2023 Spartan | PH Review

A fraternal dream has delivered an Aussie-rules track car brimmed with top-flight engineering nous…

By John Howell / Sunday, 14 May 2023 / Loading comments

Remember Steve McQueen’s 1971 Le Mans epic? I’m referring particularly to the stuffing of a Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512. Well, those crash scenes didn’t destroy the precious originals, you’ll be pleased to hear. No, those were Lola T70 chassis disguised with Ferrari and Porsche bodywork. The poor old Lola was seen as expendable at the time, so it seems right that now the Lola – a successful racer in its own right, don’t forget – has had its pretty skin stretched over a spaceframe that’s not its own.

Okay, the Spartan isn’t a Lola replica. Not at all. This is an all-new track car, and the brainchild of a couple of good-ol’ Aussie boys: brothers, Nick and Peter Pap. They wanted their clean-sheet fantasy machine to come to fruition with a flavour of the ‘60s, and that’s why the Spartan bears a passing resemblance to the T70 Spyder. I can see it, too, especially when I look at the Spartan square on at the rear. The difference, though, is that massive rear wing and full-length diffuser, both of which are very 21st century. As is the Spartan’s all-carbon bodywork and Honda K24 four-cylinder motor.

Combined, these facets make for interesting reading. A K24 typically tops out at around 200hp. Yet when we first reported this car’s birth, peak power for the Spartan was a claimed 400hp. That’s thanks to a Rotrex supercharger and thoroughly reworked internals – forged pistons and the like. But since then, the dyno has spoken. The engine isn’t producing 400hp. Oh no, the 2.4-litre is actually batting with 460hp, and with a Chapman-esque approach to weight, it has very little to move, too. Only 700kg if you discount the driver, nearer 800kg if I’m on board. Without a lump like me in it, the Spartan has a power-to-weight ratio of 657hp per tonne; for context, the very fast Ferrari 296 GTB’s figure is 565hp per tonne. That makes the Spartan very, very fast. We’re talking 2.3 seconds to 62mph and a top speed of around 155mph.

It’s going to need some downforce, then, and that’s where the wing, diffuser and adjustable front splitter come into play. These have the potential to rival the downforce of a Porsche 992 GT3 RS – around 800kg to press the Spartan’s Yokohama Advan A050s or A052s firmly into the Tarmac. The Spartan doesn’t produce that much force, though, and with good reason. The car may have been produced by two brothers with accomplished engineering skills – skills taught to them from a young age by their engineer father – but they know their limits. They’ve built many projects over the years, and for this one, yes, they were happy to design the suspension layout (unequal length wishbones all round, by the way) and manufacture the steel space frame (Nick’s son, Nicholas junior, also generated the CAD files for the chassis), but they’ve quite rightly contracted out the really specialist stuff to experts.

On the aero side, that expert was a guy called Dr. Sammy Diasinos. Diasinos is an aerodynamicist who has worked for Williams’ and Toyota’s F1 programmes, and the brief he was given was to make the Spartan fast but fun and driveable. He realised that, yes, 800kg of peak downforce was possible. It would’ve been a good headline, too – but this isn’t a competition car. It’s meant for pleasure, and you’d have to be a very accomplished driver to deal with that level of downforce. Also, getting it to bleed off in a controlled manner would be tricky, and then there are the cornering speeds that 800kg of negative lift would deliver. Get it wrong, even a tiny bit, and you might be heading into the barriers with a very un-pleasurable bump.

So the team decided to peg the downforce at 470kg. That’s still a lot for a 700kg car, but because it’s not at the extreme edge, Diasinos had the flexibility to produce aero that works in a predictable way. That also requires a stable platform, too, which is where our next specialist comes in: Andre Nadre. He’s the director of Aussie-based DNA Autosport, which provides race car preparation for various teams. Nadre is the brains behind the Spartan’s suspension set-up, and because his company has a partnership with Dutch suspension manufacturer Tractive, somewhat inevitably, that’s what’s fitted here.

It’s semi-active system, with independent damping control allowing continuous adjustment for roll and pitch during braking, cornering and acceleration. Each damper has a Tractive’s Dynamic Damping Adjustment (DDA) valve, and all four corners are adjusted according to a multi-axis g-sensor with algorithms capable of making setting changes to variations in the road surface in 6-10 milliseconds. It’s so capable there’s no need for a passive anti-roll bar, and it also provides variable ride height and nose lift. Naturally, the suspension is mounted using solid bushing as well.

This pre-production car currently has two default maps, Road and Race, but the production version, which is nearly ready, will advance that. That will have Road, Track, Wet and Custom modes, along with Party mode that will soften the rear for more showboaty fun. Every setup has been honed with feedback from another Australian, this time ex-Formula 3 and touring car racer Barton Mawer. Again, the idea is to make the Spartan easy to drive rather than spikey, and its Quaife mechanical diff is another factor in achieving that goal.

As I said, this is a pre-prod car and there are plenty of other upgrades in the pipeline for the production version. The intercooler, for example, currently sits above the engine. That’s moving to the nose and will be replaced with a new carbon fibre manifold. Partly that’s about the aesthetics – it looks sexier – but it’s also more efficient. The steering wheel will also change to an AiM Formula Steering Wheel. It’ll migrate the digital instruments (currently behind the wheel) onto the steering wheel itself, along with some of the controls that, at present, are on the centre console. And the pedal box will be different, too. Which brings me to the driving position.

I am 6’3”, and getting comfortable in track cars is often an issue. It wasn’t ideal in the Spartan but nothing like as bad as a narrow-bodied Caterham. Oliver Hulme, the director of Le Mans Coupés, the car’s official UK importer, told me the new pedal box will push the pedals back by four inches for more legroom. The seat will also be on runners (it’s fixed on this pre-prod) and with a newly sculpted rear bulkhead that’ll allow it to go back farther as well. Hulme said these changes are aimed at getting drivers up to 6’6″ behind the wheel comfortably.

To help ingress and egress the steering wheel is quick release, and once you’re in and it’s back on, the Tillet carbon-shell seat is snug but comfortable. When you’re strapped in tight by the Sabelt harness, looking over the minimalist windscreen, with the minimalist interior – and that gorgeous, milled aluminium gear lever with its exposed mechanism glinting in the late-spring spring sunshine – the Spartan feels proper. No, it’s not meant to be a competition car, but all the cues from here make you feel like you’re in one, for sure.

That goes for the start-up procedure. The ignition switch is to the right of the steering wheel; a simple toggle switch hidden underneath its red kill cover. Flick up the cover and the switch to on, thumb the starter and the K24 comes alive with some degree of boisterousness. It startles the wildlife, put it that way, even at its 1,100rpm idle. It’s not only the exhaust that’s loud; the induction side is hissing away behind my head and the whole ensemble is buzzing my vertebrae with a flood of sensations. As I am about to find out, the Spartan is all about sensations – multifaceted and all-consuming. Yep, I’m already down the rabbit hole. The Spartan’s raw charm as well as the anticipation of what’s to come has got me, and all without even turning a wheel. Sadly, I won’t be experiencing the car on track, where it belongs, but on the roads around West Sussex – although, as I said, at least it’s dry and warm today. With no roof, not to mention the power-to-weight thing, this would be a whole different ball game on a cold, wet afternoon.

The racing clutch is firm and abrupt, and a complete contrast to the gearbox. That’s a Honda six-speed manual, and while the ratios have been altered it still exhibits those typical Honda hallmarks of lightness and mechanical precision. So, I snick first and, yes, almost stall it right in front of Hulme, thanks to too few revs and a bite point that’s very nearly on or off. Still, I get the Spartan rolling towards our photo location, albeit in a slightly ungainly fashion.

Harry, our snapper, insisted I wear sunglasses instead of a crash helmet for the shoot, and on the way to our first stop I want to kill him. The K24 was loud at idle but without a lid on it’s full-on huffing and puffing and parping away on part-throttle. Combined with the rush of air firing past my ears I wonder how much of my hearing will be left after the day is over. When we stop, there’s some swearing and Harry pulls out some earplugs to placate me. They help, but two bits of orange sponge can’t filter out the Spartan’s aural brutality. It really is a very apt name for such a joyously unforgiving machine, and the joyfulness is about to be cranked up to eleven.

Once Harry starts shooting it’s my first chance to press on a bit. Luckily, the roads are light on traffic today, and flipping hell this thing is an absolute weapon. I am not talking about a bludgeon, either. The Spartan is scalpel-edged. It reminds me of when I used to ride superbikes: that sense of low mass and an excess of power. You can hit extraordinary speeds and shed all the momentum again in the shortest of straights, and as the revs climb – and boy do they climb quickly – there’s yet another change in timbre.

Weirdly, I can hardly make out any supercharging whine. In fact, with the beautiful linearity of the throttle, which makes deploying the torque so easy (there’s no traction control), it doesn’t cross my mind that this thing has forced induction as I sail further up the rev range. As I do, the induction noises that were so obvious before are now drowned out entirely by a sound that, well…how can I describe the sound? I can only think to say imagine a four-cylinder kazoo being played by a pretty beefy leaf blower. It’s a frenetic noise and the rampant uplift in pitch correlates with the throttle position, the force at which I’m being shoved harder against the rigid seatback and the added blur of the scenery as it’s cascading by. I just love it. Mind you, how could I not love it? What’s not to love about a car that’s lighter than a Mk1 Golf GTI, has more power than an E39 M5, and is fizzing through the steering wheel, pedals and seat? The responsiveness that comes with so little mass is intoxicating. Not just in a straight line, but in every way.

It makes the braking distances so short, yet even with no ABS and very little time for your brain to compute the stopping phase, somehow there’s no drama. The un-servoed AP Racing setup provides not only a solid, reassuring pedal action, but exquisite feel right up to the moment of locking. Then there’s the way it changes direction, which is insect-like. The unassisted wheel is direct and pure. It’s quick but not a basket case, feeling light around the straight ahead and only getting heavy in slow-speed corners with more than a quarter-turn of lock on. Through a set of high-speed curves, you can stroke the Spartan along fluidly with just the tiniest of inputs, helped by the Quaife diff rotating the car on and off the throttle. It must feel amazing to really work with that side of it on track and exploit all its evident traction, too. But the surprise is that, for such a focused track car, there’s very little kickback or corruption from cambers on the road. 

The thing about the Spartan is that, for all its rawness – the vibrations, the noise and the relentless speed – there are elements of it that are almost refined. The ride, for instance, isn’t punishing. It’s supple and astonishingly well-controlled. And the way the engine delivers its torque was another surprise. It isn’t the least bit peaky; you can even leave it in sixth at 2,000rpm and it’ll pull you from 30 to 70mph without a grumble. I had some issues, sure, like the lack of legroom that made it awkward for me to heel and toe, and the fact that you have to reach over to the central switch console to operate the indicators was a pain, but for those quibbles there are fixes coming with the production version.

Question is, is it worth the money? After all, it’s not cheap, which I doubt will come as a surprise. This version, with the supercharged engine and carbon bodywork, is £175,000 plus shipping. But then I guess the equivalent would be a BAC Mono, which is about the same money, and you can trim the cost of the Spartan down to £125,000 (plus shipping) if you ditch the supercharger and have glass instead of a carbon weave body.

Hulme also pointed out that this isn’t an expensive car to keep serviced – at least not compared with the million-pound-plus hypercars that would offer a similar level of performance. All the service parts have been designed with a degree of cost-effectiveness in mind, and, unlike some of the McLaren and Ferrari specials, you can drive it to the track and don’t need to pay a race team to support you for a day. So with all that in mind, it’s not bad value, is it? All I know is that for a pre-prod – this is a working prototype, in fact – to be this good and this well sorted, the production version will surely be epic. And I also find it hard to believe that something like a McLaren 720S GT3X, for all its craziness, would be much more fun…

Specification | Spartan Supercharged

Engine: 2,354cc four-cylinder, supercharged
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 460hp
Torque (lb ft): N/A
0-62mph: 2.3 seconds
Top speed: 155+ mph
Weight: 700kg
CO2: N/A
Price: £175,000 (+ shipping)

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