996 GT3 to the Alps

The 996.1 GT3 started the her­itage of what is per­ceived by many as one of the most revered 911 mod­els. We head to the Swiss Alps to spend 24 hours with a prime ex­am­ple

Total 911 - - Contents - Writ­ten by Wil­helm Lut­je­harms Pho­tog­ra­phy by Charles rus­sell

Porsche’s first it­er­a­tion of GT3 swaps the race track for the road with a trip through the beau­ti­ful Alps

Deep in­side a di­lap­i­dated stor­age fa­cil­ity in Lau­sanne, Switzer­land, a num­ber of Porsche are parked. In the cen­tre is a Zanz­ibar red 996.1 GT3 – our trans­port for the next 24 hours! Af­ter some ef­fort get­ting it started, which turned out to be the cut-out switch, we ease the GT3 out of its park­ing bay and into the sun­shine, plac­ing our lug­gage in the front com­part­ment. The car is cov­ered in a light layer of dust, but that is of lit­tle con­cern as we will be treat­ing it to a wash quite soon to re­ally bring out that gor­geous paint­work against the back­drop of the Swiss Alps.

I have a spe­cial con­nec­tion to these cars. The year af­ter I fin­ished school I met an owner who had two of them over the course of a cou­ple of years. We be­came friends, but un­der­stand­ably he never al­lowed me to drive his car. Fast-for­ward nearly two decades and it is fi­nally my chance to get be­hind the wheel and im­merse my­self in the ex­pe­ri­ence and de­tail the Gen1 has to of­fer.

Our first port of call is Sion, a 60-mile drive south­east of Lau­sanne. Here the plan is to wash the car be­fore head­ing up the moun­tain to the small town of Ovron­naz for one night’s stay.

As we head to­wards the high­way I am im­me­di­ately im­pressed with the GT3 on sev­eral lev­els. The Club­sport seats are sup­port­ive yet com­fort­able. The gearshift ac­tion is short and di­rect, the small foot­print of the GT3 – or any 996 for that mat­ter – be­ing an­other high­light. With the ev­er­grow­ing di­men­sions of 911s, if you don’t drive older ver­sions of­ten you some­times for­get how com­pact they used to be.

This com­pact size, the 996’s slip­pery shape and the fact that I take it easy on the high­way – Switzer­land’s au­thor­i­ties are, af­ter all, no­to­ri­ously strict re­gard­ing speed lim­its on the high­way – re­sult in a near-un­be­liev­able av­er­age con­sump­tion fig­ure of only eight litres per 100km (35 mpg), if the on-board com­puter is to be be­lieved. That fig­ure is sure to change soon though.

We pull into a garage and I quickly wash the car. The soft curves of this 911 might not ap­pear as mo­tor­sport-in­spired as the mod­ern ver­sions, but surely that molten-look, dou­ble-deck rear wing is one of the pret­ti­est in the busi­ness.

While wash­ing the car it be­comes clear it’s in a very good con­di­tion, ex­pected as it has cov­ered only 35,800 miles. I am also re­minded of how wheel di­am­e­ter and size have in­creased over the years, the Gen1 mak­ing do with rel­a­tively small 18-inch­ers front and rear. How­ever, I’m grate­ful for this fact, it mean­ing the car should be more play­ful and per­haps more for­giv­ing when com­pared to mod­ern GT3 ma­chin­ery.

As the sun is still high late in the day – nor­mally the case dur­ing a Euro­pean sum­mer – we de­cide to first head up the spaghetti-like moun­tain road to our ho­tel, check-in and then head out for a bite to eat.

It is dur­ing this first climb that I re­ally start ex­plor­ing the GT3. I revel in giv­ing it small bursts of power, the ac­cel­er­a­tion be­ing es­pe­cially in­tox­i­cat­ing higher up the rev range. With the red­line start­ing at 7,600 revs a minute, you can keep it in se­cond gear and watch as the rev nee­dle runs quickly around the cen­tral dial.

How­ever, I don’t want to up­set the lo­cals, and so I take it easy for the rest of the drive. Soon the view be­comes all-en­com­pass­ing, and I have to ad­mit that at times the car plays se­cond fid­dle to our over­all ex­pe­ri­ence – the vis­ual de­light pro­vided by our sur­round­ings is sim­ply on an­other level.

Parked out­side our ho­tel and once checked and set­tled in, I’m glad that the GT3 is vis­i­ble from my room… an ad­mit­tedly small de­light, but one worth men­tion­ing, none­the­less.

How­ever, we are here to drive; hop­ping back in the car, we head to the near­est shop for the nec­es­sary gro­ceries – tes­ta­ment to the ev­ery­day use and re­li­a­bil­ity of the 911. Shop­ping in hand, I

do feel slightly chuffed walk­ing past all the other mun­dane cars in the park­ing lot and open­ing the door to such a mod­ern clas­sic! Con­sid­er­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Charles has bought enough Swiss choco­late to keep him go­ing un­til his next Switzer­land visit, the prac­ti­cal side of the 996 again comes to the fore as all of our gro­cery bags neatly fit in the front lug­gage com­part­ment.

While wait­ing for the sun to ap­proach the hori­zon, we scour Google Maps with a sim­ple goal in mind: find the twisti­est rib­bon of tar­mac in the vicin­ity. We de­cide on a won­der­fully wind­ing road named Route de Der­borence in a nearby val­ley.

Every time I set­tle back into the GT3 I’m again re­minded at how low this car is and how close you sit to the ground. This is not only due to the bucket seats, but also to the fact that the GT3 is al­ready lower to the ground than a run-of-the-mill

996 Car­rera. This is also ev­i­dent when you look at the min­i­mal space be­tween the tyres and the wheel arches. Fur­ther­more, sit­ting this low helps you feel like an in­te­gral part of the car.

Once be­hind the steer­ing wheel, my view through the lower part of the wind­screen pro­vides an out­line of the body­work – fairly flat and suave, run­ning down to­wards the nose of the car. The fend­ers pro­trude slightly at the sides, per­fectly in­di­cat­ing the po­si­tion of the front wheels.

Dur­ing our short drive down the moun­tain and on to the Route de Der­borence, I quickly re­alise we chose a very nar­row piece of tar­mac. Al­though the qual­ity of the road is not ideal, it does al­low for short bursts from the 3.6-litre Mezger en­gine. The rough sur­face also show­cases an­other pos­i­tive el­e­ment of the GT3 – its ride qual­ity. Be­ing so low to the ground and of­fer­ing such a high wa­ter­mark in terms of han­dling, I’m sur­prised at how it can ride these rough sur­faces with such aplomb.

As the road gets even nar­rower we need to be care­ful of on­com­ing traf­fic, but for­tu­nately the Swiss and the tourists are as con­sci­en­tious as we are – blind bends here be­ing taken with spe­cial care.

Soon the road leads us through a few short tun­nels carved into the moun­tain. Each has a num­ber of ‘win­dows’ which al­low you to briefly ap­pre­ci­ate a framed view of the val­ley as you drive past. A num­ber of times I blip the throt­tle, down­shift and ac­cel­er­ate hard, my only aim be­ing to lis­ten to that char­ac­ter­is­tic metal­lic sound only a Mezger flat six can treat you to, this par­tic­u­lar one be­ing based on that of the Le Mans-win­ning, tur­bocharged Porsche GT1. It’s a de­light­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

As we get to the end of the road the moun­tains en­cir­cle us, and we send the cam­era up to cap­ture this exquisitely fo­cused 911, un­ques­tion­ably one of the most im­por­tant mod­els to be re­leased by Porsche in the last 20 years, in its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. The Zanz­ibar red GT3 stands out proudly among the grey rocks, green forests and the dark-blue fresh wa­ter of the nearby lake.

On the way back to the ho­tel we tackle the Pont Crit­tin road. Not only is the sur­face bet­ter, the road is blessed with a num­ber of hair­pins – one of the rea­sons we petrol­heads love the Alps.

Pro­gres­sively, I start to press the throt­tle pedal ear­lier and ear­lier as I exit these hair­pins. Quite soon the rear starts to be­come light and small cor­rec­tive in­puts through the steer­ing wheel, which brims with feed­back, are needed. The car be­haves pre­dictably un­der these con­di­tions, re­ward­ing pre­cise in­puts. Adding to the sub­lim­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence, you sense how the limited-slip dif­fer­en­tial is work­ing to put the power down. It is soon very ap­par­ent that the level of con­cen­tra­tion and the tal­ent you will need to push a mod­ern GT3 to these lev­els of ad­he­sion will be much higher, and will un­doubt­edly take longer to learn.

Be­fore head­ing back, we stop a fi­nal time at a look­out point. There are vine­yards be­low, the green­ery draw­ing our gaze to­wards the hills fur­ther away and lead­ing our eyes higher up to­wards the moun­tains. Switzer­land is un­doubt­edly one of the most vis­ually stim­u­lat­ing coun­tries in the world, and for 911 en­thu­si­asts like us you can’t help but look up at these moun­tains and revel at the pos­si­bil­i­ties on these roads. These are roads that beg to be en­joyed with one of the best sports cars avail­able. The 996 GT3 is one of them.

Af­ter al­low­ing my ex­cite­ment to sub­side a lit­tle, a good night’s rest awaits. The next morn­ing as we climb into the cabin and start the en­gine, the com­puter asks for an oil top-up.

We head down the moun­tain, and shortly af­ter join­ing the high­way we stop at a fuel sta­tion. As well as adding 500ml of oil to the car, we need to fill up as well. How­ever, as is of­ten the case in Europe, there are a va­ri­ety of fuels to choose from. I de­cide to pay the pre­mium and opt for 102 oc­tane – af­ter all, we are talk­ing here of a pure race-bred en­gine that will only be too happy swal­low­ing high-oc­tane fuel. I see it as a bit of an in­dul­gence for the car, but to be hon­est, also for my­self.

As our time with the GT3 is run­ning out, any op­por­tu­nity that presents it­self I rev it around the clock. The min­i­mal amount of in­er­tia you ex­pe­ri­ence as the en­gine revs – thanks in part to the ti­ta­nium con­nect­ing rods – is in­tox­i­cat­ing, and tes­ta­ment to why so many of us adore nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 911s. I pur­pose­fully slow down just to be able to rev the en­gine out in a lower gear. It is within those last cou­ple of thou­sand revs as you ap­proach eight grand that the en­gine per­forms at its best.

As traf­fic in­creases, I re­alise we are near­ing the end of what has been a very spe­cial 24 hours. Yes, there are faster 996s, and there are also more af­ford­able 996s, but while I haven’t driven the en­tire 996 range, I will go out on a limb and say that I think this is the most en­joy­able 996, es­pe­cially if you are a nat­u­rally as­pi­rated-en­gine afi­cionado.

As with most 911s, the GT3 is prac­ti­cal, rel­a­tively com­fort­able and ac­com­mo­dat­ing on an ex­tended road trip. Re­cently the owner of this Zanz­ibar red ex­am­ple took it across Europe to Spain – an en­deav­our I could eas­ily imag­ine my­self tack­ling. The GT3 has an ad­van­tage in that it can be used on track and then driven home straight af­ter­wards. It is light and nim­ble and, more im­por­tantly, you can ex­pe­ri­ence its grip bound­aries quicker and more safely than more mod­ern ma­chin­ery, an el­e­ment of­ten not ap­par­ent with every new gen­er­a­tion of 911.

Per­haps I’m too nos­tal­gic fol­low­ing my first stint as a pas­sen­ger in these cars 17 years ago, but this is a fan­tas­tic car. It sim­ply does ev­ery­thing right, no mat­ter the mood you’re in.

BE­LOW Away from the race track, the Alps is a great hunt­ing round to get to grips with the GT3’S in­ten­sity

BE­LOW Wil­helm re­flects on a mes­meris­ing 24 hours with Porsche’s first GT3 mas­ter­piece

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