We take the Tesla Model 3 Performance to the track
Formula E just completed its 50th all-electric race and is starting its fifth season. The Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy is being run as a support series to Formula E. Bernie Eccelstone said last year that F1 should go electric in 2021. And both NASCAR and IMSA have at least given lip service to the idea of electric racing. Heck, an all-electric eCopo Camaro made a nine-second pass at a drag strip just recently. Clearly, something’s happening out there. Or is about to happen. Or might happen. Whatever.
It was time that I, Vaughn, did my part for e-Motorsports. So I got a Tesla Model 3 Performance, the hot rod of electric cars, and went racing with the San Diego Region of the SCCA Solo Championship. That’s right, I went autocrossing in a Tesla Model 3.
In case you haven’t done it in a while, let me remind you that autocrossing is still a lot of fun. It takes almost no brains, very little skill (at the entry level at least) and it’s almost impossible to hit anything. Perfect for an idiot like me. So I drove down to San Diego and had at it.
As mentioned, my particular Tesla was the Model 3 Performance, with the vaunted Track Mode option in the Driving menu. Performance gets you a laundry list of features over the rear-drive base model, including Performance Dual Motor All-wheel drive, with electric motors front and rear, in this case a four-pole induction motor in front and a six-pole internal permanent magnet motor in rear. Together they produce 450 hp and 471 lb-ft of torque, the latter from the get-go as soon as you step on the accelerator. You also get 20-inch wheels wrapped in 235/35ZR20 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires -- and a ride height lowered by just under half an inch. The whole rig tips the scales at 4072 pounds. With ridiculously precise traction control monitoring everything from tire slip and yaw to what TV show you watched last night the car gets to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds and to a top speed listed on the Tesla website of 162 mph.
I didn’t go that fast.
Despite the car’s EPA range of 325 miles on a tankful of electricity, the first thing I did on my race weekend was to stop at the Tesla Supercharger nearest the autocross track in San Diego to top off the battery. Wouldn’t want to coast to a halt like an Andretti at Indy. Had this been a different race weekend, say one at a race track with half-hour lapping sessions, the batteries in the Model 3 may have started to heat up, at which point the car would automatically slow down a little while it sorted out all that thermal management. You couldn’t really race a Model 3 like you would an M3 if the race went for more than three or four laps. Life’s full of compromises. But at an autocross course where most people are doing single laps in under a minute, thermal management shouldn't be a problem.
I applied my number and class designation in blue painter’s tape just about as well as Von Dutch might have done it, if he’d been blind, and I got in line.
With 100 percent of its torque available as soon as the motors start turning, the Model 3 Performance is a silent killer on the course. And I don’t mean cone killer. Despite weighing over two tons, the Model 3 leaps out of the starting gate. Flooring the accelerator is like having someone windshield-squeegee your face. Your mug gets all contorted like a character approaching light speed in a science fiction movie. Though I didn’t time acceleration I have no trouble believing that 3.2-second 0-60 claim. It’s really interesting moving off the line as fast as the Model 3 does it and not hearing any tire squeal. In most performance cars, launching from a standstill is a matter of balancing wheelspin with grip to get the maximum movement. The Tesla makes nary a chirp when it leaves the line, it just leaves – bye!
There was another Model 3 Performance at the track that day, driven by Denny Bevis, USMC helicopter pilot retired.
“Today I drove in a class with WRXs and pretty much I’m sure the car is better than WRXs; I wasn’t, but the car is,” Bevis said. “It’s easy to drive, easy to drive on the street, easy to drive in autocross, the Track Mode is essential if you want maximum performance on the track. All in all, I just enjoy the hell out of the car.”
Bevis felt the same as I did about the Model 3’s acceleration.
“It really puts the power to the ground,” he said. “I don’t know how you could possibly spin the tires on this unless you were on glare ice. It’s phenomenal. The first run it almost pulled my hands off the steering wheel. I was just grabbing the steering wheel for dear life.”
Bevis has won the E SP class in autocross four times, not to mention piloted Cobra helo flights too numerous to mention, so he knows about acceleration.
The autocross course was a fun mix of slalom(s), decreasing-radius turns, constant-radius turns and all kinds of other turns. Tesla likes to compare the Model 3 Performance to the BMW M3. I'd say it's about 80 or 90 percent there. There is a certain naturalness or at least familiarity to the way an M3 –- or an S5 or a Camaro ZL1 1LE -– feels on a track. Those traditional performance cars have some body roll, some tire slip, some lively character to the way they feel. Your brain is calculating when and at what rate the body roll will happen and anticipating it. Your ear is listening for the first sounds of tire squeal from the outside front tire. The seat of your pants is waiting to feel the car pitch into a turn and then maybe for the rear end to kick out as you crank the wheel. All that except the tire squeal is technically happening in the Model 3 Performance but in its own, muted, semi-robotic way. It’s not as overboosted or semi-artificial as an AMG product on a race track, but neither is it what your brain is prepared to feel. You have to get used to it.
A few days before the autocross, I had taken the Model 3 Performance up and over Angeles Crest Highway and spent a while adjusting all the variables to get the best feel and the best sporty response. At first, the steering was in Comfort mode, which was definitely not right. So I opened the menu and tapped Sport, which was much better; faster, more direct, no lag, no waiting. I set the accelerator to Sport and put the Regen in Standard, which was the maximum available without engaging Track Mode. I was “strongly encouraged” by Tesla not to engage Track Mode on anything but a track, so on Angeles Crest Highway I didn’t. As a result the car still felt good but not entirely natural -- it was a little forced, as if it was told, “Now you will be sporty or so help me!” It tried, but it felt a little like an AMG feels, where controls and inputs are forced and overboosted in a desperate attempt to mimic a sports sedan.
Down at the autocross in San Diego I immediately put it in Track Mode. Track Mode loosens up the traction control and stability control while altering the regenerative braking and even the cooling systems for the motors and the battery pack to get maximum performance. Through the course I didn’t get the rear end out very much at all, since that would have slowed my times. But I did manage to go too fast into a couple corners and understeer a little. While there was ultimately some intervention from the stability control and throttle control in the faster parts of the track, it was easily the least intrusive of these systems I’ve ever driven.
The most interesting part of the handling equation is the way it uses regenerative braking to slow down. I first noticed this riding a Zero electric motorcycle: ease off on the throttle and the regen slows the bike going into a turn. Hit the apex and ease back on accelerator and - zwip! - out you go. It's the same with the Model 3 Performance, just to a lesser extent. At the right track you could potentially never touch the brakes.
After the first run in San Diego I had a pretty good lap time, I thought. At least until the SCCA sent a guy over to point out the slalom I’d completely bypassed. There are two slaloms, ya see? There’s one over there, too. Oh, okay. Strangely, my times were about the same whether I ran one or both slaloms. Don’t know what that says about my talent.
The rest of my lapping sessions I experimented with throttle, regen, brakes and different lines through the corners. But this is all where that talent stuff comes in. Suffice to say though that, in the right hands, a car like the Tesla Model 3 could probably beat a lot of the cars that show up on your typical track day, at least on a short, tight track. At Laguna Seca or Spa, less so.
By the end of the day I was convinced that the Track Mode feature of my Model 3 Performance was astounding, easily the most stable, entertaining and foolproof of any such system on any car. Hang the tail out like yesterday’s laundry and then just leave it out there as long as you want, until the tires pop if you like. Usually, these systems allow a little bit of slip and slide then crank the fun down to about zero. Tesla lets you slide around more if you want. Later, I went to a far corner of the parking lot and did a few of the best Formula Drift-style drifts I’ve ever done in any car since Aunt Madge’s Buick in the snow in Rochester. You could stay in opposite lock all damn day.
So, does all this mean that the future of racing is going to be electric? I think so. Eventually. Probably. I still appreciate McLarens, Ferraris and Porsches, but you can’t beat the acceleration and the control you get from systems like Track Mode. The new car in Formula E has a big enough battery to last the whole race now, whereas in the earlier Formula Es drivers had to come in and swap cars halfway through the event. Some racers and fans will miss the noise of the engines and the smell of gasoline, but maybe some won’t. And before you knock it, use one of those seven-day, 1000-mile test drives and take a Model 3 Performance to a track, assuming the agreement you sign doesn’t prevent it, which it might not, not yet, anyway. Only then should you pass judgement. You might like it. A lot.