The modern-day Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car is one of many evolutions born from the original RSR. So has the offspring retained many of its grandfather’s traits? Time to find out…
By Ed Foster
The Porsche 911: its appeal to racers and road-goers alike is enduring. It is a 45-year-old supercar that has defined the very essence of the most famous car maker in the world, bar perhaps Ferrari. Ask most people to draw the shape of a Porsche and they’ll depict the wide grinning snout, those round bug-eyed headlights and that signature raking roof line. The greatest car of the 20th century? There’s a good case for it. And all despite the fundamental design flaw of hanging those powerful engines over the rear axle.
It’s wrong, and yet it’s come so right.
As a racer it has taken many forms, and it’s still winning today. To do so it has evolved – because it’s had to. So by now surely a modern-day 911 racer has little in common with its past. It’s morphed into a different breed, hasn’t it? To answer that question we enlisted the help of Jota Sport and its 2008 British Carrera Cup driver, Sam Hancock, who won three races in a GT3 last year. We also took an RSR that raced at Sebring in 1981-83, and put them all together at Donington Park on a cold and blustery Thursday.
But first, the back story. The 901 was launched in 1963 and soon began to eclipse the reputation of its forebear, the 356. But the name didn’t last. Peugeot had carte blanche on all car numbers with a zero in the middle, so the 901 became the 911.
But there was another problem. The engine had turned out heavier than intended, and the simple fix – reduce front-end grip to cancel out oversteer – was undesirable. Porsche tackled this by attaching a 11kg cast iron weight to each end of the front bumper, restoring the weight distribution to the intended original.
With the handling balance under control, it soon became clear that more power could be injected into the boot: the 911S appeared in 1966, followed by the 911 RS in 1972. The RSR’s entry into Porsche’s hall of fame was down to necessity rather than evolution, however, as changes in the World Sportscar Championship rules for 1972 meant extinction for the beloved 917. Unlike its sports car rivals Ferrari and Matra, Porsche had no involvement in Formula 1, where the design of the 1973 312PB and MS670 had originated. Designing a new prototype from scratch was also ruled out.
But along with the rule changes came the European GT Championship, for which the 911 was eligible. Porsche started work on the 911 RS and spent the winter of 1972/73 saving weight, fitting wider rear tyres and trying to get as much power from the engine as possible. The 911’s rival, Ferrari’s 365 GTB Daytona, had almost twice the displacement of the road-going 2.7 RS, so Porsche needed every trick in the book to make it competitive.
The Porsche 911 RS’s racy sister, the RSR, underwent surgery, emerging with a 2.8-litre engine and ever wider rear wheels, resulting in the now-famous rear arches. To make sure this 310bhp car could stop in time, the German manufacturer drew on its experience with the 917 and used vented and cross-drilled disc brakes. Porsche was ready to go racing again, even if it was forced to run in the prototype class in the World Sportscar Championship as the RSR was, at the time, not homologated. The 1973 season was meant to be one of development and testing, as the manufacturer waited patiently for a switch to a production-based formula.
But this ‘season of development’ didn’t quite go as planned. Following the retirement of the Beltoise/Cevert/Pescarolo Matra MS670 in the opening race of the season – the Daytona 24 Hours – the Peter Gregg/Hurley Haywood RSR ended up crossing the line first, 22 laps ahead of the second-placed Ferrari 365 GTB Daytona. The year was in fact a huge success, and three more overall wins in the Sebring 12 Hours, the Targa Florio and the lesser-known Le Mans 4 Hours followed. What’s more, not once was Porsche beaten by its pre-season rival from Maranello.
Fast-forward to the present day: Hancock is getting ready to leave the Donington pits in the RSR. The Surrey-based driver was formerly a sports-prototype racer who has competed at Le Mans on four occasions, and was also crowned Le Mans Series LMP2 champion in 2004. Doubts about being able to sustain a career in the fickle world of endurance racing led to a move to the BTCC-supporting British Carrera Cup in ’07. So far things have gone according to plan – Hancock was third overall in the driver standings last year and is now waiting for confirmation of Jota Sport’s entry into the Grand Prix-supporting Supercup in 2009. With experience of racing classic cars tagged onto the end of his CV, Hancock was the perfect choice for the task in hand.
Our RSR was bought new in 1972 as a 2.4S and was uprated to road-going RS specification by the end of ’74. In 1976 privateer Tim Selby acquired the car and modified it to RSR spec. After various races in Sports Car Club of America events, it made the step up to the North American Sports Car Championship in 1980. The following year Selby and Earl Roe took the car to the concrete airfield that is Sebring for its first World Sportscar Championship race.
“We felt that, of course, consistency was important,” Selby wisely stated in his post-race report. “But we also made a conscious effort not to draft cars on the runways for fear of flying pieces of cement, and avoided braking hard in front of Corvettes and Camaros going into the hairpin. We weren’t born yesterday.” They finished a remarkable seventh overall and second in class, and went on to finish 10th in the Watkins Glen 6 Hours and 16th (and second in class) in the Road America 500. The team returned to Sebring in 1982 and ’83 to score two more respectable results.
After tracking down Selby in America, I asked about the handling of the car in the early ’80s. Did the 911’s traits carry over to the RSR? “It was extraordinarily easy to drive considering the weight distribution that the 911 variant has,” Selby told me. “Of course there is a factor in having as big a rear tyre as the rules will let you run, and having that difference between the rear and front tyres. It was an astoundingly forgiving car.”
At Donington, two decades and countless owners later, the same characteristics are immediately apparent to Hancock. “The impressive thing about the RSR is that it just feels so responsive for an old car. It has relatively little body roll, it feels quite stiff, quite nimble and that sound… That sound is the best thing in the world about the car. It’s just awesome.”
This can’t be right. The early 911s have enough weight over the rear axle to cause instantaneous oversteer which 1970s engineering efforts surely can’t have fixed. Hancock isn’t so sure. “It seems to me that they got it pretty well sorted at a very early stage,” he says. “I mean, that is an amazingly well balanced car, firstly for its age and secondly for the fact that it was one of the only proper rear-engined cars.
“I fully expected it to live up to the sort of stories that you’re talking about. You know, ‘careful because they weren’t so refined back then’. But it’s not – it’s wonderful, it’s incredibly driveable, incredibly comfortable and confidence-inspiring; you could put any amateur in that car today and they’d really enjoy it. I’m sure in the wet it’s going to be different, but certainly today, in the dry, there’s very little problem.”
The real difference between our two cars from generations old and new is the fact that they were designed for entirely different types of racing. The RSR was an endurance racer, a car which you had to drive at nine-tenths for up to 24 hours, whereas the 911 GT3 Cup car with its 420bhp motor and sequential gearbox is designed to run 20 sprint races a year, and all of them at ten-tenths.
“There’s this wonderful feeling with the RSR that it’s incredibly relaxed,” says Hancock, “whereas the new car is a very aggressive, violent environment with lots of wristy flicks on the steering wheel, quick aggressive gear shifts and so on. The old car is incredibly fluid, and a lot of the movements are very soft in a really nice, controlled kind of way. A car that allows you to drive like this is clearly a cleverly thought-out endurance car.
“I remember when I tested a number of Group C cars back to back recently that the Nissan was phenomenally quick, definitely the most enjoyable car to drive over one lap, and just blew your brains away. It was amazing, but a very aggressive, heavy-handed car. Then I got into a Porsche 962 and it was like a walk in the park. And you know what the lap times were? Identical. I expected to get out of the 962 and be two, three seconds off. And now you understand why Porsche is such a fantastic endurance racing organisation.”
Just watching the Cup car at Donington leads me to think that spending 24 hours in it would be enough to make you lose all feeling in your body and, indeed, your sanity. But despite the different approaches to their design and the different arenas they were built for, Hancock still recognises the link over 27 years.
“The RSR is naturally a little bit more ‘numb’ than the modern car, but as soon as you get over that you realise the handling characteristics and the basic feelings are actually very similar. You can so clearly tell it’s from the same family. Things have obviously moved on in terms of the actual cornering speed, and probably the speed down the straights, but the feeling of very good turn-in with the brakes followed by initial power understeer is exactly the same as the Cup car. It’s extraordinary.”
A mid-engined layout is the ideal solution for a racing car. But after 45 years Porsche has made what started out essentially as a sporty Beetle handle better than anyone could ever have expected in the early ’60s. Hancock understands the physics involved only too well, but is adamant that a rear-engined car – regardless of how old it is – just needs a different approach.
“In a rear-engined car you won’t know you’ve made the wrong decision on your entry speed until it’s too late,” he tells me in the warmth of the Jota Sport motor home. “People say with a Porsche you’ve got the engine in the back, you’ve got all that weight. I can understand why they feel that on the limit it’s not so forgiving, but that is because you, as a driver, have to think ahead. Otherwise you’re going to go barrelling into a corner and eventually what happens is the momentum and the pendulum effect will catch up with you. And it’s just going to snap.”
Hancock has his sights set on a Porsche factory drive and hopes that a good first season in the Supercup will take him one step closer. The F1 support series is well known for its close racing and competitiveness, but thankfully for Jota Sport and Hancock, the Carrera Cup and Supercup cars are nearly identical, meaning they won’t have to go through ‘familiarisation races’.
As part of the entry for the Supercup, the team will receive two new cars which, having upgraded their Carrera Cup cars twice last season, will come as quite a relief. The rules dictate that you can upgrade for a one-off race, but that does mean you have to undertake some relatively minor but rather expensive alterations – the brakes are changed from steel to ceramic, the lip on the rear spoiler, currently aluminium, is replaced by carbon fibre, the ECU is reprogrammed, the exhaust has its silencer surgically removed, the coolant’s colour needs to be changed (reducing the strength from 50 to five per cent) and, of course, the driver needs a fan to keep cool. All pretty important stuff, you’ll agree.
Hancock is focusing on other changes though, and points out that qualifying hinges entirely on being able to use the F1 rubber laid down before the Porsches hit the track. With his experience last year at Magny-Cours and Silverstone, he knows what to expect if Jota does get confirmation of its 2009 entry.
“You go straight into qualifying, which is normally right after the Formula 1 cars have been on the track, so you’ve got a one-lap window on your new Michelins when the F1 rubber is freshly laid down. It’s worth a second a lap, on some circuits possibly more. So you have to go into that first qualifying lap telling yourself, ‘right, I’m going to brake later for the hairpin than I’ve ever braked before. I have no idea where I can brake, I don’t know what the limit is, but I’ve got to do it.’
“There is so much more grip out there in the first five minutes of the session following the F1 cars. After that, forget it. And in a series where one second can separate the top 15 or even 20 cars, if you’re a few tenths off you’re nowhere.”
Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motor sport and what most young racing drivers aspire to. The 911 is what they aspire to drive home in, so it’s fitting that the model supports the Grand Prix circus. Like Formula 1, the Porsche has evolved to keep pace with the times, but without losing the essence of why it exists.
The 911 is like no other car; whatever the era, whatever the model, you feel they’re all related. Perhaps that’s why it has been such a huge success – you know before stepping in it how it’s going to behave. The details change, but the make-up doesn’t.
I doubt whether US politician Thomas Bertram Lance, adviser to Jimmy Carter during the 1976 election, considered when he coined the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ that the same philosophy would apply to Ferdinand Porsche’s 911. New 911s are born every year, but the foundations of the car remain the same. And there’s nothing else like it.
Get set for a wild ride
No, we’re not talking about the RSR, but its lairy road-going cousin
It is faintly ironic that Porsche’s Carrera Cup racer and historic RSR seemed almost easier to handle than the road-going GT2.
Having been itching to get out of London and ease the car past 40mph on the way north to Donington, the opportunity came after the M1 roadworks at Luton. It turns out that when this thing goes, it’s not like a normal car accelerating, more like a plane taking off. Needless to say, it’s intoxicating.
Using the ‘normal’ 911 Turbo as a starting point, Porsche cut weight and cranked the output of the 3.6-litre twin-turbo to 530bhp. That means it can hit 100mph in a neck-straining 7.4sec. And if that isn’t entertaining enough, you can turn off the electronics.
This is the third GT2, but the first to include the traction and stability systems of more everyday 911s. In the GT2 these intervene much higher in the performance envelope, so unless you are enjoying a day on the track you probably won’t trigger them. But if you really need to know how the wide, soft Cup tyres cope with the relentless, spiralling urge of both turbos on full boost, flick the ‘off’ switch, plant your right foot and enjoy the slightly scary sensation of lighting up the rears and going nowhere in second gear. Because to go with the extra power, Porsche reverted to rear-wheel drive only. This really is a racing car for the road – wild, and capable of biting back if provoked. Bizarrely enough, exactly how I imagined the RSR would be. How wrong I was. EF
The RSR featured is on sale at Fiskens. Visit www.fiskens.com or call +44 (0) 20 7584 3503