Porsche raises the bar


Remember when 911s were tricky to drive? Of course Porsche’s rear engine masterpiece came with a reputation for being difficult almost from new, sufficiently so for Porsche to feel the need to extend its wheelbase after just three years in production, and even that was nearly half a century ago.

But reputations are one thing, reality another. In their day I have no doubt that those early cars were unforgiving of those who failed to follow the ‘slow in, fast out’ mantra and I actually don’t think they got that much easier through the 20 years or so of the car’s life.

It’s true that Pirelli’s revolutionary P7 boot transformed grip levels in the late ‘70s, but those who sought to take advantage of the fact often discovered a car even less tolerant of high entry speeds and a consequent need to decelerate between turn in and apex, not least because the car was travelling that much faster at the time. And even 911s from the late ‘80s required much caution in the wet if even mild over ambition was not to result in sickening understeer and locked front brakes.

ABS made a huge difference for the 964 generation that came out in 1989 – though the four-wheel drive that could thereafter be specified was a very mixed blessing – but the real change came in 1994 with the 993, not only the last air-cooled 911, but the first with proper rear suspension. By abandoning the semi-trailing arms that had seemed such an advance over swing axles in the early ‘60s, and replacing them with a properly configured multi-link rear axle, Porsche was able to tame both ends of the 911 and with no dilution of fun at all.

And I would contend that almost (but not quite) without exception, all 911s built since then have actually been very easy and forgiving cars to drive fast. Indeed, even earlier 911s are far easier to drive now than they ever were in their day because modern tyres not only provide more grip in all conditions, but far more benign breakaway characteristics.

As an aside, about five years ago and quite unexpectedly I found myself with a 1965 short-wheelbase 911 in which to do a series of races over a weekend. I got in full of trepidation and gingerly padded round the track, but 24 hours later I was gaily lobbing it about like it were a Mk2 Escort, which just goes to show what can be done with proper suspension and racing rubber.

Which brings me to the new 911 GT3 RS I drove on road and track last week. All Porsche knows about how to bring track performance to the road car environment is in this car. In its body alone you’ll find magnesium, carbon fibre, aluminium, steel and plastic. It has so much downforce Porsche’s simulations say it will lap the Nürburgring faster with fewer than 500bhp than did the turbocharged GT2 RS with over 600bhp just four years ago. In short it is the fastest 911 ever built.

But so too is it also quiet and comfortable, an eminently viable every day proposition for those not shy about making a fairly substantial visual statement wherever they go. And because every other GT3 I have ever driven has proven not just fast but friendly too, I imagined this to be the same.

I imagined wrong. The first suspicion that this GT3 was not like its kin came during the track briefing when we were told that ‘under no circumstances’ were we to switch off the electronic safety nets. This is not like Porsche, which is usually far less proscriptive about what it will let you do with its cars than other manufacturers. Even when we went out to do specific cornering shots they sent a chaperon with us to make sure we behaved ourselves. In desperationwe asked a Porsche professional driver to do the lurid drift shots of the kind beloved by magazine readers and even he refused to turn off the tricks.

Why? Because this is the most difficult normally- aspirated 911 I’ve driven in the last quarter of a century. Even with all the electronics engaged if you drive it as fast as you can make it go, it will provide a ride as wild as you could wish. It will wrench its rear loose of the tarmac on the way into a corner and then slither through as you sit there watching your hands doing overtime at the wheel to keep up with it.

And guess what? I was pleased. Pleased because you can drive it up to 9/10ths in total security, have a ball and never have an inkling of what lies beyond. You’ll go immensely fast and be vastly rewarded. But instead of that being as far as it goes, the GT3 RS then shows this other side to its character, one that requires thought, commitment and total concentration from its driver. And the reward is to be elevated onto a plane of driving involvement you’d only expect to find in something entirely insane and impractical like an Ariel Atom.

The GT3 RS also has to be seen in the context of those around it, not only the standard GT3, which is a superb all purpose weapon and a far easier car to drive really fast, but also the as-yet-unnamed new stablemate that will have manual gears, skinnier tyres and a focus not on maximising lap time, but providing the most pure, responsive open road experience Porsche can manage. In that range, I think it only right that the pinnacle product, the GT3 RS, should push the game on further than ever before. And this at least Porsche has achieved.

And those exceptions to my rule that since 1994 all 911s (until now) have been easy to drive? All the turbocharged GT2 models from the 993-based car of 1995 to the GT2 RS of 2011. It’s not their power that catches you out but the way it is delivered, in a tidal wave of torque you needed to watch very carefully. And you’ll need to again: I understand Porsche is already working on the next GT2 RS, using the hardly easy current GT3 RS as its basis. And I expect it will be the hardest 911 to drive fast that has ever been created. I can’t wait.


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