3,000 miles in a 911 GT3 RS
It is easily spotted while parked in the Zuffenhausen Porsche delivery area - its not subtle. The Lava Orange Porsche 911 GT3 RS seems to bulge with muscle and aggression: a massive rear wing and front fender cooling vents above the largest factory wheels ever put on a production 911. Complete with carbon fiber front body work, a magnesium roof and a featherlight trunk lid, the Porsche 911 GT3 RS will be eye-wateringly expensive to repair - mistakes at the track could drain the pocket book very quickly.
But aside from the smaller 918 style steering wheel, the unlikely-to-be-used pit-speed limiter button and the usual RS straps replacing normal 911 door handles, the GT3's overall interior is similar to any normal 991. Navigation is limited to the fairly old PCM style entertainment system, but few people use an RS for cruising.
The new GT3 RS is a huge change from the 997 GT3 RS that preceded it - the PDK transmission the only option, the handbrake is absent, and replacing the legendary Mezger engine is a special 500 hp version of the current Porsche 9A1 engine that shares components with the 991 911 GT3 Cup car.
Upon leaving the factory, my first impression is that this is more relaxing of a car to drive in traffic than the previous versions. In rush hour, I leave the transmission in automatic mode and the car offers little of the nervous rattly urgency of the 997 -- which had an agriculturally heavy clutch, and sounded like a bucket of bolts at idle.
Much debate has surrounded the PDK with many bemoaning the loss of the standard 6-speed manual. Although early versions of the transmission did not appeal to me, my initial skepticisim about the RS version disappeared quickly. The trans is incredibly precise, faster than I can manually shift and still gives a sense of complete control. In professional racing, manual transmissions are long gone and there is simply no way to match the performance without moving on.
After a quick trip to have some protective plastic wrap installed, the first long trip to a very special place in Porsche history is underway. Zell am See in the Austrian Alps, home of the Porsche family, is near where the first cars were built and it is where the first Porsche cars were tested. International Porsche Tage is an event sponsored personally by Dr. Wolfgang Porsche and it attracts cars of all ages to rally and autocross on the famous roads of Zell am See.
The cars here are driven, and driven hard. Where else would you see a 959, 993RS, or a 2.7 RS being thrashed hard on narrow, very twisty mountain roads? These cars drive in from across Europe and are all superbly maintained - no trailer queens. Dr. Porsche still attends every event.
We visit the little chapel beside the Porsche ancestral family home a few minutes away - the place where Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche rest. While visting, Dr. Porsche genially signs the new car.
The three day event has intermittent heavy rain and dry periods, which are a perfect way to stretch the legs of this new car. The GT3 becomes vividly alive on greasy alpine passes, and the mechanical grip is the best I have ever experienced in a 911. The grip convinces me to gradually brake later and later into the turns. This car is very predictible, even with the standard track tires: at no point does the stability control intervene.
I have driven the 997.1 and 997.2 GT3 RS extensively in wet conditions, and they both tended to understeer. The earlier car was the last production Porsche with no stability control, so a mistake could cost you dearly.
The 997 GT3 RS had perfect hydraulic steering,so I worried that the new car would lack feeling having moved to electric, which was true of the early 991s. However, the new version is so good that I do not see much difference.
While the mountain roads are a great test of roadholding, high speeds are not practical. For that, we head back to Germany, and onto the autobahns. These days there are fewer unrestricted sections, but at the right time of day--Sunday mornings--it is possible to find lightly travelled sections, and over the next three weeks behind the wheel, I did just that.
While building speed, the new aerodynamic package is a revelation. At top speed, the 997.1RS lifted its nose and made driving it a handful. The second generation car was an improvement, but the 991 with its aero package is in another league altogether.
At 185 MPH the car is so planted that it feels like its digging into the ground. Downforce is allegedly twice the previous cars and it shows - of course this means a lot more drag and simply lifting off the throttle slows you down very quickly.
It seems as though the car has split personalities - a civilized road car when driven in normal use, and a surgically precise autobahn stormer. When running through the traffic in Berlin, the auto mode is perfect and the car turns heads wherever I go attracting innumerable photographers. However, the actual purpose the GT3 RS is total track performance and so there was nowhere better to spend our next three days than the Nurburgring.
It's pouring rain when I arrive at the track, with thunder and lightning.
I meet with Daniel Schwerzfeld who has had thousands of laps here, as a test driver for Mercedes-Benz, a professional racer and as an instructor on track days. With his experience, I let him do the first laps to see what's changed at the circuit.
There is no Playstation experience that can prepare you for the roughness, the variable surface, or the frequent accidents that occur on the 'Ring. Even though I have been here with a variety of cars, the track changes every year with resurfacing. Knowing where the changes are is essential to not ruining a car - especially in the rain. Daniel lays down a reference lap and then it's my turn.
I always have a sense of fear while heading out onto a wet track and I am naturally over-cautious. There is very little runoff, so a minor off here often leads to disaster. I can remember the track well visually, but some surfaces have changed. Soon, the weather really started to sock in and a fog descended. We only managed to get four laps in.
All was not lost though, officials began to open the F1 track that lies alongside the Nordschleife, and a handful of cars went over to run it. It's a modern track with the smoothness and huge runoff areas now required and the contrast is enormous. In the driving rain it takes a few laps to learn the track, I was able to push a lot harder than on the Nordschleife. Daniel reckons that we can trail brake a lot more aggressively with this car, so I start to push. For the unfamiliar, trail braking basicaly when you brake while entering a turn, and gradually release while approaching the apex. The reserve of capability is simply astonishing, and with the safety of the track I try to find the limit. The car understeers predictably and controllably in the rain. Eventually after apexing far too early, and too quickly, the stability control kicked on. It's comforting to know it exists but under normal track conditions it should never engage.
For the next two days I was back at the wet Nordshleife for solo sessions. On track traffic was at a miniumum, and armed with the knowledge from the F1 track, I pushed the GT3 hard.
Driving the 997s here in heavy rain was a nerv wracking experience- particularly the earlier 997.1 car. The 991 is so predictable that I was able to trail brake more than I could in the older models, especially in poor conditions. Though, it's difficult to say how much of this experience is car design and how much is because of advances in tire technology.
Coming out of a very slick corner, I was faced with a Subaru WRX that hit a barrier and bounced back onto the narrow track. Quick evasive action was necessary just to avoid him, and it's unlikely that the older models wouldn't have been able to avoid the stranded Subaru.
Of course, the Nurburgring can be dangerous and does not forgive bad driving. Over the winter some sections will be reprofiled and more fencing will be installed. On my last lap over the bumps that will disappear, I wonder how this will change the character of the track. Today, there is nothing remotely like it in the world.I also wonder how long there will be a naturally aspirated Porsche to drive here. The GT3 RS is the last naturally aspirated 911 in production.
The new engine is missing the unique, high pitched scream of the old Mezger engine, and the addition of launch control and pit-speed limiter are features I would prefer as options rather than standard features - I am unlikely to ever use either. Still, these are small qualms with a car that is major step in the right direction for Porsche. Would I order a manual if it had been offered? After getting used to this version of PDK, I doubt it.
Porsche has a long tradition of making cars, and our final stop would be Hamburg, Germany to meet the first car of them all.
This GT3 RS has a long list of illustrious ancestors - many of which can be seen in the Porsche Museum in Zuffenhausen. The Prototyp Museum, in Hamburg offers a unique collection spanning the period that preceded the 356.
From the thirties Ferdinand Porsche had the idea of building an air cooled sports car. These early air-cooled Porsches are closely tied to VW technology. Established in 1931, the little enterprise didn't have much cash, so it would sell engines and parts to third parties.
Protoyp Museum founders, Oliver Schmidt and Thomas KÃ¶nig, had a keen interest in this era as teenagers, and began collecting. There wasn't a lot of interest in early VWs and Porsches at the time, and the two discovered some of the rarest cars from the forties and early fifties, and in a few cases from even earlier. The partners have a vast knowledge of this era in time and a rich archival history. They also have a network of enthusiastic contacts in Europe and still manage to discover extraordinary cars. Since they opened the museum in 2008, in their native city Hamburg, it has grown in popularity - now receiving around 50,000 visitors a year.
Although many cars are prototypes, there are extremely very rare production cars.
Probably the star of the collection is the 1939 Porsche Type 64. Starting its life as a VW, it was rechristened a Porsche in 1946 by the Porsche family. Looking over the car, its obviously a Porsche. At the time it was built, it must have looked like a spaceship to most. Three were built for a Berlin-Rome race that was cancelled because of the war. One was lost in the bombing of Berlin, and the other two stayed with the family. Eventually, the second prototype had its roof cut off by the US army who used it as a runabout until it was left in a field to disappear. Thus leaving a final car that survived mostly intact in Austria though it is missing its original engine.
The museum partners purchased a bunch of homemade specials and a collection of parts from the estate of Otto MathÃ©, an amateur Austrian racer who had purchased the surviving Type 64 from the Porsche family in 1946. Examining the loose parts and those installed in the specials, Schmidt and KÃ¶nig noticed some distinctive stampings. It turned out that MathÃ© had also purchased the remains of the second prototype. After meticulous research the two historians were able to recover almost all of the car's running gear, instrumentation, steering components and many other assorted parts - though the body remained missing in action.
The partners convienently had car one on loan and were able to take precise measurements of it. Over time they also accumulated some unpublished period photos of the car and found differences in the shape of the two surviving cars, including that the two have a subtly different roof line.
The museum began a multi-year program to bring car two back to life. Eventually the car was painted its original black and equipped with its wartime blackout lights. The car has an immense Darth Vader-like presence when viewed head on. It sits on incredibly narrow 3.25-inch wheels. The restoration was painstaking enough to require an exact reproduction of the interior fabrics based on the scraps that were found in the MathÃ© hoard. The car only weighs 1180 lbs, thanks in part to its very narrow cabin and a 1-liter engine producing around 35 hp. Oliver remarked that it drives much like a conventional VW of the time.
Sitting beside the 991 GT3RS the car was tiny and had a jewel-like perfection in its flawless black lacquer. Yet, both of them were distinctively Porsche - despite 77 years of difference.
The museum often holds special exhibitions, such as the current show: 356 VIP, which includes the very first cars produced in the Gmund and the Zuffenhausen factory as well as cars never before exhibited. For anyone interested in early air cooled VWs and Porsche, visiting this museum is a must. The website is: http://www.prototyp-hamburg.de, and they are open six-days a week - closed Mondays.
Oliver and Thomas retain the enthusiasm from there beginning and each have a 991 RS on order too. Leaving the museum I say good-bye to the first car of all, and drive the latest one back to Zuffenhausen. Its time to ship it home across the Atlantic.