in Infiniti’s case, sell on Wednesday, race on Sunday. That’s how Formula 1 driver Sebastian Vettel wound up behind the wheel of a 2014 Infiniti Q50 last week to tout the retuned sport sedan’s handling prowess days before he won the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

Much speculation has revolved around how much involvement the four-time World Champion will take in tuning Infinitis as the brand’s “director of performance.” I submit that it doesn't matter. I submit that racing cars and track performance simply don’t translate to exciting street cars.

There are many, many differences between racing cars and street cars, but it all boils down to the fact that racing cars are engineered exclusively to go fast. No one—certainly not racing drivers—cares how they feel going slow.

Taking this approach toward street car development can lead to a number of undesirable results. The first is that the car is simply harsh and unpleasant in street driving. See how much you care about the Nissan GT-R’s Nürburgring lap time when you’re clunking and clattering through traffic.

Just as unsatisfactory is when carmakers try to develop a car that performs stupendously well on the race track without any side effects on the street. Modern technologies, like active dampers and infinitely tunable electric power steering, can make a car superb on the track but underwhelming in normal driving.

That’s how we wind up with something like the current BMW 3-series. I’ve had multiple opportunities to experience the latest 3-series at Michigan’s GingerMan Raceway and have come away impressed each time. The chassis is balanced; the engine—even the 2.0-liter four-cylinder—is willing; the steering is direct and provides necessary feedback when dialing into turns. And yet remarkably little of this translates to the street. The electric power steering is too light and numb at lower speeds, and the turbo four clatters dully at lower rpm. For a racing driver, what a car feels like at 30 mph means nothing. For me, it means a whole lot.

Last but not least, there are times when the technology that makes a car faster on the track actually makes a car less fun on the road. Yes, I’m talking about the dual-clutch transmission. If you’re a racing driver in a racing car, a dual-clutch transmission makes all the sense in the world—it’s faster and it’s more consistent. End of story. Besides, there’s enough to do while speeding around a track without ever having to touch a clutch pedal. An instructor at the (excellent) Porsche Sport Driving School in Leeds, Alabama, told me that a perfect heel-to-toe downshift is merely “the candle on the icing of the cake” in properly setting up for a corner—infinitely less important than precise braking and steering. But in the world of stoplights and mind numbing commutes, I need all the icing and candles I can get. And then there’s the simple fact that for me, an enthusiast driver who considers a good day at the track one in which nothing breaks, the fraction of a second saved by a dual-clutch automatic means very little.

To be clear, I’m not saying track performance is not important, just as I’m not blaming Sebastian Vettel for the lifeless steering in the Q50 (for that you can look to the Nissan/Infiniti executives who decided to introduce steer-by-wire technology in a segment where steering feel is critical). There’s a reason this magazine’s Automobile of the Year testing includes a component at GingerMan Raceway. Cars tell you a whole lot about how well they’re engineered and put together when they’re skidding through corners, braking at threshold, and revving near redline for several laps.

But racing cannot be the primarily test of a vehicle for the simple reason that racing drivers and enthusiast drivers have fundamentally different parameters. I have no doubt Vettel is very good at determining what a car is doing and communicating that to engineers. But when Vettel or any other racing driver talks about how a car feels, they are not evaluating whether or not they had fun. They’re talking about how the machine can be made to go faster. That’s a very worthy pursuit, but it should not be the defining pursuit for an Infiniti Q50 nor for any other enthusiast car.

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