A meeting of minds: Aston Martin, JLR and Porsche lead engineers debate the future of performance cars
Three of the greatest minds in motoring assemble to give us their thoughts on performance SUVs, electrification, driver assistance programmes and… beer
Aston Martin’s Matt Becker, Jaguar Land Rover’s Mike Cross and Porsche’s Andreas Preuninger are determined to keep the fun coming
Pick three blokes – any three blokes in the world – to sit around a table with and talk cars. Fast cars, interesting cars, everyday cars, driver’s cars, electric cars, motorsport and more. Come on – who are you gonna pick?
Well, you couldn’t do much better than these three: Matt Becker (chief engineer of vehicle attribute engineering at Aston Martin), Mike Cross (chief engineer, vehicle targets and sign-off, at Jaguar Land Rover) and Andreas Preuninger (director of high-performance cars at Porsche).
These three blokes will each be well known to regular Autocar readers because they’re among the most influential figures in the industry for defining and tuning the character traits of the very best driver’s cars in the world. They collectively have years of experience doing the sort of job most of us could only dream of, and have personally shaped and tailored some utterly unforgettable metal.
We have occasion to talk to them, each in isolation, pretty regularly. But never before the chance to sit them around the same table to gossip about the state of the sports car industry, about each other’s wares, and about all of our hopes and fears for the future of enthusiast motordom.
Not, at least, until now.
You guys have what some would consider the best jobs in the world. But how do you know when it’s done? When is a car finished?
Mike Cross: The trouble is they never really are.
Andreas Preuninger: It’s never done [smiles].
Mike Cross: You just get to a point of sufficiently diminished returns that you know you’re ready for production. I’m not sure I’m ever completely satisfied with something, but I know when I’ve achieved my targets.
Would your colleagues call you a perfectionist?
MC: Definitely. They’d be exasperated with me.
Matt Becker: They might use some other words, too
Do you find you agree with your peers about what makes a really good driver’s car?
MB: There’s certainly agreement within my team, because my guys are hand-picked to recognise what ‘good’ is. It’s a little bit subjective. But you can’t do it all yourself. You need a team with the same instincts as you.
AP: That’s especially true, even now, with chassis engineering. You’re so dependent on what you feel in a car; and that’s really what we try to create and fine-tune. We want the driver to feel what the car is doing and to be sure that the electronic systems are adding to that feeling. It’s a challenge – but it’s important. It’s not just about empirical tests and computers and simulations.
What do young engineers do better now than you did at their age, and what do you wish they did better?
MC: They’re a lot smarter academically than I was, but I’m not sure they’re quite as practical. I think they’ve got to want to love cars, they’ve got to be interested on a mechanical level, and they need an aptitude for it.
AP: I second that completely. Right now, there are still enough engineers with gasoline in their veins to keep us going, because you have to live for the job, to be creative and to think about it day and night in order to be really good. The generation of youngsters right now needs pushing a little bit more and their practical thinking is a little bit short.
Could you pick the guy in your department who’ll be doing your job in 20 years’ time?
MB: Not yet.
MC: Not sure.
If you were starting out today, do you think you’d pick the same career?
MB: Yes. Because, as Mike says, you don’t stop learning; and making use of the talent of the younger guys, with the heads for software, to get the feeling you want in the car is great fun.
MC: It never becomes routine because the next car is always different. Always more to learn.
AP: I’d definitely do it all over again. The sports car has been declared dead so many times, but where there’s technology, there’s always a way. The next 20 years will be even more exciting than the last.
Have driver assist systems made your cars better?
MB: The systems can – and do – enhance the appeal of the car. And in our cars, when you switch them off, they stay off. They’re not still active in the background. The fact is stability and traction control systems have improved so much and have become so clever, they can even pre-empt what’s going to happen to the car. It’s all about tuning them properly so they don’t dilute the driving experience – which is why we’re here.
AP: The big question about them for me is always ‘what purpose is it achieving?’. Torque vectoring on a sports car is very useful. People taking their cars on track days at the weekend want to be quick. So there is a tangible benefit.
MC: Also, getting the vehicle fundamentals right is so important. Then the assistance systems only need to augment what you’ve already got. You want the car to be engaging at low speeds and high speeds.
Can you get the same character we currently see from the engine in a Porsche, Jaguar or Aston Martin from an electric motor?
MC: No. And I think the traditional attributes – design, handling dynamism, comfort, refinement – will become more important in defining vehicle character because the electric motor will define less of it than the IC [internal combustion engine] has.
AP: But by the time there’s no combustion engine we can call upon at all in a sports car, I think we’ll all be long retired anyway – so it’ll be someone else’s problem. We believe the IC engine will be around for a long time yet. We have to look into electromobility, because it makes sense. It doesn’t mean we’re going to start making sports cars that people didn’t ask for.
Will the horsepower race ever end? Can you convince a modern buyer to accept less power?
MB: I’m not sure. We’re going to see increased hybridisation of sports cars in the next 10 years; and since adding electrification means adding weight, you can bet it’ll mean adding power, too. I don’t know where it ends.
AP: We’ll get into diminishing returns pretty soon. For me, 200 horsepower in a car that I should want to get up in the middle of the night and drive would be low. You need some speed to be exciting. For me, 300-350 horses is a minimum in a 1400-1500kg car, to really enjoy driving. Being on the verge of feeling overpowered is key, too. That way, a car never stops being interesting to drive. And for an engineer, taking away grip when you could make more of it is always going to be hard to justify. We will always find other ways to add excitement.
MB: Besides, when I drive classic cars, by and large, I don’t much like them. I tend to think: ‘The brakes don’t feel very good. I don’t much like the steering. It doesn’t have much grip. I don’t like the connection with the rear end.’ And I spend the whole time driving being distracted by what I don’t like. That wouldn’t feel like progress in a new car to me. We’re here to move things forward.
Who makes the best driver’s cars in the world right now, leaving aside your respective paymasters?
MB: I’d have a Ferrari 458 in my garage. That car offered so much emotion, amazing handling response. I like 911s: the last GT3 RS I drove reminded me of the Lotus Exiges I used to work on – incredibly fast with all the emotion and feeling I wanted.
MC: I like cars with a mechanical feel and that aren’t too powerful that you can’t enjoy them on the road. Porsche Caymans are great. I remember driving a Renault Mégane R26R once and, once the tyres were warm, I really enjoyed that. But I often find really powerful cars less satisfying to drive because it often feels like you’re just joining the corners up, and perhaps slowing down too much for them. And going back even further, I had a Lotus Sunbeam and a Chevette HS.
AP: I started out on a VW Scirocco GTI 1600, 110hp. I loved that thing. 960kg. But I like American muscle cars, too: Camaro, Challenger. They have real character. I don’t care about the cheap plastic covers as long as the car underneath is credible.
What matters more in defining success in this business: the particular culture of a company or the individuals in its hierarchy?
MB: Well, [Aston Martin CEO] Andy Palmer’s a keen driver. He only lives around the corner from here [Silverstone], which is great in some ways. He races. He’s really enthusiastic. He trusts me to do my job, but he’ll give his opinion as well. And, while he knows he’s not an expert, that’s worth having. He may pick up something we just haven’t thought about. His passion filters down a long way.
AP: All our top dogs are car guys as well, but I feel the passion at every level in our company. We have very low staff turnover at Porsche – guys in the same job for a decade or more. Lots of experience. All of our guys at Weissach are real enthusiasts. They build cars for themselves, so they go the extra mile. I think you’ll feel that with all of our cars.
And what about the fabled skunkworks projects. Do they still happen?
MB: Yes – because they’re a way around. The product planning and marketing people have their ideas, but they don’t have the insight of the engineers, who know that if you combine a kit of bits in a certain way all in one car, you’ll get something very special. They know that because they work with those bits every day. That’s the essence of the skunkworks car. They used to happen at Lotus. The original V12 Vantage was one, too, and it turned into one of the company’s best driver’s cars.
MC: You just need to build a car; and once you have, it becomes much easier to sell it to the business.
AP: With some cars, PowerPoint will tell you there’s no chance. But if you stick your neck out and produce a car, you make the concept tangible.
MB: I’ve been on testing trips with suppliers like Bosch and, over a beer, I’ve said to a guy: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could develop a traction control system that could learn the traction level as it went and could optimise the system live to almost equal what a racing driver could do?” And suddenly you see a light go on. A year later, there’s a new system that does exactly that. Beer is often all you need.
Does it matter that every sports car brand is making an SUV?
MC: At the end of the day, we’re businesses. We have to be successful and that means making cars that people want.
AP: I don’t see a contradiction. Not at all. I consider myself an enthusiast, too. There are times when I have the lucky situation when I can take a choice of sports cars home, but mostly I take my own Cayenne – because I have to carry this and go there. And it’s a pleasure to drive it.
MB: We’re in the last development phases with DBX now. The breadth of ability of these products is incredible. You can do 300km/h comfortably on the autobahn. You can go to the ’Ring and put in credible lap times. You can drive over a field; put five people in and their luggage; or tow a boat. The dynamic range of capability is phenomenal. But people want the brand as well. And it’s not the car companies or the customers who question whether we should be making them: it’s just you lot.
Who was the best driver you ever sat in with?
MB: Darren Turner’s pretty handy. His speed through corners and smoothness is very impressive.
AP: For me, Walter Röhl. His car control is beyond belief. The steering inputs he makes are so subtle, but crucial – and he’s so damn quick. I always get out of the car with him thinking the same thing: where did he find that grip? It was always an occasion to ride with him. And it still is.
MC: I was driven here, years ago, by John Watson in a Jaguar. He was fantastic – so smooth, used all the track, very fast, very efficient. I’ve been in with Stig Blomqvist on the loose. That was pretty special.
Any big accidents?
MB: It wasn’t quite on the job, but I was definitely practising. There was a bend you’ll find when leaving Lotus which became known as ‘Baby Becker Bend’, unfortunately. I went around this corner in Dad’s Vauxhall Carlton estate and decided I wanted to go sideways, ’cos I thought I could. But I couldn’t. I hit the wall on the other side of the road. It didn’t quite buff out. I was 17. Have had nothing major since – but you do have to look after the cars, which become priceless with the development knowledge they represent.
Who were your biggest professional influences?
MC: I was lucky to have spent a lot of time with Jackie Stewart and Richard Parry-Jones. Both mentored me.
AP: Roland Kussmaul. An engineer and a great friend of Walter’s. He was working at Porsche since the ’60s. He did the Paris-Dakar. Was our main driving dynamics guru, I’d say, within Porsche Motorsport. I learned everything I know about cars, and most of what I know about 911s, from him.
MB: Mine was my father [Roger Becker] because I grew up watching him doing the job I wanted to do. When I was six years old, I’d go for a ride in Lotuses he was evaluating and I could never understand why he was doing lane changes down an empty dual carriageway! Eventually, the penny dropped. It was all drilled into me from a very early age.
Manual or automatic?
MB: Paddle shift.
MC: Paddle shift.
Forced induction or normal aspiration?
MB: Normally aspirated.
AP: Normally aspirated.
MC: High-revving, normally aspirated.
Adaptive dampers or expensive, well-tuned passive ones?
Will the sports car survive the next 50 years?
AP: The last car ever built will be a sports car, I’m sure of that.
MC: I’m sure it will, too. Because enthusiasts will be the last people in the market, won’t they?
Source: Autocar Online