There’s nothing unusual about the arrival of a new sports car. New makers of small sports cars arrive all the time. Some of them memorable, others are not. I won't drag this out: the Elemental RP1 is a little bit special.
In its technical make-up the RP1 is similar to, but not exactly like, several other lightweight roadsters. The tub is a carbonfibre one – of the good sort, not the cheaper sort, but I’ll come back to that – with steel subframes hung from either end.
The front subframe supports the cooling systems and front suspension, which comprises double wishbones and inboard spring and damper units. Behind the two-seat cabin sits the rear suspension – double wishbones but not inboard dampers - and the powertrain.
This is one of two key areas where Elemental is a touch unusual. Instead of a transverse engine and the gearbox it would get on a road car – as you’d find in an Ariel Atom, KTM X-Bow or Zenos E10 – the Elemental’s engine, a 2.0-litre Ford Ecoboost unit, is mounted longitudinally and drives the rear wheels through a six-speed Hewland gearbox that’s mounted behind it. Which all means that the engine can be set lower in the chassis. The BAC Mono is similar, although it is only a single-seater.
Where the Elemental differs again from the light car norm is in the amount of underbody aerodynamics it offers. There’s a long diffuser at the front of the car and another one at the rear, and the claim is that at 100mph the RP1 will generate 200kg of downforce.
Weight is claimed at 580kg, with a 47 percent front, 53 percent rear balance. And given that the Ecoboost engine is tuned to produce 320bhp, the car should get along fairly well. Elemental is yet to produce a full set of numbers because this is a prototype, but it estimates a 0-60mph time of 2.8sec and a 0-100mph time of 6.4sec, which is what you’d hope it should do. As I write in July the company is working on a production-spec car, with deliveries expected early in 2016.
Elemental calls this a prototype, but I’ve driven ‘production ready’ cars that don’t feel quite so pleasingly finished. The carbonfibre is well presented, the lightweight one-piece seats slide back and forth easily and the cabin is simple and clean.
Some things will change – the seat will go lower, the pedals will adjust too and some more elbow room will be put into the carbonfibre tub. All of those will benefit the driving position (and the aero), although it’s far from a disaster now. What is quaint, and cool, is a high foot position, which allows the space for that front diffuser. It’s something you notice and that feels odd once, but then you never think about again. It’s very natural.
The whole forward view is good because there are no pillars. The rear mirrors are fine and even though the Elemental is a two-seater and 1775mm wide, the cockpit still feels snug. Not cramped, just secure. The engine fires to a zingy idle but has measured low-rev responses, the pedals are all nicely weighted and positive and the turning circle is good for a car like this. Little details such as these make the RP1 feel well-engineered.
What it does on the move only reinforces that. At the moment this is a hard-worked prototype with a limited-slip differential that has a slight grumble and snatch, although that’s simple enough to iron out and it isn’t an issue on bigger throttle inputs.
What’s already extremely well sorted is the smoothness of the pneumatic paddle-shift change on the gearbox, whose clutch you can forget about once you’re rolling. Upshifts and downshifts are smooth, while engine response is good. Delivery is a touch boosty, as you’d expect, and the soundtrack is accompanied by the odd whoosh and whistle, but there’s honest mechanical noise and power is easily metered out. And there’s bags of torque.
Say what you like about turbo engines in small cars, but what they deliver is faintly astonishing response across the board. The RP1 is one of those that requires a deep breath and a long straight before you bury your right foot to the stop.
Elemental, then, has fitted a traction control system, which is switchable. Even with it on, though, it allows quite enough slip for a one-off and theoretically priceless prototype, thank you. Ask for more power than the 18in Michelin Pilot Supersports can handle and the RP1 will brap-brap-brap at you discreetly while accelerating as quickly as it can.
However, approach the limits of adhesion mid-corner instead and the RP1 understeers not at all before allowing the tail to slide utterly controllably and predictably wide, from where it’s easy and instinctive to gather up, with no untoward body movements or rocking. It handles beautifully.
You’ve got to be going at a fair pace for that to happen - there’s lots of mechanical and, at higher speeds, aero grip. In cornering, the advantage of the RP1’s racy mechanical layout also becomes apparent. Because its engine is low there’s no slop or pitch as a high-mounted engine tries to dictate things. It just slips benignly.
We only drove this car on a closed circuit, and even though its surface wasn’t brilliant I wouldn’t want to say too much about the ride other than it feels about as firm as it ought and needs to be. The unassisted 2.5-turn steering is wonderfully natural and feelsome, too.
Some customers might want a faster rack, but if it were, it’d be heavier and more nervy, so I think the balance is about right. In fact, the whole dynamic experience feels right to me, and at the moment it’s the standout highlight of this track-orientated car.
That thing I said I’d come back to, though... making cars out of first-rate carbonfibre, even if you hone the production process (as Elemental has) to minimise time and waste, means the RP1 is expensive. As in £75,750 for the first 10 customers, and rising after that.
But as companies such as Radical and BAC have found, there are people willing to spend a lot of money on a first-rate track-day car, should you make the right sort of product. In other words, one that is well developed, well finished and that offers something really special. I have a feeling that the Elemental RP1 is that sort of car.