Last of the Breed

Porsche built its final GT3 RS with a manual gearbox in 2003. We drive one.

Photo: Last of the Breed 1
October 27, 2022

I feel jittery as I settle into the hard racing seat. This is, after all, a top-tier 996-gen 911 endurance racer. The car’s owner makes sure I am properly strapped in the six-point racing harness, hands me the detachable steering wheel, and says, “Enjoy,” before he shuts the wafer-thin door firmly; a high-pitched ping reverberates throughout the cabin. I flip the ignition switch, push the starter button to the left of the steering wheel, and the high-output 3.6-liter flat-six engine roars to life immediately. But instead of the usual engine noise, the naked cabin is infiltrated by the rough and raw clacking sound from the gearbox as I test out the shifter gate. Noise, vibration, and harshness are all here.

Fifteen minutes earlier, this GT3 RS racer’s owner warmed it up for me in the pits. I eagerly watched the digital Motec information cluster indicate how quickly the engine revs rose and fell. Of course, one assumes any GT3’s powerplant is free-revving, but I was astonished by how quickly the digital bars appeared and disappeared. Oil temperature and pressure, water temperature, and lap times are a few of the measurements displayed. However, as I was to find out shortly thereafter, I could only spare glances at the rev counter during my time on track.

The 996 you see here is one of only 20 GT3 RS race cars manufactured in 2003 and the only one of its kind in South Africa. In 2000, 66 GT3 Rs were produced; the following year, when the race car’s name changed to GT3 RS, 51 were made. In 2002, 48 rolled off the production line. Finally, in 2004 (28 built, followed by only 10 in 2005), the car’s name changed to RSR. However, from that year on, the 996-gen 911 endurance racer featured a new six-speed sequential transmission. That means the models from 2003 were the final 911 endurance racers to feature a six-speed manual gearbox. Porsche is unlikely to ever build a manual-equipped race car again since pneumatically-actuated sequential gearboxes are integral to modern circuit racing.

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The 996 GT3 RS race cars were, as you probably guessed, based on 996 GT3 road cars. That means the water-cooled 3.6-liter powerplant was, for the 2003 model year, developing 435 hp at 8,250 rpm and 290 lb-ft of torque at a lofty 7,200 rpm. In addition, that production year featured further updates to the car, including the fitment of larger brake calipers. Even so, overall weight was reduced by 35 pounds compared to the 2002 car.

Unfortunately, this RS’ racing exhaust is too loud for Killarney Raceway’s noise restrictions. But that doesn’t stop its owner from driving at Cape Town’s racing circuit. GT Clubsport, the company that maintains this car, manufactured two silencers for the RS. As I later noticed, they only marginally softened the RS’ voice. The engine also features titanium connecting rods and valves and a dry-sump lubrication system with an oil-water heat exchanger. The clutch pedal is connected to a single-disc sintered friction clutch. Power directed through the six-speed manual then goes to an asymmetrical limited-slip differential with 40 percent lockup under load and 65 percent lockup on overrun and coasting.

As I let out the clutch for the first time, I quickly realize that these machines are 100 percent race cars and, as such, pulling away from a standstill is tricky to master. There is a different sensation from operating a racing clutch than one in a standard production GT3. I can only describe it as “rougher” than that of a road car. At last, a part of me relaxes.

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Because you sit so low in the car, you can’t see its front fenders, which are usually visible when you’re in a road-going 911. You are so tightly strapped in, with the full roll cage visible around you and your helmet on, that your mind focuses on the race track. However, the shifter action feels the same as in a 996 Cup car and similar to a 996 GT3 road car. The fact that you can see all the mechanisms running to the rear of the car from the gear lever only contributes to the unique driving experience. As the RS gathers speed through the 2.0-mile circuit’s (mostly constant radius) corners, I glance down, see the digital rev counter indicate 7,000 rpm, and snap to the next gear. At last, the high-revving six’s voice drowns out the gearbox.

The wide racing slicks (24/64-18 in front and 27/68-18 in back) mounted on 18 × 10 front and 18 × 11 back BBS wheels are almost new and do what they were intended to do: offer grip that is above my capability to fully explore, at least for the purposes of this excursion in someone else’s car. But down the back straight I urge the RS through third and fourth gears. The intensity the rev counter’s digital bars run towards 8,000 rpm is worth savoring. If you have any mechanical sympathy, you almost feel like you are doing the car an injustice. Then you realize it was built to be raced and enjoy the force of this brilliant engine.

Next, I lean on the brake pedal with a firm right foot and the RS quickly reduces its speed with no dipping of the nose as the rubber digs into the tarmac. The power-assisted steering is sensitive in feel but not overly so. You discern a welcoming amount of feedback, but the faster you drive, the more feedback you receive.

Photo: Last of the Breed 4

You can drive someone else’s car only to a level that guarantees you will bring it back to the pits in one piece. As I stop the RS in the pits, I relish the opportunity to climb into the passenger seat while the owner moves behind the steering wheel.

“This is the first time the car has been fitted with a passenger seat, and you will also be its first passenger,” he tells me. The owner has more than 20 years of racing experience, many of which were spent in 911s. It has been a year since he has driven this car, and although our time is limited, I sense that he is looking forward to it.

The moment he leaves the pits, the owner is immediately harder on the throttle and brake pedals than I was. He initially plays with the steering wheel through the corners to sense the grip levels and familiarize himself with the setup of the car. Then, slowly, he brakes later and hits the throttle earlier when exiting corners. I am amazed at the levels of grip available from these tires! It constantly feels like the car should start to slide from the passenger seat, but then it only grips more as its rear axle pushes the RS out of corners with urgency.

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The owner is a talented driver. After a few laps he gets into his stride, and, apart from purposely bringing the tail out a few times and quickly correcting it, he cleanly strings several corners together. At every exit from a bend the RS’ rear squirms a smidge while the driver tucks the nose into the corner with a precision that won’t be visible to most bystanders, but you certainly experience it through your seat.

We arrive back in the pits and, for the next day or two, these laps in the driver’s and passenger seats linger in my mind. These cars are a step up from the 996 Cup racers and have myriad interesting, unique features. An obvious example is no fan over the front, center radiator. That means when you stop in the pits for a few minutes, you need to switch the car off, or it will overheat. There is also an oil level indicator fitted to the right-rear window that allows the pit crew to see the oil level as the car stops in the pits.

To have piloted these six-speed race cars for six, nine, 12, or 24 hours continuously must have been more of a challenge than in contemporary competition 911s fitted with paddle-shift systems. Nevertheless, having driven a 996 GT3 RS, Cup, and now a GT3 RS race car, I can attest that the same thread of 911 DNA runs through these road and race cars. It’s a stirring characteristic not too many manufacturers can match.

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