Heatwave: Chasing the links between road and racing Porsche 911s through the Ardennes

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.

GT3 Origins

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.

Kevin McCauley

Think of the Porsche 911 Speedster as a GT3 without a top — and a long list of other modifications, some more subtle than others. At the heart of it all is a 4.0-liter flat-six with individual throttle bodies; a manual transmission is the only gearbox.

Stuttgart to the Rhine: 911 Speedster

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.

Kevin McCauley

The new GT2 RS is, at 700 hp, the most powerful 911 ever produced. You never quite forget it — even as the rear-wheel-drive super-coupe is perfectly content to pretend it’s a normal car, puttering around down.

Rhine to Trippstadt: 911 GT2 RS

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.”

Kevin McCauley

It’s not surprising that the GT3 RS is a track day performer. What does catch you off-guard is how the motorsports-bred capability leads to a supremely confident road car.

Trippstadt to Stavelot: 911 GT3 RS

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.”


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