Heatwave: Chasing the links between road and racing Porsche 911s through the Ardennes
A sweltering drive from Stuttgart to Spa reveals how the elements that make for a winning race car translate to road car excellence
The air temperature reads 36 degrees C — a completely meaningless number for me. As an American visiting Stuttgart, my ignorance of the metric system had somehow became a point of pride, so I dug in. But I’m sweating, so it must be hot.
A heatwave had swept across Europe, perfectly timed to coincide with the start of our road trip in four of Porsche’s latest motorsports-derived, GT-series 911s. A temperature conversion reveals that it’s 97 degrees F. It feels about right.
The plan is to drive from Porsche’s home in Stuttgart, Germany, to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium to attend the Spa 24 Hours. Any one of the cars at hand would make a memorable European road-trip companion, so it’s that much better to have access to four of Weissach’s finest: the brand-new, GT3-powered 911 Speedster, the 700-hp, turbocharged 911 GT2 RS, and a pair of the latest 911 GT3 RS models.
If you’ve looked through Instagram or visited a cars and coffee meetup, you’ll know that no 911s in Porsche’s ever-expanding modern range are more coveted than the race-bred GT3 and GT2 models. But how deep is their connection to motorsport — and how does that development benefit the driver? Motorsport evolution can lead to a faster road car — there’s no doubt about it. But does that necessarily mean a better road car?
All of this was on my mind before embarking on the road to Spa. But the first order of business: Try not to get stuck with the keys to the yellow GT3 RS that was optioned without air conditioning. After all, it’s 36 degrees out.
The Porsche 911 GT3 made its debut in 1999; it’s named for the FIA GT3 class it was built to compete in. Befitting a road car sold for racing homologation, the GT3 earned a reputation as the driver’s 911. Twenty years later, the GT3 line is more popular than ever, with ever-faster variants and offshoots announced on a seemingly biannual basis.
GT3-class sports car racing is still around, too. In fact, we’re currently experiencing what may well be considered a golden era for international sports car racing. The biggest GT3 race in the world is the Spa 24 Hours, an endurance race that dates back to 1924 and the jewel of the International GT Challenge Series calendar.
Seventy-two cars from 11 manufacturers — the most ever — entered the 2019 race, including nine Porsches. Most of those were the latest 911 GT3 R, a customer race car based upon the GT3 RS we were driving.
Unlike other major sports car races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Spa 24 Hours has no “factory” teams run by car manufacturers. All of the entries are private, so manufacturers engage in sort of proxy war with rivals, providing support, logistics and lending out pro drivers to their customers. Porsche Motorsport is on-site to provide up-to-the-minute weather data and strategy guidance to its customer teams.
My curiosity takes over and I make a dash to the new 911 Speedster straight away. I stow my bags in the front luggage compartment and close the featherweight carbon-fiber lid, carefully pushing down on the Porsche crest decal (lightweight!) to latch it. The lid flexes inward, distressingly, then rebounds back. It’s nerve-wracking, but it evokes the no-compromise fiberglass racing prototypes of the ‘60s housed in the Porsche Museum directly behind me. I can’t decide if I love or hate this characteristic, but it gets my attention.
Of the cars in this group, the Speedster is technically the most distant from a race car, but it’s something completely new for Porsche’s GT division. In the past, the ‘Speedster’ designation was saved for extra-special 911 (and before that, 356) cabriolets — usually sleeker, with a shorter windshield and a more elegant tonneau cover than the standard 911 droptop. With the latest 911 Speedster, the GT division was given the opportunity to make it more than just a sexier 911 Cab. The result is essentially an open-top GT3.
The Speedster gets an uprated development of the new-for-2018 4.0-liter GT3 engine, this time with individual throttle bodies for improved responsiveness, and a new, lighter exhaust system, bringing the output to 502 hp. Expect to see these developments wind up in the next-generation GT3 models. I was most interested in the gearbox: The Speedster is only available with the six-speed manual from the 911R and GT3 Touring.
Driving the Speedster offers a unique sense of occasion. It’s the rarest car in the group, limited to just 1,948 units, but the least conspicuous. Keen-eyed observers will spot the shorter windshield frame, GT3 bumpers and slick carbon-fiber rear decklid. But to the general public, it could be mistaken for just another 911 convertible, without the towering wing and loud graphics of its GT siblings. It gives you a quiet sense of satisfaction, like holding a winning lottery ticket, but you’re the only one who knows.
The sense of quiet drops away quickly whenever you find an opportunity to climb to the 9,000-rpm redline. Paired with the six-speed manual, it’s a free-revving delight — and more so than the more hardcore RS models, it feels enjoyable at any speed. You can cruise and still appreciate how harmoniously the engine, transmission and chassis work together without needing to prove anything. The clutch is lighter than you expect, and the gear change action is more natural and telepathic than you’d hoped.
Undoubtedly, some of these will end up in the hands of collectors, destined to see scant miles on the road. This is a shame because it’s a brilliant driver’s car.
The GT2 RS is what happens when the Porsche GT division takes the track-tuned body shell from the GT3 RS, drops in the turbocharged 3.8 liter motor from the Turbo S, and turns it up to 700. It’s the most powerful 911 ever produced, with all 700 hp going to only the rear tires — a fact that never escapes your mind while you’re behind the wheel.
This car, fitted with the lightweight Weissach Package and painted in a searing shade of Miami blue, measures the same dimension across as the GT3 RS, but it seems seems impossibly wider, lower, and less practical whenever you approach a steep driveway or narrow confine. Chalk that up to the spectacle of the GT2 RS, which seems to get inside your head.
The GT2 RS snorts and whines and whirs, even at cruising speeds, providing a constant hint at the potential energy under your right foot. Those sounds only get louder when you squeeze the throttle, which has the effect of pulling the world around you toward the windshield at an astonishing rate.
Initially I did my own paddle up and downshifts with the seven-speed PDK but found it was easier to just let the computer take over and do its thing when the acceleration got frantic. The GT2 RS (there is no “base” GT2; Porsche went straight to the RS) is a paradox: sharp and precise, but also overflowing with horsepower. It’s a gentle giant when puttering around town, with a firm but compliant ride quality, but it holds lap records at Road America and Road Atlanta and is the fastest two-wheel drive car around the Nurburgring.
Yet once you get past the reputation and performance, the GT2 RS is happy to cruise around at normal car speeds, doing normal car things.
There’s a reason it feels like it’s straddling some sort of line. I spoke with Pascal Zurlinden, Porsche’s director of GT Factory Motorsports, about the racing cars, but he dropped some knowledge about the street cars as well. “There are the same guys working on both projects, helping each other. The traction control for our street car, it’s coming from our race car. So if you’re driving GT3 RS or GT2 RS, it’s the same guy programming both, using the same code.”
The final leg into Belgium and Spa-Francorchamps was, appropriately, with the car most closely linked with the 911 GT3 R race cars that would be on track over the weekend.
The naturally aspirated 911 GT3 RS makes do with 520 hp sent through a seven-speed PDK gearbox. Like the Speedster, the GT3 RS has none of the pops and off-throttle crackle noises that seem de rigueur for a modern sports car these days. Instead, all you hear from the 4-liter flat-six is revs, freely spinning to 9,000 rpm like a table saw. Pops and crackles are wasted energy; they have no place on the GT3 RS.
What it does offer is a driving experience different from the Speedster and the GT2 RS. You want to wring it out; the engine gives you a sense of linear predictability, without the wallop of turbochargers waiting to bite like in the GT2 RS. Without having to take your grip off the steering wheel to shift, you feel encouraged to push deeper, turn sharper, brake harder and look farther ahead. The paddle-shift PDK transmission was made for quicker lap times on the racetrack, but I was surprised by how much sense it made on the unrestricted autobahn. It’s an environment where total focus and effortless gear changes give you the confidence to safely drive fast.
“The road car GT3s are developed in the same building as our race cars,” Zurlinden said. “The aero guys that are building our race car, you have the same guys working on the next-generation GT3 (street) cars.”
When I asked him what area he prioritizes development in, he said usability and drivability. “For a driver, that the balance stays constant through the corner. It means, when he’s braking, he has the same balance as when he’s going off-brake, the nose is going a bit up, and he’s steering — the balance is constant. It’s much easier for the driver to predict what’s happening.”
Situated in eastern Belgium within the Ardennes forest (and actually in the municipality of Stavelot, rather than the town of Spa), Spa is one of the world’s oldest and most famous racing circuits, designed back in 1920. Right away, you can tell that it’s a special place. The vintage signage and patchwork architecture are only outdone by the breathtaking elevation changes and chaotic weather that seems to always be present at Spa.
The heat followed me to Belgium, and it was 34 degrees C (94 F) for Super Pole qualifying on Friday. The Team Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG took the top spot out of the 72-car grid.
Rain fell on Saturday, which cooled things down, and made for a wet start when the race got underway at 4 p.m. Accidents, full-course yellows and safety cars factored heavily for the first 12 hours of the race. Around 6 a.m., after a lengthy safety car period caused by heavy rain, the race was red-flagged; there simply wasn’t enough drainage on track. A restart happened at 11:30 a.m., with the rain subsiding. What followed was a 4.5-hour sprint to the finish on the drying track.
In accordance with Blancpain GT Series rules, every team is required to take a five-minute Technical Pit Stop at some point during the race. GPX Racing had taken its technical pit stop during the night, minimizing the time loss by stopping during a full course yellow. This, plus a smart race strategy and trouble-free race, put them in contention for the win near the end of the race. Kevin Estre skillfully piloted the GPX 911 GT3R to the finish in first place after some thrilling late-race battles with the Team Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG.
In fact, Porsches took five of the top-10 spots. Oliver Hilger, in charge of Porsche GT Motorsport Communications, reported there were zero technical faults on any of the 911s during the 24 hours, aside from a taillight that stopped working after making contact with another car.
The GT2 RS, GT3 RS and probably the Speedster will ultimately have successors, more powerful and more grippy than these cars. Those future versions will no doubt be faster and have higher limits, through developments learned on the racetrack here at Spa and around the world.
But how do you design these road cars to continue to be engaging to normal drivers on the street? Faster lap times don’t always equal greater enjoyment. And anyway, the complex aerodynamic bargeboards of a Formula 1 car won’t trickle down to a four-door sedan anytime soon.
But racing developments for usability, for a wide range of conditions and a wide range of drivers, in a race car that shares a platform with a road car — that does seem to transfer.
A pro can drive around all kinds of issues and still be quick; gentleman drivers and amateurs need a package that’s more forgiving. It’s about drivability — an intangible quality but the one that makes it so that a typical meatbag can get into a GT3 RS on the street and feel a telepathic connection with the car.
Ultimately, the elements that make the car so capable in the right hands are what makes it feel instantly comfortable in yours.
After the checkered flag, I speak with Owen Hayes, Timo Bernard’s race engineer for the race. He touches on this common thread. “If you’re going into a sports car 24-hour race, like here at Spa, the one thing you concentrate on is having a comfortable car for the driver that he can trust.”
Zurlinden echoes his words. “If the car is easy to drive, it will be easier and more adaptable to the conditions.” Whether on the blisteringly hot autobahn or in Stavelot, where a Porsche 911 GT3 had just won the Spa 24 Hours in biblically challenging, changing conditions, those words ring true.