Raw Fo­cus

If only Porsche’s in­cred­i­ble 911 GT3 RS came in man­ual. Well, you’re look­ing at it – and it’s bliss

Motor (Australia) - - CON­TENTS - by AN­DREW FRANKEL

Could the back to ba­sics Porsche 911R be the most re­ward­ing 911 of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion?

The north west of Scot­land. There may be other places in the world as well-de­signed to show­case the tal­ents of the new Porsche 911 R, but not many and cer­tainly none in the United King­dom. Al­most un­be­liev­ably, I have the car to my­self. There’s no col­league next to me, stab­bing at an imag­i­nary brake pedal and think­ing only of what might be the ear­li­est vi­able op­por­tu­nity to sug­gest now it is his turn to drive. I am ut­terly alone in one of this king­dom’s few re­main­ing true wilder­nesses equipped only with what, on-pa­per at least, ap­pears to be the car of my dreams. There’s no route that’s been care­fully con­fig­ured to play to the car’s strengths; I can go where I like, how I like and, within rea­son, for as long as I like.

The bare facts of the 911 R are al­most cer­tainly al­ready known to you. I ex­pect that if prizes were awarded for me­dia cover­age earned by a de­riv­a­tive of a de­riv­a­tive of an al­ready very well known ma­chine, the 911 R would sweep the board, so we’ll not dwell long on them here. But the ma­chine now at my dis­posal is es­sen­tially a GT3 RS com­plete with its 368kW/460Nm 4.0-litre en­gine and all the light­weight bits such as its mag­ne­sium roof and car­bon wings and bumpers, but shorn of its down­force-generating body­work and wings. Be­cause it is no longer ca­pa­ble of adding hun­dreds of ki­los to its own weight at speed, it doesn’t need su­per stiff ride-rob­bing spring rates to sup­port the body un­der forces it will never ex­pe­ri­ence. Most im­por­tant, there is a new six-speed man­ual gear­box, de­vel­oped from the seven-speeder avail­able on nor­mal 911s but with be­spoke ra­tios and a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ac­tion. Other changes we’ll get to as and when, but for now let’s take a closer look at what’s in front of us.

I think the car looks in­cred­i­ble in white paint with green stripes, but I’m aware of the act it is try­ing to fol­low. I’ve driven an orig­i­nal 1967 911 R, to this day the light­est 911 ever cre­ated and a ma­chine with a fo­cus I’ve rarely en­coun­tered since. But while today’s 911 R is nei­ther as powerful rel­a­tive to other 911s today as was the first 911 R back then, nor quite so in­sanely ob­ses­sive about weight sav­ing at any cost (it at least has sun vi­sors), the back to ba­sics ap­proach is the same. Then as now, the 911 R is the light­est 911 on sale.

The cabin is even bet­ter than the ex­te­rior. I’m sure Porsche didn’t in­tend the great holes in the cen­tre con­sole where the nav screen and its as­so­ci­ated switches and con­trollers would live to seem so ex­cit­ing – but they are. They speak to me of the car’s po­ten­tial, and its de­sign­ers’ no com­pro­mise at­ti­tude to sav­ing weight. The same is true of the ab­sent rear seats, the ab­sent proper door han­dles and the ab­sent air con­di­tion­ing of any kind. But it’s really that lit­tle map on top of the gear lever that does it: not only does it prove this car is man­ual, but that its engi­neers were so fo­cussed on the brief they to­tally re-engi­neered the trans­mis­sion and dropped the sev­enth gear, thereby sav­ing a bag of sugar of weight or, if you want it pre­cisely, a sin­gle kilo­gram.

The de­sign­ers’ no com­pro­mise at­ti­tude to sav­ing weight makes the 911 R the light­est 911 on sale

The seats have leather sides but tar­tan cloth in­serts and re­mind me faintly of those in my Mk1 VW Golf GTi, which is an en­tirely good thing. This ac­tual car is used for sign­ing-off right hand drive pro­duc­tion, so when you look at its lit­tle light­weight plaque you see it is num­bered 000/991. It can never be sold and the fate of most such cars is a one way jour­ney to the crusher, but I hope and trust this one is spared and sent to the mu­seum or earns a quiet re­tire­ment else­where in the Porsche em­pire.

Hav­ing known this mo­ment was likely for a while, I’d strug­gled with both sleep and break­fast. I’m blessed to drive plenty of fast cars, some with much more power than this, but when the prospect is the purest, sim­plest high per­for­mance 911 Weis­sach can make, I find my­self trans­ported back a quarter of a cen­tury to my days as a ju­nior road tester when a night spent star­ing at the ceil­ing was an un­avoid­able pre­cur­sor to a drive in any Porsche. Why? Be­cause the R of­fers the tan­ta­lis­ing prospect of show­ing even 911 drivers some­thing new, reaching a level of pure driv­ing plea­sure she or he may have un­til that very mo­ment not re­alised ex­isted.

For that is what it was de­signed to do: it’s not an all pur­pose weapon like a GT3, or a track-honed war­rior like the RS – its one and only rea­son for be­ing is to put a smile on the face of those with both the means, mo­tive and op­por­tu­nity to drive it the way its mak­ers in­tended. And for the next cou­ple of hours at least, I have all three. I also have a GT3 RS on standby, just for bench­mark­ing pur­poses. If you are start­ing to think this en­tire story a work of fic­tion, a Porsche­shaped fan­tasy from the ad­dled mind of a clearly delu­sional au­thor en­joy­ing the hal­lu­cino­genic prop­er­ties of some quite clearly non-pre­scrip­tion drugs, I don’t blame you at all. In fact if I didn’t have the pho­to­graphs to prove it really did hap­pen, I’d prob­a­bly agree with you.

Dif­fer­ences to the GT3 RS, other than the vis­ual, are ap­par­ent be­fore you’re even out of the car park. The steer­ing is lighter, the ride more pli­ant. On the sus­pen­sion side the 911 R has stan­dard GT3 spring rates (which makes them ef­fec­tively stiffer be­cause they have less mass to con­trol), be­spoke damper set­tings and a rear tyre 305mm wide, some 20mm less than that of the GT3 RS. Porsche has also re­tuned the rear wheel steer­ing sys­tem to suit the R’s unique dy­namic re­quire­ments and remapped the elec­tric power steer­ing as well.

It’s meant to be nois­ier than the GT3 RS. I thought Porsche had al­ready pulled out all the sound dead­en­ing for the RS, but it found more some that could be deleted for the R. If there is ex­tra noise, it is when the en­gine is at full-chat, at which point you usu­ally have other more press­ing is­sues on your mind.

The gear­box is a joy. It re­tains the first four ra­tios of the GT3 trans­mis­sion, has an elon­gated fifth and sixth but, of course, not the sev­enth you find in the PDK ’box. I cal­cu­lated that in sixth the car gains around 40km/h for ev­ery ad­di­tional 1000rpm on the clock, which means it will be eas­ing its way past 8000rpm as it tops out at 324km/h. Sur­prised it’s that fast when the GT3 RS will only reach a pif­fling 311km/h? It’s all in the wings, or lack thereof. The lever slips around the ’box with a weighty, me­chan­i­cal pre­ci­sion and in­stantly you feel more con­nected to the car be­cause, very lit­er­ally, you are.

The road is open and de­serted. If you se­lect Sport mode it will per­fectly revmatch your down changes, but I pre­fer to do that my­self. Drop a ra­tio with a hope­fully well-aimed stab of the right foot, hear the revs climb to meet the lower gear, nail the throt­tle and wait for the reaction. It doesn’t take long to ar­rive.

You ex­pect the ac­cel­er­a­tion, but not the feel of the car. While a GT3 RS hun­kers down on the road ever more as speed rises and its wings work, bolt­ing it to the sur­face, the 911 R feels en pointe by com­par­i­son. It seems lighter, more dainty and, while this would never be re­flected in the lap time, more nim­ble.

We’re trav­el­ling quite quickly now. While the RS fol­lows the con­tours of the road like a blood­hound’s nose fol­lows a scent, the R al­lows it­self the lux­ury of some space. There’s enough com­pli­ance in its spring­ing to let the body breathe with the road, al­low­ing just a lit­tle ver­ti­cal move­ment. It’s never enough to be clas­si­fied as float, but more than suf­fi­cient to ab­sorb the lumps and bumps that would be felt by the RS driver and might even un­set­tle the car a lit­tle. Out here in the mid­dle of nowhere, you need a lit­tle com­pli­ance and the R has it.

It helps you feel what the car is do­ing too, be­cause

the body’s move­ments and con­se­quent weight trans­fer­ence make their pres­ence felt through the steer­ing and chas­sis. You can tell when the nose is run­ning short of grip be­cause the steer­ing tan­gi­bly light­ens, nat­u­rally en­cour­ag­ing you add the req­ui­site cor­rec­tive lock. But really, it’s the flood of data com­ing through the sus­pen­sion and tyres and seat to your back­side that makes you feel so de­li­ciously at one with this ma­chine.

You try to find the flaws, of course you do, it’s your job. So, it doesn’t feel as ridicu­lously ag­ile as an old 997 GT3 RS be­cause good though the four-wheel steer­ing is, it can­not en­tirely mit­i­gate the sta­bil­is­ing ef­fects of the 991’s far longer wheel­base. Some more hard­core drivers might also com­plain that it’s a lit­tle too easy, there’s in­suf­fi­cient chal­lenge here be­cause, baldly speak­ing, the car is just too bloody good. It’s not a view I sup­port. Even with its nar­row tyres rel­a­tive to the GT3 RS, its largely ab­sent wings and street-spec­i­fi­ca­tion sus­pen­sion, this is a mas­sively rapid cross coun­try ma­chine. If you drove 100 ran­dom people at the point-to-point speed this car will man­age quite safely and com­fort­ably, at least 99 of them and prob­a­bly all 100 would sim­ply not be­lieve it pos­si­ble. The idea then of push­ing this car so far and fast in pub­lic that you get to the stage where you dis­cover what ap­petite or oth­er­wise it might have for fight­ing back, is fan­ci­ful at best and danger­ous at worst. It is pre­cisely why the GT3 RS ex­ists, a car to take you up to and be­yond the limit on the track, and if you want a 911 that fights back at that stage, you may even find the GT3 RS a lit­tle too happy to oblige.

The 911 R was never in­tended to be a car whose sole pur­pose was to be driven as fast as it could pos­si­bly go, one rea­son why Porsche will never re­lease a lap time for it and, in­deed, claims not to have even set a lap time for it. The only two mea­sur­ables of any value for this car are the width of the smile on your face fol­low­ing a long drive on a bril­liant road, and how many days that smile takes to leave.

Of course it would be easy to be cyn­i­cal about this car, par­tic­u­larly as sto­ries of them chang­ing hands for $1 mil­lion be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon. It is a car that no nor­mal Porsche buyer would ever be of­fered by the fac­tory and if you don’t al­ready own a 918, even the most loyal Porsche cus­tomer is un­likely to make the cut. And for what: An RS-pow­ered man­ual GT3, light­ened a lit­tle and with a lit­tle elec­tronic and aero­dy­namic re­tun­ing here and there to suit. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

And so it will re­main un­til you go and drive it. I pre­fer to judge such cars by the re­sults, not the means by which they were ar­rived at. I fear I am un­able to do ad­e­quate jus­tice to just how much ad­di­tional driv­ing plea­sure is pro­vided by that man­ual gear­box, but more than any other fac­tor, it trans­forms the car for the bet­ter. With­out that the 911 R may well have looked liked an art­fully crafted and repack­aged assem­bly of choice parts-bin op­tions even though it is far, far more than that. With the man­ual ’box, it is the most re­ward­ing 911 of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion. But that’s not the good news. The good news is that this is no cameo ap­pear­ance for the man­ual ’box on a GT-spec­i­fi­ca­tion 911. Next spring we’ll see the new sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion 911 GT3 and it will be avail­able not only with a choice or two or three ped­als, but to a far wider range of Porsche-philes who want one.

The ad­di­tion of the man­ual gear­box trans­forms the 911 R into the most re­ward­ing 911 of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion

Modern car­bon buck­ets trimmed in retro cloth/ leather; sat-nav and air­con are no-cost op­tions; sound dead­en­ing even less than GT3 RS

Just 991 ex­am­ples will be built and all are sold to Porsche’s favourite cus­tomers; num­ber 000 the car used for right­hand drive sign-off

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