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Porsche 911 GT3

Road Test

Porsche 911 GT3

Driven May 2009

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Walter Rohrl must be about the last man on earth who needs a car he can ‘trust'. Walter can trust himself to sort out any mess a car lands him in. The double World Rally Champion is wiry, rabbit-fit, bright-eyed and remains one the global deities of car control at the sort of age most people are anxiously examining their collapsing pension funds. But there you are, ‘trust' is his choice of word for the changes Porsche has worked upon the new GT3. And as he blasts the GT3 wildly beyond its limits (while clearly staying well within his own) up some sweeping Z-bends, I'm grasping the edges of the passenger seat and gasping joyously for breath.

Of course Rohrl is in the pay of Porsche as a development driver, so you might take his comments with a pinch of salt. But know this: he does at times go ever-so-gently off-message, which lends authenticity to his comments when he is being positive.

Not that this is the only reason to believe him this time. I was riding with him having just emerged, buzzing with mental electricity, from my own long drive of the GT3. Rohrl says the new front suspension not only makes it easier for him to enjoy it, but more likely it'll give its best to an average driver. Speaking from that position of dreary statistical normality, I can confirm he speaks the truth.

It makes sense to be talking to big Walter about it, because the GT3 is a product of Porsche's racing department. This isn't just a slightly fragile ‘track-day special' that'll end the day with toasted brakes and graunchy synchros. Its appeal is that it feels granite-strong, and it is. Add the no-cost road-legal Clubsport pack, plus a front section for the roll-cage, and you have a car that's actually endurance-raceable out of the box.

The chassis changes are just a part of a thorough detail overhaul to the first 997 GT3. And the work has pretty well nothing to do with the recent changes to the regular 997 Carreras. The GT3 gets no direct injection for instance, and no PDK transmission. Why? Well this is a race-derived engine (it goes back to the GT1 that won Le Mans) with no parts in common with the Carrera motor. Because they couldn't borrow the new Carrera cylinder heads, direct injection for the GT3 was just too big a change when they had other ways of extracting more power, including a capacity hike to 3.8 litres, taking the rev limit to 8,500, and adding variable timing on all camshafts where before only the inlets were variable. The PDK transmission was ruled out as too heavy for this banshee lightweight special.

What you'll notice first are the aero changes. The new front section concludes with a vast black splitter like some medieval sword. Vents ahead of the bonnet exhaust the radiator air above rather than below the car - it all helps suck the GT3 onto the road at speed. There are more nostrils all over the tail, some inhaling cold, the rest exhaling hot. And you can't fail to spot that immodest new double-deck wing burgled off the RS track cars.

Melting down over its 19-inch wheels, the GT3 is a solid little bundle of energy and purpose. There's no pantomime with it. You just sit inside, buckle up and turn a key. No shortage of visibility, no over-complicated starting drill, no fancy interfaces, and - oh how very refreshing - a normal clutch and gearlever. It is simply a tool, with nothing to distract you from the driving. Right then... rude not to.

One of the wonderful things about 911s has always been the way the brake, clutch, gearlever and steering all harmonise in their weight and travel. In the old days they were lighter and longer, in the new Carreras more meaty, and in the GT3 more concise again. The gearlever has an ultra-short, chunky and fast throw, perfectly matching the bite of the clutch and brake pedal and the firm handshake of the steering. You're not just the driver of this car, you're a component in it, precision-installed by some invisible German and his torque wrench.

The engine thrums away cleanly even when you're not trying hard, but at 4,100rpm a valve opens in the exhaust and suddenly the whole business gets more serious, the noise deepening and an extra bolt of acceleration kicking in. From then on, all the way to 8,500, the power builds in a rush that pins you hard back, but a rush you can understand and control. Meanwhile, the sound isn't the gravelly harshness you'd expect of a racer. It's warm and soulful and couldn't be anything else.

This magical engine feels like it's working its way into another strange wormhole of physics. Is it secretly getting lighter? Is it unfathomably sneaking forward in the car when no one's looking? As the development of hot 911s proceeds over the years, they feel less and less cantankerously rear-engined. In the old days 911s, especially hot ones, see-sawed along, their front wheels bouncing from crest to bump and left to right in reaction to the hammerhead slung out beyond the rear wheels. It doesn't really happen that way now. In fact this was a change that occurred with the first 997-generation GT3, the car that reversed my lifelong fast-Porsche scepticism on the Isle of Man in the October 2007 edition of Top Gear magazine. This one continues the blissful journey.

I can't figure it out, though I'd be willing to credit improvements in the adaptive damper programming, new front-end geometry, a less vicious limited-slip diff, subtler stability-control, and, optionally, new adaptive engine mounts that stiffen up to stop the drivetrain flopping about when you're on the boil. Whatever, it's a marvellous thing. Like Rohrl says, it's about trust and confidence. The knowledge that even if the road bumps, you know a steering input will have the exact output you'd been planning on.

This doesn't mean the car has been deadened. Sure there's less kickback through the steering and more straightforward reactions, but there's still a free flow of feel through the steering. Get on the power too soon in a bend or crest a mini-rise or hit a slippery patch, and you'll feel the steering lighten as the front tyres edge outward. Lift off the gas and the wheel rim bites again as the car tucks in.

On the autobahn, 100kg of top-speed downforce means the GT3 feels bolted down even as it homes in on 194mph. I have vivid memories of older 911s going light at speed. It wasn't ‘character', it was ‘scary'.

You can have a GT3 as a Clubsport, with cage and non-tilting bucket seats, or you can have it in a form that lets you sling your stuff behind the seats. The ride rounds off sharp bumps surprisingly successfully, too. It's a useable car.

And if a car is useable, it will be driven rather than being left sulking at home in favour of one of its owner's other cars. And when the GT3 is driven, it is hysterically, epically wonderful.

Paul Horrell

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