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
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