State of the Art

After time in 911 track toys and club racers, what does the 997 GT3 RSR feel like?

Photo: State of the Art 1
August 31, 2009

Cresting Turn 2 at Infineon Raceway, the GT3 RSR begs to be unleashed. Its 3.8-liter six is sharp and strong, keen to rev but with plenty of pull down low. The cockpit is filled with race car noises, but they’re not coming from the engine. Most of the racket is from the gearbox, which has a distinctly F1-like whine.

I’ve just left pit lane, having pulled the tall sequential shift lever back to grab second gear on my way up the hill. Though the RSR wants to go, its tires need a thorough warming. Headed for the next bend on light throttle, I pull back for third. A firm, determined hand is all that’s required; you keep one foot on the gas and the other off the clutch. I can feel the straight-cut teeth meshing in my hand, but I return it to the steering wheel quickly. Holding the lever is a no-no, as its load cell will tell the ECU and trans­axle that another shift is imminent.

On Johannes van Overbeek’s advice, I warm the Michelin slicks by repeatedly accelerating and decelerating. Past the long, sweeping, and plunging Turn 6 “Carousel” and onto a straight, I finally flatten the throttle in third gear. The acceleration is fierce, but I’ve felt fiercer in roadgoing 911s. The difference is the urgency, the immediacy. It’s the difference between a GT3 and a Carrera S: Both are fast, but one feels grainier, hungrier. And the RSR is nothing if not hungry.

As the Motec digital display fills in little bars on the way past 7000 rpm, dashtop shift lights begin to illuminate. My tall torso means the LEDs are blocked by the wheel, however, so I’ve got to keep an eye on the bars. I pull back again for fourth as the track furniture begins to blur.

Photo: State of the Art 2

Braking hard for a sharp right-hander, it’s time to drop two gears. You have to use the clutch to downshift, heel-and-toeing as you would in any street car. The only advantage — and it’s a big one — is that you simply nudge the shifter forward. When you do, sensations that alarm the mechanically sympathetic result. So do quick, predictable downshifts. The hair-trigger throttle response requires new muscle memory to be smooth, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. If only PDK was this visceral, this satisfying.

After a few laps, the RSR comes together. With heat in the brakes and tires I enter the final bend, the Turn 11 hairpin, reasonably hot. After turn-in, I roll on the throttle. The RSR tracks out, widening its arc toward the low cement wall protecting the pits. Sam Smith is sitting on that wall at the track-out point, and I think I see his eye widen through the camera lens as the RSR flashes by.

In the upper reaches of second gear, the accelerative rush is profound. The RSR’s 485+hp pushes its 2,700 pounds smartly. The ultra-linear, normally aspirated rush continues in third, so I pull back once more. Now in fourth gear, the RSR is carrying serious speed, making the kink between Turn 11 and Turn 1 feel like Turn 11.5. Johannes is flat all the way to 1, a sweeping left that heads up the hill to the slower, blind Turn 2. I’m normally flat here, too, but the RSR’s pace makes the wall-lined kink feel one lane wide.

After a cool-down lap, I pit, flip the ignition off, and listen to the RSR’s shutdown ting-ting!, which sounds like two nails being spit through its twin exhaust pipes. I unlatch the impossibly light door and push it open for cool air as a few Lizards walk up. “You were shifting at, what, 7200–7400 rpm?” asks Johannes. “You know, you can go to 9000.” But I’ll be leaving that for my second session, an hour from now.

Photo: State of the Art 3

A drive in a 997 RSR doesn’t come along every day. First, these cars are rare, with single-digit annual production numbers. Then there’s attrition, the result of hard living in the FIA, the Le Mans Series, and the American Le Mans Series. Finally, there’s the price tag, a cool half-million bucks, not to mention the cost to actually run the thing. The RSR’s hourly rate has a comma in it.

This car, WP0 ZZZ 99Z7 S799913, has a colorful history, and colorful is certainly the word you’d use to describe its vinyl-wrap livery. Designed by motorsport artist Troy Lee, it lays more hues on the GT3 RSR’s flanks than you can comprehend in a single viewing. The various forms add visual intrigue to a 911 that is neither as delicate nor as pretty as many of its predecessors. It is, however, as im­posing as any of them, and Lee’s busy shapes somehow force your focus to the car’s lights and various go-fast mechanical elements.

On that note, it’s easy to see why, so dressed, 99913 made a splash when it rolled into scrutineering at the 2007 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car went on to set the fastest race lap in its class, but gearbox problems relegated it to a seventh-place finish. It wasn’t the car’s only heartbreak that year: At the ALMS season opener, Jörg Berg­meister banged 99913’s fenders with the Ferrari F430 of Jaime Melo in what may be the best last lap in Sebring history. While Melo came out ahead on a questionable move, the moment has lived on through YouTube, letting people return to the thrill.

2007 was one of the most interesting years in ALMS history. That year, Roger Penske beat Audi’s LMP1 juggernaut in eight of twelve races with a supposedly slower car, the LMP2 Porsche RS Spyder. It was also the year that Ferrari finally snatched the GT2 championship from Por­sche. As Flying Lizard’s “lead” RSR, 99913 was Weapon Number One in Stutt­gart’s efforts to keep Maranello at bay.

Photo: State of the Art 4

It wasn’t an easy season. After wins at Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio, 99913 was starting to feel tired. It wasn’t so much the mechanicals, it was the car itself. In testing, suspension tweaks that should have made a difference didn’t. Knowing that chassis are wear items, the Lizards talked about a new tub. A crash and fire at Detroit ended their discussion. Per Por­sche policy, 99913’s VIN tags were cut out and sent to Weis­sach. Porsche then supplied a new tub stamped with the same VIN. The first 99913 headed for the crusher as the new one went on to win Petit Le Mans.

So what’s left of the 99913 that went to the wall at Sebring, the 99913 that set fast time at Le Mans? “Well…the seat,” chuckles Johannes. “Definitely the seat.” The steering wheel is another likely candidate. After that it gets difficult, because maintaining a race car’s “originality” during an active campaign isn’t on any race team’s agenda. Winning is, so what works trumps what’s original — as it should.

Wanting to make the most of my time in the RSR, Johannes put me in Scott Mercer’s GT3 Cup (see p. 72–80) so I could get up to speed in a modern competition Porsche. Fortu­nately, the two cars — being factory-built, turn-key racing 911s — are highly similar, using the same tub and basic powertrain.

Time in the Cup eliminated about 75 percent of the RSR’s learning curve, the sequential shifter and pedal inputs being the biggest hurdles. At Thunder­hill, I killed the Cup a few times before leaving the staging area. Part of that was due the car’s grabby clutch, but a bigger factor was its hair-trigger throttle response. It takes some throttle to get a GT3 Cup moving, but the 3.6 revs up instantly and comes back down just as quickly — so quickly, in fact, that the engine management system can’t react soon enough to keep things running. Hit the loud pedal just right, and you can stall a Cup with the clutch in!

Photo: State of the Art 5

There was more to think about. The Cup doesn’t like trundling around. Run­ning through the paddock at 15 mph, the car bucked so violently in first gear that an upshift to second was the only way to go. And the coolant temperature readout on the dash requires constant vigilance — more than a few minutes of idling, or even something as simple as too-slow lapping, can cook the engine.

Two weeks later, that experience has prepared me well. Like the Cup, the RSR does without ABS and power-assisted brakes, but it does have ignition-based traction control. Expecting me to push harder, Johannes explains the steering-wheel-mounted buttons that select the system’s twelve settings. All but the least aggressive, he says, are far too intrusive for today’s dry conditions.

From the cockpit, the biggest difference between Cup and RSR is the stuff that surrounds you. The Cup’s cabin is simple and traditionally race car-like; the RSR feels like an episode of San­ford and Son. There’s stuff everywhere: ahead, metal flex tubes sprout from the door and dash to direct cool air at the driver; to the right, an ice chest for a cool suit; to the left, two water-bottle holders; over­head, surgical tubing hung from the roll cage to keep the seatbelts out of the way during driver changes; in front of the pedals, a false carbon-fiber floor.

It’s time to go. Johannes cinches my belts and shuts the door. With the main power on, ignition on, and the starter button depressed, the 3.8 fires back up. While you’d expect the RSR to be less behaved than the Cup on pit lane, the opposite is true: The 3.8’s tuning allows it to traverse the paddock smoothly in first gear. With a wave-through from the track steward, I head onto Infineon for my second, and last, session.

Photo: State of the Art 6

After a warm-up lap, other differences become clear. Chiefly, the RSR has far more mechanical grip. That makes sense, given that its front tires are the same size as the Cup’s rears, but the extra confidence is what really gets you. Turn-in is sharp, grip is predictable, and rear-end traction on throttle is stunning.

The run to 9000 rpm proves well worth the wait, the 3.8 climbing up there hard and happily. At speed, the RSR hunkers down like nothing else I’ve driven, its aero appendages providing noticeable help through Infineon’s high-speed Esses.

The brakes are different, too. The GT3 Cup’s concrete pedal offers little feedback, but the system in 99913 (AP Racing calipers along with a different master cylinder, pads, and rotors) is fabulous. There’s enough travel to let you easily modulate the brakes. Pedal effort is noticeably lighter, too, so much so that you don’t miss power assist.

With the tires fully warmed, everything clicks. I start to carry enough speed in several turns to feel the sidewalls roll over to meet the tires’ main surfaces. Enough speed that the brakes are getting hot, and even better. Enough speed to see how the RSR comes together. It’s neither hairy nor difficult to drive, so long as you know 911s. All of the same slow-in, fast-out rules apply, and traction on corner exit is still the star. A racer getting out of a 1970s 911 would feel right at home but for two things: one, the shifter, and two, the fact that the RSR does everything better and faster. A lot better, and a lot faster.

The harder I push, the more I sense that part of the competence belongs to the car and part of it belongs to the team that set it up. There’s more to dialing in an RSR than alignment and wing settings. The pitch of the flat floor under the car, for instance, can transform an RSR. As can a well-chosen brake upgrade.

The car’s supreme cohesiveness recalls an illusive, subtle characteristic I’ve felt in only the very best 911s, maybe three to five percent of the hundreds that I’ve driven. Driving the RSR is strangely analogous to covering long distances in a 996 Turbo: It feels extraordinarily competent, like a car built to carry big speed for hours at a time. Unlike the reassuring-to-a-fault 996, however, the RSR communicates with you. Surely another layer of challenges lies beyond where I’m willing to push today, but at eight or nine tenths, the car is without vice. 

My session over, I realize that I forgot to try the traction control out, instead giving the throttle the same respect I would in a 996 GT2. Ah, well. Heading into the pits, I savor my final moments in 99913. Like the very best roadgoing 911s, it’s a Por­sche that I don’t want to get out of, one that must have been an absolute ball to hurtle around Le Mans.

Also from Issue 176

  • Ruf’s Old/New-School 997E Targa
  • 908/3 Driven on the Street!
  • First RHD 356 Coupe
  • Spec 911. vs. GT3 RS vs. GT3 Cup
  • The Fourth Glöckler
  • Infamous Mulholland 911 Street Racer
  • 170-mph 924 Autobahn Sleeper
  • Market Update: 1999-2007 911s
  • Porsche Icon: 550
  • Project Cayman: An Introduction
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