The 2014 Dodge Viper that got away: What could have been

Lotus veteran Ian Sharp had experience in nearly every type of European motorsports before moving to Chrysler in 1989. He worked on the original Jeep Grand Cherokee and the highly successful Dodge Ram NASCAR racing program.

In February 2010, after being asked by Chrysler for ideas on a new Viper, Ian Sharp presented this ambitious plan for a new racing and production-car program to SRT leaders.

The plan was imaginative and ambitious, featuring kinetic energy recovery systems (which have been successful in European racing), and an advanced chassis. The Sharp Viper was designed as a racing car first, with the production car based on the racer, but respected the Conner Road factory’s limitations. SRT did not tell Mr. Sharp what the time and cost limits on the project were; those may not have been set yet.

flybridThere were three basic differences in philosophy between the Viper that is, and the one that got away:

  • Using a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) to take energy recovered from the brakes.
  • Designing the race and production versions simultaneously, working with an established Le Mans racing team.
  • Using the car to usher in an experimental division, just as the original Viper was a test for applying AMC’s design system to the much larger Chrysler organization.

The design would be done in Michigan. Mr. Sharp had lined up Danny Sullivan as the lead spokesman; Peter Elleray (designer of the Bentley Speed 8 and other cars); Dave Price (experienced F1, GP2, Mercedes sports car, Aston Marton, Deltawing, etc. team manager); and Ian Sharp himself. Mr. Sharp and his team examined current and potential competition in ALMS, car by car, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses of both the cars and the design teams.

To control costs, commercial sponsors would be brought in early; a Michigan-based luxury goods company and the largest online web-trading company were already on-board. Engineering would be done in partnership with other companies, notably Magna / Cosma International would lend production engineering and R&D advice; Cosma had expertise in CNC bent steel tubes and extruded aluminum, and expressed strong interest in being the low volume chassis and racing chassis supplier, showcasing some of their advanced technologies. In addition, Delta Motors would provide racing engineering and input; SRT/Dodge would lead the direction and production engineering.

proposal welding Viper

The program would start in 2010, with design and development taking place in 2010 and 2011, targeting “a good showing at Le Mans,” with one conventionally powered car and one KERS-equipped car. Mr. Sharp confidently predicted class wins at Le Mans in 2013 and global championships in 2014.

Viper as the spearhead for experimental design

Ian Sharp wrote:

An undeclared theme running through this proposal was that, with the demise of Liberty Technical Affairs, the new SRT organization should take the mantle of the experimental division where ideas could be examined on a small, low-volume vehicle program, with minimal risk and exposure.

Viper runs with an air restrictor, because its engine is far too large for the series. Using a Hemi V8 and KERS could improve handling without losing power.

Before making the presentations, I got a meeting of minds with some of the more visionary members of the group; we believed it would make sense to broaden out Viper to be more of a platform that could stand alone. To this end, I proposed a minimalist, raw Viper with a Hemi V8 as the low level model, but with a Flybrid KERS system to bring the performance up to the V10 variant; it would be lighter and more fuel efficient. The high level V10 model would have been a high priced, plush-interior model, with the best audio etc. The low level would have been the bare knuckle racer, with the “trick” KERS system, and would have made a much better racing platform with abundant interest by the waning youth interest in cars in general, having some “cool” technological features.

proposal-hybrid Viper

I think Bob Lutz stole the line from me, when I first came over here, where I said, “Often the consumer doesn’t know what they want, until you give it to them.” (It may be that great minds think alike.) I had spoken to the ALMS and ACO, both friends of mine, and unofficially, they said, “If you bring it, although the rules don’t allow such a thing in GT racing, they said it would be unequivocally allowed in”, and even embraced for its technological solutions to both power and fuel economy. So everything was set, or so I thought.

Another theme was to develop a true factory-based business model, as the Europeans do it (Porsche, Audi, and VW), with their racing operations based close to the main headquarters for close personal interaction, and if need be daily meetings to cross fertilize people and ideas.

The race oriented design

What would the flybrid car have cost? Ian wrote: “In doing my sums, I think we could have built 100 V8s with KERS [V8 hybrids with V10-like power] and sold them at $75,000 each with a stripped out interior package, quilted old-style press-stud headliner and inner door panels, Tremec gearbox, bare-bones seat, etc, for a production GT3 racing spec for the road.”

The race-oriented design was essential, Mr. Sharp felt, given the extremely competitive Le Mans field in both the United States and Europe. As one example, he noted that the roll cage could be built into the structure in the production car; in the minimalist racing variant, windshield glass would be directly bonded onto the cage, saving weight. Aerodynamics could be optimized with CFD analysis (which is standard practice, but with much greater attention to cooling), and a small model program with moving ground plane analysis, building on Mr. Sharp’s NASCAR work. He expected to see modifications in the splitter and engine intake area, since the current front splitter looks as though it was designed in a fixed wind tunnel.

Some benefits would include having suspension pickup points placed so race tires could optimize the geometry (better handling, less tire wear); so the racing car could accept AN bolts (toughened, aircraft-grade bolts); and providing two mounting positions for the knuckles (or using enough material in the knuckles to allow the hub to be re-machined to accept a racing ride height).

Mr. Sharp suggested a possible “dual path” setup, with the carryover chassis running temporarily while a CNC bent tube chassis with bonded composite channels was created and raced. A “hybrid chassis” could also be created from the current and future designs. He wrote in September 2013:

After the initial introduction of the vehicles at mid-Ohio, I could see some areas of design improvement, so I wrote to Ralph Gilles again at the end of 2012. Peter Ellery had offered to critique the design “free of charge” (and Peter’s time is not cheap at all). This was rejected, but the two items of commercial sponsorship I could bring to the program were of interest. In the end, even the commercial people did not bother to respond.

Fuel saving and power optimization

In 2013, GM spokesman Mark Reuss said that there might be a hybrid Corvette in the future. Will SRT be late to the party?

Fuel efficiency is essential for long races, where saving one pit stop for refueling can mean the difference between a win and a mediocre showing. Mr. Sharp suggested researching direct injection, Fiat’s MultiAir system, transaxle optimization (from dynamic index calculations), and a “Flybrid” system. “Flybrid” systems, similar to those used on the original Chrysler Patriot concept racing car, using a flywheel to store kinetic energy from braking; the optimal design for Viper would likely have been incorporating the Flybrid into the transaxle. Mr. Sharp wrote,

Unfortunately, in the major meeting, the engine group was dismissive, as the “NIH/we have never done it like that before” syndrome was very evident. They were not open to new ideas, much as the Patriot was received so many years before (1992) and I suspect many of those naysayers are still holding court at SRT. I am afraid that this type of thinking, of just coming into work, taking a check after working oneself into a nice little niche, without having to put one’s self out there and take any risk, will be the death knell of the US automotive industry. I have seen it all too often within Chrysler and look where it ended up, with bailouts and a near death experience.

proposal viper roll cage

I fear those lessons have still not been heard, even this time around! For example, the visually stunning design of the new Tesla range is quite astounding, and it appears that his philosophy of taking risks is also being noted by young potential buyers, who are more in tune with technology.

Modern flywheels are not especially large; one design, made by Flybrid Systems, is made of carbon fiber, flying around at 62,000 rpm within a vacuum housing, connected up to a torroidal CVT or clever Flybrid-geared design system. The flybrid design can cut fuel use by 25% in racing conditions, while storing 70% of braking energy, to drive the vehicle back to speed.

In a future Viper with fewer chassis constraints, an energy recovery system could feed power to the front wheels, increasing the effective tire contact patch during acceleration.

What actually happened

SRT chose Riley Motorsports and a conventional refinement of the prior Viper, a choice driven by cost and time, since existing production methods and tooling could be re-used. It’s possible that Chrysler leaders also flinched in anticipation of what the Viper community might think of a “hybrid advanced Viper,” and racing a V8 Viper.

Patriot blueprint

Other manufacturers successfully took the path blazed by the 1990s’ Chrysler Patriot, which was ahead of its time. The Viper itself finished the Le Mans race, but did not take class honors; in ALMS, the Viper has generally been running behind Corvettes. Mr Sharp wrote:

Viper needs help in the form of waivers and special concessions to stay competitive. This is moving back to a form of NASCAR racing model “for the show,” which Dodge just exited. One has to question this direction. Sports car racing, Le Mans in particular, has built its brand over the last 90 years on spectator interest through technical excellence and fuel efficiency – so Viper (and, in fairness, at least one other team) has thrown the USC and ACO an unwelcome curve ball to politically manage.

Would Mr. Sharp’s proposal have yielded better results, and given Chrysler more of a reputation for technological wizardry? There is no way to know, but perhaps it would have been better if Chrysler had done what has worked so often in the past... taken a bigger risk and gambled on doing something new.

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2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10

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