Cars and Coffee: chasing a Le Mans car in the Porsche GT1 Straßenversion | Top Gear
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Tuesday 5th December

Cars and Coffee: chasing a Le Mans car in the Porsche GT1 Straßenversion

Just a little trip to see the cafe designed by Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson. Up a mountain. In a homologation special

Published: 02 Nov 2023

Even in this age of AI sorcery, there are some images Photoshop would baulk at rendering out for being too unrealistic. Y’know, like chasing an iconic Le Mans-winning Porsche race car (complete with Le Mans-winning driver behind the wheel) up arguably the greatest road in the world (Austria’s sinuous and sensational Grossglockner pass) while you’re driving the even rarer one of one homologation road car that made it all possible. But it is real. And we have to rewind the clock to understand how I got in this bonkers position.

It’s 1995 and the McLaren F1 is dominating endurance racing. Mood in Camp Porsche is far from rosy. Having swept the floor in the Group C era, Le Mans is its stomping ground. But things are getting desperate as it is being well and truly beaten by the competition. So, Stuttgart needs to change tack. Fast. That’s why after some swift boardroom negotiations, Porsche’s Herbert Ampferer went all-out and led the design and build of a proper GT1 racer.

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If you’re not familiar with GT1, it was the top and most exciting rung of the GT racing ladder at the time. So to be competitive, Weissach went big: merging the front end of a 993 with the rear section of the 962 to create the most extreme 911 ever. Powered by a water cooled 3.2-litre twin-turbo flat six good for 600bhp, it was the first factory built mid-engined 911. And it only weighed 1,050kg thanks to a carbon-fibre cloak. It also beat the McLarens at Le Mans that year, coming second overall.

Photography: Mark Riccioni

But the ante was upped in ’97 with the introduction of the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR. Porsche tweaked the GT1 slightly, most notably thanks to road car designer Tony Hatter grafting the new headlights from the 996 onto it. But the car wasn’t successful – bursting into flames with three hours to go. The board was furious, making it clear for ’98 (Porsche’s 50th anniversary year) that the firm couldn’t look the fool at the legendary 24-hour race again.

Knuckles rapped, racing mastermind Norbert Singer and his team threw everything at a new car. Gone was the hybrid chassis (replaced with a 70kg lighter McLaren-rivalling carbon-fibre monocoque), the wheelbase was extended (allowing for more downforce and less drag), the inboard dampers were mounted longitudinally above the engine and a new sequential gearbox was added. It also worked as Allan McNish, Laurent Aiello and Stéphane Ortelli beat Panoz, Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan and BMW to gift Porsche the best birthday present possible: its 16th Le Mans victory. But the best thing about that year of GT1 rules? You had to make one road-going homologation.

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That’s how I’ve ended up wedged in BB-GT198 (the only road legal Straßenversion ‘street version’ of the ’98 car) chasing the energetic and humble Stéphane Ortelli in his race winner. There are also 25 GT1 Straßenversion models from the previous year’s homologation rules but they’re proper road cars with actual interiors, detuned engines and softer suspension. This one is a racecar with a numberplate. It’s also remarkably handsome. Especially in naked white and scant of any livery.

Problem is, I don’t really fit in it. Instinctively, I try to get in the left-hand side before realising that the steering wheel sits unorthodoxly on the right. That’s to favour better weight distribution on the world’s clockwise race circuits. Standard 996 doorhandles release a door hinged at the front, that swings up and forward to reveal the hefty carbon chassis. You plonk yourself on that, then use the slick carbon to swivel and pivot your legs into the cabin. But without fail every time, my right trouser gets caught on the sequential gearbox. Wriggling down I realise my head doesn’t want to get in the cabin with me, forcing me to momentarily detach it and then place it into the carbon roof scoop while my forehead presses against the carbon windscreen pillar.

Compared with the racecar, the carbon clad cockpit is incredibly cramped and remarkably simple. Behind a flat-bottomed Momo steering wheel is a rudimentary digital readout with a simple rev dial winding up to 8,000rpm. Flanking that is a selection of basic lights and Porsche parts bin switchgear. There is a second seat but good luck to whoever wants to get in that as you’re not getting out. And as amazing as the sculpted glasshouse is, you can’t see anything out the car and nothing behind you. Which is terrifying considering it’s 4.9m long, has no lock and we must do three-point turns for photography. Joy.

Safe to say, I’m terrified. Especially as it’s only ever been out of the museum and on the road once (after the ’98 win) and is priceless. I go to put the seatbelt on but realise it fouls my elbow so I can’t turn the steering wheel or change gear properly.

The debate will constantly rage as to what The Best Road in the World is. But the Grossglockner is easily up there. If not king. It’s £34 to even get on the thing, its tarmac is smoother than Ross Kemp’s head and is made up of flowing, technical and sweeping corners as well as being a visual buffet that gets better and better as you ascend its 2,504m. It has tunnels, cobbles, lakes, tree lines, grass, snow, waterfalls and endless beauty. But it’s also dangerous. Cars can literally fall off the side of a mountain. Which, as I look below, a Mini recently did when the owner forgot to put the handbrake on. Which is rather sobering... especially as the Straßenversion doesn’t have one.

Yet for all the intimidation factor of its scale and provenance, starting BB-GT198 up is a disappointment. Where the racecar is angry and frantic, this just turns over with the ease and sound of a 911 Turbo. I was also expecting the clutch to require one of the Grossglockner’s many cyclists’ quads to depress, but it isn’t bad at all. In fact, when you’re up and running and the fear of its value has subsided and you get under its skin, it’s a fantastically confidence inspiring car.

The steering is worryingly light thanks to all the assistance (good for hours and hours around a track) but incredibly direct. The engine is docile and calm off boost but builds progressively before the turbos come on song and punch you in the kidneys at 4,000 with real vigour and intent up to 6,500rpm when you go to grab another gear. And grabbing gears isn’t easy with this sequential box. Yes, it may be configured so you pull for upshifts and push for downshifts so you’re working with the g forces, but you need the strength of Eddie Hall to get one in. In fact, after a full day driving the car and chasing Stéphane from tunnel to tunnel, hairpin to hairpin, my hand feels broken and is covered in calluses.

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I go back to the hotel that night thinking days can’t get much better. Then a text fires in from Ferdinand ‘Ferdi’ Porsche, grandson of the Porsche founder he shares his name with.

“Meet at the toll booth at 5.30am. We have something special planned.”

Now, not being a morning person, I’ve never got into the Cars and Coffee thing. But Ferdi has a knack for pulling off the incredible. So, before the sun has even hit snooze on its alarm, we meet at the valley floor where nearly 30 per cent of the world’s GT1 Straßenversion models drip in for a morning drive. I turn to Ferdi and ask him why he’s done this.

“Because they’re the coolest,” he says with a smile. “And I’ve always wanted to drive one – so I invited them all in one go.”

With the road yet to be open to the public we chase the dawn light and set off, rising through the mist and quickly above the clouds. At the summit the most unbelievable sunrise headbutts through the grey to reveal the definition of a sublime landscape. Parking up to have breakfast at Ferdi’s latest venture – the ultimate Alpine car cafe, F.A.T. Mankei – we dine in a modernist glass box with the company of a 962 and like-minded owners. It tops off the ultimate Cars and Coffee run. One I’m pretty sure will never be bettered. Which I’m thrilled at, as I don’t have to worry about setting my alarm at 4am on a Saturday ever again.

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