Tesla is going to great lengths to develop a high-performance Model S capable of dethroning the Porsche Taycan on Germany’s grueling Nürburgring track. While the project is ongoing, and the automaker is learning as it goes, a much smaller company called Unplugged Performance has quietly specialized in tuning Tesla’s electric cars since its inception in 2013. It recently built a customized Model 3 that can keep up with big-name supercars on a racetrack.
The Model 3 is extremely quick — it hits 60 mph from a stop in just 3.2 seconds in its most potent configuration — but it’s certainly not a race car. Here’s how Unplugged transformed it into one without sacrificing day-to-day usability.
Getting race ready, from the bottom up
Starting with a Model 3 Performance, Unplugged tore out the suspension and replaced it with its full suite of high-performance upgrades. It also added fade-free carbon ceramic brakes and tacked on a set of sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires more commonly found on octane-slurping machines like the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. The company then installed a full body kit that includes a reshaped front bumper, side skirts, an air diffuser built into the rear bumper, and a mammoth wing on the hatch. It’s not just there for looks; it keeps the car glued to the road.
In simple terms, these changes improve the Model 3’s ability to briskly take a corner, reduce its braking distance, and enhance both handling and stability at high speeds. These are standard modifications in the racing world; compare the regular-production Audi R8 with the LMS GT2 model and you’ll see them, too.
One part of the car wasn’t modified. The powertrain. “In a Tesla, you can’t really do anything; it’s not like you can throw a turbo on it,” explained YouTuber Daerik, the man who commissioned the build, in a 10-minute video highlighting the car’s trip to Japan. He added it’s not much lighter than stock, though the front seats aren’t original.
“For us, these were all products we make and frequently install, so there was nothing difficult about the build,” Unplugged President Ben Schaffer told Digital Trends. The list of modifications is long, but the Model 3 remains daily-drivable thanks in part to the adjustable suspension. Its Autopilot software also still works as intended. The idea wasn’t to transform it into a Fast & Furious-esque, track-only sedan that needs to be towed to and from the track.
A Tesla Model 3 that can chase the McLaren F1
And yet, the end result is astonishing. Unplugged’s modified Model 3 lapped the Tsukuba racetrack in Japan in 1:04.07. To add context, the McLaren F1 — a car ironically once revered and later crashed by Elon Musk — set a time of 1:04.06, while the 997-generation Porsche 911 GT3 took 1:04.08. Schaffer pointed out that the time was set by an amateur driver named Ken Negoro, who had never driven a Tesla before and only had half an hour to familiarize himself with the car. That’s not a lot of time, even assuming he already knew the Tsukuba circuit well. It’s not too far-fetched to speculate a professional driver could easily shave a few seconds from each lap.
I can hear you from here. “What about the battery?” Unplugged knew the stock lithium-ion battery pack would hold up to short bursts of intense track use because it created and still organizes the Tesla Corsa series of events. “Our events regularly have 50 or more Model 3s. In Tesla Corsa, our customer cars can run 15-minute sessions on full power. For Tsukuba, six laps is much less time than that, so it is easy. No overheating,” Schaffer explained.
Unplugged’s Model 3 lapped the Tsukuba racetrack in Japan in 1:04.07. The McLaren F1, a car once revered and later crashed by Elon Musk, set a time of 1:04.06.
The Model 3’s lap time is impressive, and the fact that a quicker time is possible is encouraging, but the comparison I’m making isn’t exactly apples-to-apples. McLaren released the F1 in 1992, and the 997-based GT3 made its debut in 2006. Modern versions of either car would likely leave the Model 3 in the dust, because neither automaker has ever stopped cranking up the performance dial. That’s not the point, though. I’ve heard many people argue Tesla builds seriously quick cars that can’t take a corner to save their lives, and Unplugged just proved them wrong.
While there was nothing terrifically difficult about the build, setting a supercar-like time at Tsukuba was easier said than done. Daerik explained the Model 3 needed its battery topped up after a few practice laps, but the track’s charger was broken. With no alternative and an open track day to prepare for, the team put the sedan on a flatbed and drove it to a charging station a couple of miles away, where it sipped electricity via a CHAdeMO adapter.
The moral of the story? If you’re chasing supercars in a Tesla, tune the chassis, not the powertrain. And plan ahead.
Updated 2-20-2020: Added more details about the suspension changes.
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